The population of our metropolitan area has the highest ratio of professionals with advanced degrees in the country. With this distinction comes a particular type of “Empty Nest Syndrome” that I have observed in couples that I have treated over the years. Typically, both husband and wife are driven to succeed at work and at home. They strive to provide the best possible life for their children – an excellent education, active engagement in sports and other extracurricular activities, a full social life, tutoring support for challenging courses and SAT preparation – to prepare their children for an increasingly complex and competitive world. For those mothers or fathers who “stay-at-home,” this becomes nearly a full-time occupation, and is a source of great commitment and pride.
At the same time one or both are climbing as high as they possibly can in their careers, to achieve the tangible and intangible rewards that come with significant professional accomplishment.
What not infrequently gets neglected, what often gets pushed aside, is devoting the same level of energy, drive and commitment to their marital relationship. All too often, there is a wakeup call when the last child leaves for college, and suddenly the couple is alone at home, truly facing each other for the first time in many years. For some there is the frightening realization of “Who is this stranger that I’m married to?”
There may be a painful awareness of having drifted apart over the years, with emotional intimacy a distant memory. This may also coincide with a time in life when one is increasingly aware of one’s own mortality, and all of the issues that come along with the typical midlife crisis. The general feeling can be one of an “emotional divorce,” which is the result of years of neglecting the marriage itself.
This situation may provoke a marital crisis resulting in separation and divorce. However, there are a number of steps the couple can take to prevent this outcome. The first is to acknowledge and talk about their sense of loss around their children moving out and moving on, and actively reminisce about their life together when the kids lived at home. At the same time this life stage can bring about a newfound sense of freedom that can be both exhilarating and a bit bewildering, at least at first. There is the opportunity to reacquaint one another with pursuits that were pleasurable before the children were born, such as travel, entertainment, and visiting friends in distant cities. There is also the opportunity to rediscover old hobbies that were once individually rewarding, and jointly discover new pursuits that can rebuild an emotional connection. This process entails the same hard work and diligence that was devoted to climbing up the career ladder, and enabling their children to build capabilities and leave home for college. Without actively focusing on and discussing their relationship, the couple is at higher risk of separation and divorce, or remaining involved in a marriage that is stagnant and breeds loneliness. With a consistent focus on rebuilding the relationship can come a newly enriched life together, and an invigorating freedom.
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