Jan sipped her coffee and looked across the breakfast table at her husband. John was reading the newspaper as he’d done every morning for the past 28 years – nothing different – yet Jan felt everything was different.

Their youngest child had left for university, and Jan still hadn’t filled that hole in her heart when he waved goodbye. She remembered when the children were young and she and John dreamt about what life would be like when it was just the two of them again. But none of those dreams were coming true. Jan wasn’t even sure if John wanted to do any of those things with her anymore. They hardly ever talked, and they seemed to spend as little time together as possible. Jan couldn’t help but feel as though she were married to a stranger.

Jan is not alone in her thoughts. More and more couples are realising how far apart they have grown through the years. And unfortunately, this has resulted in divorce rates that are on the rise for couples married 30 or more years.

Conflicts between couples tend to increase once the children leave the home, primarily because a couple has spent the past decade or two completely focused on raising kids. When all their time and energy go into the children, eventually children become the only connection. When the kids are gone, the emptiness becomes evident, and the distance grows.

Some empty-nest couples soon realise that their children have become an effective means of avoiding conflict within the marriage. With those buffers gone, conflicts begin to increase. Old, unresolved issues begin to reappear, and tension mounts. This can become the kiss of death to some marriages.

The most important thing you can do for your marriage at the empty-nest stage is to redefine your relationship. As you do this, you need to set new goals and share new hopes and expectations with each other. Strike a balance between individual, couple and social time that works for both of you. But most of all, learn to enjoy the time you now have together.

If you find yourselves struggling to reconnect, here are a few other things you can do:

  • Fill the hole.
    This should include filling both the physical space and the time space that your kids occupied. Talk about how you would each like to fill those spaces, then start doing it. Enjoy the chance to be spontaneous again. You have finally reached the stage where you get to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Go have some fun at the drop of a hat.

  • Let go of the past.
    You have a bright new future ahead – focus on that. Be sure to resolve and forgive any past hurts that have occurred so you can move into your future together refreshed and renewed.

  • Renew your romance and enjoy new-found sexual freedom.
    There are no more distractions, interruptions or excuses – just freedom to enjoy each other. As you do this, be sure to talk about changes in your needs and desires that have occurred over the years.

  • Focus on the positives.
    Take time to notice all the wonderful little things about your spouse, and dwell on these. Consider writing your spouse a love note.

  • Validate each other’s feelings.
    No two people experience this stage of marriage in exactly the same way. Talk about how you feel, and be patient with each other as you adjust to the empty nest.

  • Focus on your spiritual growth.
    Consider starting a Bible study together, join a small group or pray together daily.

Dr. Debbie L. Cherry

Dr. Debbie L. Cherry is a psychologist and author of Child-Proofing Your Marriage.

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