What’s next after the kids move out?

‘Empty Nest Syndrome.’ What a great name! Despite the cute avian overtones, numerous websites and support groups devote themselves to this traumatic condition that arises for parents when the kids finally leave home. Though I’ve talked to many moms and dads who, frankly, see it as a cause for celebration, some have trouble coping with (and recovering from) the loss of’well, when you get right down to it: Feeling Needed.

Less publicized, however, is the impact of the ’empty nest’ on the marital relationship itself. While it’s true that there are many single and divorced parents out there, the typical scenario is where the last child finally leaves the married couple behind. The question hanging over many husbands and wives in this situation is: ‘So what’s next?’

In some cases, it’s easy. They enjoy each other’s company and can’t wait to experience that ‘alone’ time that’s finally within their grasp. But sometimes it’s not so easy. The couple may still be perfectly in love and committed to staying together—but a lot has changed for them in the last twenty-plus years. They find it difficult to rediscover (or perhaps discover) what is really, deeply worthwhile about staying together. I know it sounds strange to put it this way, but think about it: A young couple falls in love, and decides to stay together (presumably) for the rest of their lives. They enjoy the one-on-one relationship for a while. Then a child comes along—and maybe another one or two down the road. Two decades or more pass by, and the next thing you know, they’re alone together again.

What’s changed? Well, they’re older, obviously, and have probably long since forgotten the notion of a one-on-one relationship. Everything has been focused on the kids. Then suddenly, dinner is ‘just the two of us,’ and vacations are ‘just the two of us.’ Everyday life is, all at once, ‘just the two of us.’

Though the transition may prove to be difficult, it’s dangerous to instantly leap to the conclusion that something’s seriously wrong with the marriage. Chances are good that this unfamiliar situation simply requires an adjustment period. It’s normal!

Instead of relating to each other in the context of raising children, they must now relate purely as a couple; choosing to spend time together only because of who they are as individuals. It’s important to give this potentially painful transition time to settle in. The marriage is not flawed or finished just because the motivation to be together might not be immediately apparent.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s another potential hazard—and not for the couple. The danger is to the grown kids. Surprisingly often, I discover that one or both parents subconsciously create diversions from the fact that the marriage has changed. Distressed by the fact that everything is now one-on-one, and that things might not be going as expected, an escape is manufactured. Some flee into shopping, TV, or, sadly, alcohol or drugs. But there’s another less obvious addiction that’s just as damaging, but rarely talked about in the context of the empty nest: Babying the grown kids.

It can take many forms, such as ‘rescuing’ them from their problems—when they’re perfectly capable of handling (and even willing to face) things on their own. Another common mistake is allowing (or encouraging) the kids live at home longer than is healthy. Yet another way of fostering their cherished dependency is to loan (OK, let’s call it what it is: give) them money they don’t really need. Some parents even start a business or buy cars or houses for their children as a distraction from the boredom with their long-time husband or wife. Such calculated ‘generosity,’ though well-meaning on the surface, keeps the child reliant and under the parents’ control. He or she never really gets to grow up. And the parents are stuck indefinitely in that ’empty nest’ transition period. In short, they get to keep on being parents instead of moving on with life—all the while short-circuiting their kids’ self-esteem, work ethic and individualism.

Pop-culture is full of examples. (Remember the hilariously intrusive Marie from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’?) No doubt you can think of many other examples. My point is this: The babying isn’t done for the kids’ sake so much as to provide a subconscious distraction from the seemingly intolerable prospect of being alone with the spouse.

The solution? Face up to it! Recognize that avoiding the reality of Empty Nest Syndrome doesn’t benefit the kid(s) or the parent(s). If the marriage really is over—which it’s probably not—then deal with it. A whole new personal relationship with the spouse has to be built on the same foundation that brought both partners together so many years ago. That new relationship can be exciting and full of new experiences. And the kids are now free to grow up and live their own lives as self-sufficient, responsible adults.