How to live in the empty nest: the therapist’s guide for couples

How to live in the empty nest: the therapist’s guide for couples

The kids have left home and it’s just the two of you. So now what? Psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet on how to have a successful post-parenting relationship

Your child is off to college, and you and your partner are suddenly going to be home alone. That went fast. So what’s the plan now? A trip around South America together? Perhaps there will be cosy breakfasts in bed at the weekends. Maybe you’ll party like you did before the kids came along? Or, like a lot of people I see in my therapy room, are you worried you’ll have nothing in common once the children are gone?

The latter situation is not remotely uncommon — particularly with today’s generation of middle-aged people, still very much expecting a lot from life. They’re not ready for a pipe-and-slippers existence just yet. When their offspring leave, many couples think: “What now?” Not all of us relish uninterrupted time with our spouse — in fact, the thought of it being just the two of you can inspire a certain dread.

One couple I saw in my clinic typified what happens in a marriage when parents run parallel lives while raising children. For many years, their focus had been on providing a decent education, the beautiful home, the marvellous holidays. They had neglected their own relationship to the point where he slept in the spare room. There had been no dramatic falling out, they had just gradually checked out of their relationship. They both wanted to make it work, but didn’t know how.

It’s sad that some people wait until their children leave to address the problems in their relationship. Often, in preceding years, couples confide their worries to friends, but say nothing to their partner. Many empty-nest couples are floundering, even asking themselves whether they have a future together at all. But if there isn’t anything fundamentally broken — if there is love, respect and shared values — there is always hope.

For now, you might want to talk about the kids all the time. That’s fine
Even if you’ve just been going through the motions, or worse, barely like each other, I advise couples to go out together, to celebrate your success as parents. Say: “Can we look back and discuss what we’ve achieved together? Our children didn’t succeed out of nowhere.”

Be grateful, recognise each other’s contribution. The children can still be the main subject of conversation — reassuring if you fear having nothing to talk about — but you’re doing something as a couple.

It might be that one of you is happy and relieved that the children have grown and flown, whereas the other feels grief-stricken and rudderless. Try to show understanding of how your partner feels. Then you become allies — mutually supportive rather than stubbornly polarised.

If you’re worried about the future together, speak up
To be a successful couple post-children, be honest about what their leaving means for you both. There’s joy and sadness in this situation. Do you feel lost, happy, excited, petrified? Ask your partner the non-accusatory open question: “What are we going to do? I feel very afraid — how do you feel?” If the response is, “I don’t know,” say, “Well, there’s lots of room to find out.” Don’t be sarcastic or critical. You don’t catch flies with vinegar. You want to create an atmosphere conducive to conversation.

This difficult transition can be seen as a golden opportunity for couples to reconnect and regain lost ground. But the only way forward together is through straight — though respectful — talking. Begin by asking yourselves the hardest question: “Where are we?” Having the difficult conversations will move a couple beyond the stale patch they’re in after the children have left — otherwise you’ll get nowhere.

Questions you need to think about include: How does each partner see the next three years? What kind of a life do you want? And, whatever that is, how can you support each other? You should also ask yourselves if you want to reconnect. Perhaps you’ve been on autopilot for so long that you don’t believe you can rediscover depth and joy together. You might ask how you began to drift apart.

Your relationship may seem dormant. Don’t assume it’s dead
If life has always been planned around the children, their prolonged absence leaves you in a cold empty space. If there’s no connection or communication, it’s terribly lonely. Dislike we can work with. Indifference, on one side or both, doesn’t bode well. Indifferent couples argue because it’s a power game, not because there’s passion. It’s about each side blaming the other.

In my clinic, I say: “It seems things are very difficult between you. Would you like to discuss what life would look like if you weren’t together any more?” Sometimes, you take people to the brink for them to realise what they have. I never assume a relationship is dead, but whether love can revive it depends on both being willing to re-engage. It’s very hard when one partner wants to move forward as a couple and the other doesn’t. Often it’s because of a differential in emotional intelligence — one partner is emotionally immature and unaware; the other stayed “because of the children” and has had enough.

If bitterness is corroding the relationship and you can’t forgive the other person, there’s no chance of moving on. I ask couples who are caught in the cycle of blaming and shaming: “Can you give the other person the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn’t deliberately set out to hurt or harm you?” If you can’t, there is a big problem.

Be careful of throwing yourself into your job once the children have left
Often children leave home when one or both parents are at the height of their career. So if there’s awkwardness, it’s tempting to retreat into work. If the office is where you receive adulation and reward, be it financial or in terms of status, you don’t have to examine your pain at your children leaving or the sadness of your emotional distance as a couple. You can claim to yourself and others: “I have this big project on, but we’re muddling through — everything’s fine.” But if you want to recover and thrive as a couple, you need to be brave. Ask yourself what you’re hiding from. The only way to change your situation is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. That means discussing taboo subjects.

Forgotten how to talk to one another? Try this
Some conversations go unsaid between couples for years. It can be very difficult to broach a tricky topic, such as why sex has dwindled or pain over a loss, when there have been years of silence.

Many couples fear starting a conversation because they don’t want to risk further pain or rejection. This is true for both sexes. If an attempt to talk is usually met with a curt “I don’t know” or “There’s nothing to discuss”, is a positive outcome even possible?

If you learn how to talk about difficult subjects, rather than dropping clues and expecting your partner to mind-read, it is possible. Women often presume that men will sense their thoughts. And men expect women to magically intuit when they want to have sex, or have had a hard day (but they make it more obvious, and women are generally better at decoding). Some people think that if they withhold sex or give the silent treatment, the other person will sweetly ask: “What’s wrong?” But it can have the opposite effect: if we don’t feel secure in a relationship, we respond to emotional distance with more of the same.

If you want kindness and understanding, start giving it. Notice effort and be grateful for it. A relationship is about being able to hold each other physically, mentally, emotionally. You do that by communicating, and it’s a continuous effort to make the other person feel safe. When there’s trust, it’s less risky to be vulnerable instead of defensive. Then if you say, “Can I talk to you about something? I’m upset,” your partner is more likely to be willing to broach it and to admit their part in the situation.

I often ask couples to start by writing a list of what they want to talk about. I say: “I want either one or three things you feel absolutely need to be said. Not discussed. Said.” The other partner must listen, but not reply immediately. When each has spoken they can choose whether to discuss the issue there and then, or to go away, think about it and discuss it in the next session. The same can be done at home.

Don’t be passive-aggressive about unspoken resentments
Old unspoken hurts always prevent you from connecting because as they manifest in anger or passive aggression. You silently condemn and punish your partner, without giving them a chance to explain. Any festering thoughts need to be aired — but only with care and tact. Avoid phrases such as “You always do this”. You can explain what they did wrong (don’t say that, though, please), but couch it in terms of where it’s left you and how you feel.

Your aim isn’t to win an argument or punish them, it’s to reduce the disconnection. If they ask, “Why are you dredging this up?”, say, “Because I still feel hurt about it and I want us to move on together from it because I care about us.” A terse “sorry” is useless. The only way to let something go is for your partner to understand how you feel.

You could also ask, “What impact did it have on you?” Then you increase the possibility of understanding them and of forgiving them — particularly if they acted from hurt, anger or anxiety. But nothing is gained or changed by raging and despising inwardly.

If my clients can’t find the courage to verbalise what they wish to say, I suggest an email. The recipient has time to look at it and formulate a response. It’s less likely to get heated than if they are put on the spot. So the sender could write, “This isn’t an easy situation for either of us, but I’m writing because it gives you time to think — I don’t expect a quick answer. But I want us to be closer.”

Take a good look at yourself rather than your partner’s shortcomings
In my practice nobody says: “Actually, I realise I’ve been a lazy lover, more interested in the football than taking my family out.” It’s always: “Nothing pleases her, I can’t do anything right.” So I often ask each partner: “What’s your contribution?” Self-reflection on both sides is crucial. Six months of effort at the start of the relationship won’t fuel it for twenty years.

Resurrecting your sex life
Married couples of twenty years should be having sex at least two or three times a month. More is always better. Whatever has happened in the past, it’s never too late if both parties want to reconnect. If you need to bring sex back into your marriage, you need to be able to talk about it. You also need to be honest with yourself about what kind of sexual partner you are.

If you’re both keen to make it work, start with a date night. There’s no pressure if no one expects sex. If you give because you’re expecting sex, you’re not being loving but making an investment. It’s horrible for your partner to sense this — it hangs over the evening and sours it. It’s also highly unattractive.

The irony is that it takes so little for men and women to be turned on if their partner is kind, engaging, generous — not in the sense of lavishing gifts, but in giving their spouse the feeling of being thought of. Grab their hand, kiss it and let go. Or buy a book you think might interest them. Or write a card and leave it for them when you go to work. There are a million ways to show someone that you’re thinking of them. You were capable of it when you first met.

Don’t hold back from fooling around until you feel overwhelmed with lust. The trust and the warmth must be present, yet every therapist uses the phrase “fake it till you make it”. That means that when your emotional intimacy has improved, your thoughts about physical intimacy soften (or harden). You might not feel 100 per cent up for it, but nor are you at zero. Then, if at that moment it’s OK with you if it happens or not, but you want to give to the other person, consider giving it a go.

What if your sex drives differ?
There’s no problem with having widely differing appetites and preferences. What matters is that both partners are supportive and understanding. You can still be there for each other. And it’s not always about penetration. We know that if we ignore our partner’s sexual appetite, they’ll satisfy it another way. Would you prefer to lie close, kiss and touch while your partner masturbates, or that he or she always does it in secret? What message are you giving?

To find your way back to intimacy be willing to show vulnerability — admit that you want your partner. Phrasing matters. If you bluntly say, “I want sex,” they might feel that it doesn’t matter who with. Instead, say: “I want sex with you. I find you ridiculously attractive.”

There’s nothing wrong with starting triathlon training now, but do share one hobby
Now the children have left home you might want to throw yourself into a new interest that requires you to spend five hours elsewhere. This is unlikely to benefit your relationship. I’ve noticed that a lot of women are embracing the adventure of this stage, but it can be a defence mechanism for the loneliness. I advise couples to support each other’s hobbies, but find one pursuit to do together. This might require compromise. It’s irrelevant that yoga isn’t part of your Iron Man training or that you don’t love tennis.

If there’s something you want to do alone, discuss it with your partner. Ask how they feel about it. Meanwhile, partners shouldn’t assume that any time-sucking hobby is about avoiding them. Often it has to do with a bereft parent wanting a sense of purpose. When children leave we can feel adrift, our unconscious motivation is: “Quickly, let me find a purpose because I can’t stand the pain of the void.”

If you’re trying to reconnect, have some laughs together again
How can we improve intimacy? I might suggest to partners that they go for a couple’s massage. It’s non-threatening, but out of the ordinary — boredom and routine are part of what deadens the spark. You have to work at building common ground. It doesn’t spontaneously happen. Both partners have to be willing. Then anything can become common ground.

To become closer, you need to learn to play with each other and to laugh together. Playful behaviour will always improve intimacy — even if it’s cards or Scrabble — because you interact whether you want to or not, and you’re always going to laugh about something. Humour is a precursor to intimacy. When you laugh together you become more relaxed, and it automatically
bonds you.