I meet with a number of couples where the presenting problems are centered on having no emotional connection. For some of those couples, the lack of emotional connection has contributed to an affair. Some of these couples come to our therapy clinic with young children while others have already raised their children and are now living in what is commonly referred to as the empty nest.
So often young couples with young children spend all of their time and energy focused on raising their children while neglecting the relationship that brought these children into the world in the first place. In an attempt to maintain a sense of sanity while raising children some couples work out elaborate schedules for feeding, diaper changes, tummy time, and as kids get older, play dates, school activities, extra-curricular activities, and activities outside of the other activities, leaving little time for mom and dad to connect. I saw a social media post not long ago celebrating a mother who showed up to her child’s game but spent the entire time asleep on the ground. While I certainly do celebrate the mother, and mothers in general, who so often go above and beyond the call of duty I also felt quite badly for her and wondered why she would exasperate herself in this way. Without debating the complexities of raising children when one parent is more involved or as a single parent, I want to say that it is okay to say ‘no’ to your child. A concept often emphasized to therapists is the importance of self-care; if we are not healthy the difficulty of helping our clients be healthy increases significantly. The same is true as parents. If parents are not taking time for themselves, to rest, relax, unwind, you name it, we can’t possibly ‘be there’ for our children. Some may argue this point but in truth we are teaching our children that this is a healthy way to leave and perpetuating an unhealthy cycle.
Over the years, I have met with a number of couples and families that knew therapy was needed for a certain issue but found it very difficult to find time to get to the clinic because they had too many scheduled activities, primarily or exclusively focused on the children. When couples devote all of their time and energy to raising their children, they will undoubtedly find themselves struggling in their relationship with each other during the marriage and will often find themselves quickly headed toward divorce after all of the children have left home. These couples often come to therapy to complain that they ‘just don’t know each other anymore’. The truth is, they don’t. They have focused all of their efforts towards raising children and consequently put forth little to no effort into maintaining a healthy relationship with each other. As often as we like to complain about how hard change is, people change all of the time. Relationships change over time whether we intentionally make them or not. As we get older, we learn new information, we get interested in different activities, our values and beliefs may change slightly or completely, we may even come to a different conclusion about what we want our retirement years to look like. If couples do not make a plan to stay connected as they grow and change they will find themselves in a place where they feel like they are living with a roommate they barely know.
Couples need time and space to connect with one another; emotionally, physically, and intimately. The way in which couples do this will change with their “season” in life. However, couples should, as much as possible, prepare for what life will look like when the children are grown and on their own. As they then raise their children, making decisions about how to do so becomes centered on raising good, healthy children while also planning for a healthy relationship once the children are out of the house. Here are a few thoughts on how you might consider preparing for your empty nest before you fill it in the first place:
– Make a plan for spending uninterrupted time with each every day, week, and month. This doesn’t have to be difficult, require a lot of planning, or be expensive. Each day could be 15-20 minutes before everyone gets up for the day or after everyone is down for the night; but use this time to connect with each other, not talk about the kid’s activities. Work on having an hour or two alone each week. Again, this time doesn’t have to be expensive or require a lot of planning. For many years, my wife and I couldn’t afford to do much, so we would ask a teenager to sit for us while we spent some time alone. Once a month, plan an evening out. One activity I like to have couples I work with do is plan activities they enjoy doing together that will cost less than $20.
- Dream about your future together when you are alone again.What will your lives together look like? Where will you be? What kinds of activities will you be doing?
- Measure your life choices and choices you make for and with your children against your plans and dreams.
- Keep planning and dreaming about your life together when you are alone.As I mentioned before people change over time and your dreams and plans will change over time. They may change unintentionally because of a negative life event, if so, plan and dream again about a modified future together. As you do life together work to keep your dream alive.
- Consider how your children’s wants and needs fit within your dream.When your children want to be involved in extra-curricular activities or community activities that will require your resources (i.e., time, energy, thought, and money) ask yourselves how this fits in with your long-term dream of having a healthy relationship when your children are grown and gone. How many activities can your children be involved in before you start to infringe upon your plan for uninterrupted time alone?
- Make a plan for spending interrupted time with each other every day, week, and month. This plan, like the one above, doesn’t have to be difficult, require a lot of planning, or be expensive. This could be as simple as an evening walk where your children are walking or running ahead of you. It could be an outing to a park where again, the kids are playing but you and your spouse are spending time with one another.
- Balance your plans and dreams with raising healthy children.Your children will likely want to be involved in activities outside the home. I personally believe this is healthy for them in a number of ways. Intentionally look for ways that you can provide for your children’s needs and wants while incorporating your own.
The bottom line is this: If you don’t want to be living with a stranger when your children launch into their own lives you need to be intentional about staying connected to your spouse while your children are at home. If we have done a good job as parents, one day, our children will move out and be a successful adult. Don’t wonder what your life without them at home will look like, plan for it. Every couple and family will do this a little differently and be more or less balanced. If you are intentional about planning for a future without having your kids at home, the likelihood of your relationship with your spouse being healthy increases significantly.