The Nest is Empty: What Then? (DE Wave)

“Empty Nest Syndrome.” What a great name! Though I’ve talked to many moms and dads who frankly see it as a cause for celebration, some have trouble coping with the loss of … well, when you get right down to it: feeling needed.

And this loss can have an impact on the marital relationship. Though there are many single and divorced parents out there, the typical scenario unfolds when the last child leaves the family home, thus begging the question, “What’s next?”

In some cases, it’s easy. The empty nesters enjoy each other’s company and can’t wait to experience the alone time that’s finally within their grasp. But sometimes it’s not so easy. A lot has changed in the last twenty or so years, and they find it difficult to rediscover what brought them together in the first place. Think about it: A young couple falls in love, enjoying a one-on-one relationship. Then a child or maybe a few come along. A few decades pass by, and the next thing you know, they’re alone together again.

What’s changed? Well, they’re older, obviously, and everything has been focused on the kids. Then suddenly, everyday life is, “just the two of us.”

Though the transition may be difficult, it’s dangerous to leap to the conclusion that something’s wrong with the marriage. Chances are good that this simply requires an adjustment period. It’s important to give this potentially painful transition some 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 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, an escape is manufactured. Some flee into shopping, TV or alcohol. But there’s a less obvious addiction that’s just as damaging: Babying the grown kids.

It can take many forms: Relentlessly “staying in touch,” or “rescuing” them from their problems — when they’re perfectly capable of handling things on their own. Another common mistake is encouraging the kids live at home longer than is healthy. Yet another way of fostering that 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. Such calculated “generosity,” though well-meaning on the surface, keeps the child reliant and under the parents’ control. He or she never gets to grow up. And the parents are stuck indefinitely in that transition period. In short, they get to keep on being parents instead of moving on with life – while simultaneously 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). A new relationship with the spouse has to be built on the same foundation that brought the partners together so many years ago. That new relationship can be exciting and full of new experiences. And the kids are left free to live their lives as self-sufficient, responsible adults.


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