Relationship coach Lucy Keaveny says…
It’s common to liken empty nest syndrome to grief. After years of investing time, energy and love into bringing up your kids, you might be left feeling lonely, lost and sad when they finally leave home. Life takes on a whole new meaning, and you have to rediscover yourself and your new identity.
Where possible, find some common ground. If you have spent years raising your children, you may find you don’t really know each other as much as you thought you did. You may struggle to find common ground now, too. It can be very easy to drift apart if you haven’t invested that time in each other while you were bringing your kids up. Empty nest syndrome can be hard for any couple, however if you both have a strong foundation and friendship, with different hobbies and interests, then you may find it easier to cope with, enjoying new time together and relishing some freedom.
Together, make a list of all the things you want to do. Think of it as a bucket list and start making plans. It could be travelling more, taking up a new hobby, starting a new job, buying a holiday home, or even moving abroad. Your children are gaining new-found independence, so this is a golden opportunity for you to do the same. When we change our environment and challenge ourselves, we release all those feel-good hormones and expand our awareness, which will only benefit your relationship.
Remember to be honest, clear and open. Communication is key, so let your partner know how you are feeling, tell them your concerns. If the relationship is strong, ask them if they want to go on that trip of a lifetime. Alternatively, let them know you may want to travel alone, or with a friend. Do not bottle up your fears and anxieties. Try and be gentle, kind and compassionate and speak from the heart. It’s all about having permission to express yourself.
If you can, tackle those feelings of drifting apart. If you think your partner is becoming distant, then make an effort to talk to them about how they are feeling, what their concerns are, and then share your own feelings. Be honest with how this distance in the relationship is making you feel and suggest you do something together to bring that bond closer. Try not to sit in fear and, instead, use the time to reflect on what interests you, get support from a coach or therapist if you are struggling with your new identity, and then make a plan to get clear on your dreams and desires. When you get stronger and clearer on yourself, your partner will notice that new-found confidence and that will bring you closer.
A step parent will always be less invested. It can be hard when you are struggling with your own kids leaving home, yet your partner isn’t. Set aside some time to visit your kids – it doesn’t matter if your partner isn’t bothered about coming along. If you are feeling lonely without your kids, then express that to your partner and tell them you will be visiting them, going to stay with them and there’s no obligation for them to join you. Honest communication is key again here; the clearer you are and the more support you get around this will really help support you as you navigate this change and new situation as a couple.
Alone or together, find out what makes you happy. If you like walking, beach holidays, learning new skills, this is your chance to connect. If you both like hiking then book a hiking trip, if you love beach holidays book it. If you both love sailing, then take some classes – there are so many networks you can access now through the internet. You could potentially meet like-minded people, too, and forge new friendships and connections. This can bring you much closer together as a couple.
Couples therapy or relationship counselling is an option. Talk to each other, then whoever is feeling lonely and lost should seek support, so they are not bringing all their feelings and emotions into the relationship. Most of this will be down to trying to find a new identity and you cannot lean on our partner to fix all of your issues. By looking outside of the relationship, you will be taking back control and using your own resources to get stronger. This is an opportunity to do some work on yourself and get back to a place of self-love and self-worth.
There are some red flags to watch out for. This might be when communication has broken down and resentment has built within the relationship. Or, if one of you is struggling and the other isn’t. If you are looking for ways to build self-esteem, identity and confidence then get a life coach to give you essential tools and a clear outline of ways in which to support yourself. Remember, this feeling won’t last forever, and it’s all about readjustment and finding a new identity without the pressures of being such an active parent.
For more advice, visit LucyKeaveny.com
Consultant psychologist Dr Elena Touroni says…
Empty nest syndrome affects all relationships differently. It marks the moment when a child leaves home and moves towards becoming a young adult. If your relationship has become very much about raising the children and you’ve lost some of the intimacy you once shared with your partner, then there can be a real sense of loss. It’s not necessarily about the length of time but more about the function the children (and family life) played in the preceding years.
It’s hard to imagine ahead of time how you’re likely to feel. But understanding your own vulnerabilities and how they might play into this are crucial to prepare for a big emotional change. Have an open and honest conversation with your partner about how you’re feeling can often be of huge help. Share your worries with them and consider how they’re likely to react. Do you think this is something you’ll go through together or do you think you’re likely to have a different experience? Be as open and honest as you can ahead of time.
Having different interests isn’t a problem. This is a time for both parties to pursue hobbies they previously didn’t have the time to do. But it’s also important to ensure there are opportunities for togetherness and to raise it with your partner if that’s not happening. It’s a good time to find new areas of focus for the relationship to help manage any feelings of loss.
It might be time to have a serious conversation with yourself – especially if reconnecting is proving to be a struggle. Ask yourself some difficult questions and be honest with the answers. Has the relationship been dead for a long time? If so, it might be time to get some support from a couples’ therapist to see how you can move forward. The answer might lie in finding a middle ground. Finally ask yourself this: are problems in your relationship indicative of other difficulties you may have been hiding while raising your children? If communication is a struggle and you have an inkling that empty nest syndrome is the trigger but not necessarily the cause of your relationship difficulties (because some level of distance was also present before your children left home), therapy might be the best next step.
It's hard, but do what you can during a pandemic. There are still opportunities to do connected activities together e.g. walks, conversations, activities online etc. The lack of external stimulation shouldn’t be a reason to avoid connection. Consider making plans for the future and all the things you want to do once the world opens up again.
Dr Elena is also the co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic
UKCP registered psychotherapist Toby Ingham says…
This might be an uncomfortable time. For some couples, the experience of being without the children and of just being with your spouse may reveal it was your children who were holding everything together. Couples who have been together longer may have more experience of enjoying one another’s company, which may give them something to fall back on, but having children does impact your live irrevocably and it will be different each couple.
It’s certainly a period of upheaval and change. Generally speaking, couples tend to put a lot of time and energy into supporting their children leaving, and while some may have been looking forward to having more freedom, others dread the moment. In either case, it’s important to accept that things will be different and prepare for a period of change and adaptation. It may be only after the children have gone that you can start to properly turn your minds to the new opportunities.
Communication is vital. A worry shared is a worry halved. Use it as the beginning of a new conversation. That may turn out to be the beginning of a new phase of better communication. Also, when you talk, anxiety tends to lessen which is vital during periods of change. So, check in with your partner; see where they are. It’s also important to talk about your own feelings. The most important thing is to give yourselves the chance to adapt and have constructive and open conversations about your new reality.
Don’t expect too much from this new era of your relationship. You will now have more time and there are all kinds of possibilities that you might want to pursue. It’s definitely a good time to pick up a hobby. Having an experience together may also act as a conversation starter for the way you feel. However, it’s important not to put too much pressure on yourselves. You shouldn’t feel like you have to do something together just because it’s a common thing for couples to do at this stage. If you both enjoy different things, then that’s fine too, but keep talking to each other as you do.
It’s about finding a new way to talk to each other. There is no doubt this is a big life change moment. You might try talking to your friends about it, too. You are not the only people whose children are leaving home. How do other people deal with it and adapt? Try not to bottle your thoughts and feelings up.
At the end of the day, be there for each other. If you seem to be dealing well with the change while your partner isn’t, try giving them a helping hand. While each situation is different, some basic principles will apply in supporting your partner. Encourage them to share why they’re struggling and help them come up with a plan on how to move forward. Another important thing is not to dismiss their feelings, just because the situation hasn’t affected you deeply it doesn’t mean it hasn’t had a big impact on them.
The current confinement can be viewed as an opportunity. It’s stressful enough for couples living together right now, let alone when you factor in the stress of a big change such as your children leaving home. Use the time to address your feelings. Remind each other of your love and reflect on the special moments you’ve had together as a family and discuss the next chapter in your life. Discuss future plans and projects you would like to embark on together.
The power of small gestures shouldn’t be underestimated. Just because you’re stuck inside it doesn’t mean you can’t put a smile on each other’s face by planning a romantic dinner or surprising them with a gift. It may sound simple, but these small gestures can help lift your mood and make you excited for the future ahead. Though it might seem daunting, strange, and even frightening, try to remember that this is be the beginning of an exciting and fulfilling chapter of your life and with possibly more time and money, the world – and your relationship – really is your oyster.
For more information and advice visit TobyIngham.com