The day has finally arrived. Your youngest child has been dropped off and is now a college student, which makes you… an Empty Nester. Marriage therapists see the gamut of reactions – from “Yippee” to “Oy vay.” If you fall into this latter category and are entering this new life phase with trepidation (or even dread), you are not alone. “We help a lot of couples normalize the transition to becoming Empty Nester’s,” says Nicholas Strouse, Director of Westport Family Counseling. Couples have a lot of expectations and stereotypes. We help them reality-test, and avoid some of the possible pitfalls. We show them how to listen to each other and to themselves… and return to being a team… but, a different type of team… not as parents, but rather, as partners…like they once were, or maybe only now are having a chance to discover.”
Strouse starts with these basic recommendations to help Empty Nester’s acclimate and be supportive one another’s needs.
Give yourself time – The past 20+ years have been filled with activity, distractions, and all manner of challenges. Give yourself time to adjust to your new normal, which includes a quieter home, and fewer familial demands. There is no “map” for what to do. Settling into what is best for you and your spouse will include some trial and error and exploration.
Give yourself permission – Some needs may be transitional, while others may be ongoing. Allow for whatever needs arise. Your first impulse may be to create “time for yourself.” Yoga may be at the top of your list… reading… cooking more gourmet meals, and taking the time to do so. However, you may adjust to different priorities, as you settle into your new life as Empty Nester’s. It may take a period of time before you recognize your long-term goals, or you may know right away. You may be surprised to learn that some are still related to the family, such as thinking about downsizing and moving to another area that is more affordable, and close to where you expect your children to settle down… or, you may want to do some Estate Planning. On the other hand, you may not be surprised that you have some typical long-term goals, such as travelling with your spouse.
Give yourself space – While it’s great to look forward to being surrounded by people, it’s also important to give yourself, your children, and your spouse individual space. Everyone needs to find a balance between shared time and alone time, without giving up what is important to him or her.
Make some concrete plans – It helps to have short-term goals on the calendar. This can include a visit your child’s college, visiting old friends who have moved away, a vacation for the two of you, or for your family during a school break. Closer to home, it can be a big family gathering around Thanksgiving or the holidays. Once again, do not be surprised if your “Empty Nester plans” still include family. Remember, your sense of self and the coupleship may have changed… that does not mean your love for your family and desire to be with them will go out the window.
Reclaim your identity – One of the most common issues Couples Counselors encounter is a parent getting too wrapped up in their children and losing their own identity. Instead of seeing being an Empty Nester as a “void,” see it as an opportunity to reclaim who you are – your passions, your interests, confidence in your skills. Some of these may relate to child rearing, but some may be interests that have had to take a back seat… or, they may be new experiences you’ve yearned for. This is the time to explore and find out what resonates most with YOU.
Engage in open communication – One of the tenets of couples counseling is open and honest communication. Talk with your spouse about where you are at… and, where you’d like to “be” over the first few months… as well as, over the longer term.
Counseling may be an option – There are plenty of positives about being able to refocus on yourself and your partner. However, this may also be a time for pulling back the curtain on marital issues. Problems that were avoided, while being distracted by children, can come to the fore when you are Empty Nesters. Couples can find circumstantial, and situational therapy very useful to navigate their new life together, and help resolve long simmering issues.
Having your children go off to college is an exciting and anxious time for your children, and also for you. Being mindful during this new phase, and also being open to outside help, can help turn this time into a fulfilling adventure.