The Kids Are Grown Up and Gone . . . Now What?
As any parent will tell you, kids take up so much time. Soccer games, swim practice, piano lessons, back and forth from school, play dates, after-school events... the list goes on. And those are just the things that keep us busy outside the home! When we actually find time to be at home, the air is filled with pleas from our kids: “Mom, I’m hungry.” “Dad, something’s wrong with my bike.” “Where’s my iPad charger?”
Whether you have one kid or ten, whether you work outside the home or not at all, parenting is full-time work. Rewarding work, absolutely! Perhaps the most rewarding ever. But work nonetheless. Long, hard work.
And then one day, after high school or college or maybe a couple of years after that, they’re gone, beginning lives, careers, and families of their own. And for the first time in twenty or more years, mom and dad have only each other at the dinner table, in the living room, and around the house. The question is, though, after all those years focused on the kids, what remains of the love and friendship that carried them so strong through their courtship and the first years of marriage?
Struggles in the Empty Nest
Unfortunately, many can relate to some of the struggles of this couple entering its “empty nest” years:
My husband and I have been married twenty-four years. I want my husband to do more relational things with me. I make suggestions and he doesn’t like them and I tell him they would make me feel more loved. The big suggestion lately is that I would like to plan every weekend to have a few hours of his time to just do something fun together. I told him it would make me feel more secure knowing we had something fun or relational to do together to look forward to. He doesn’t think he can make that type of commitment due to his over-commitment—in my mind—to his work.
We have never gone away for the weekend. In fact, we have only gone away for one night two times in our married life! I have said I want us to go away for a weekend at least once a year. Most weekends I spend a lot of time upset that he is gone working. Our children are now in high school and college and I realize I don’t have them to take care of on the weekends, and this makes it more noticeable. We are both dealing with our anger toward each other. . . .
I like what you are saying that I should acknowledge my husband has good intentions, but he thinks it is his personality to not want or need one-on-one time or to play games, etc. He doesn’t want me to make him do things he is uncomfortable doing. But I feel very bored and anxious when we are in the same room and not connecting . . . especially when it is the weekend and he doesn’t want to do something fun or cook dinner with me or help me with things.
I try to communicate that I need him to do certain things to make me feel appreciated and liked, but he usually gets frustrated and doesn’t want to respond to me or says we can talk about it later, and later never comes. So I don’t know if you can see my question. But progress seems very slow.
Addressing The Struggles
In reading her comments, the cry of her heart stirs our own hearts. Oh, that he would respond to her appeal to connect. Earlier she had admitted her innocent neglect of him for twenty years because of her preoccupation with the kids. However, her past actions do not reflect ill-will toward him but reveal her womanly assumption that a husband and father would understand her motherly obsession. But now she has awakened to her need of him. And this husband can re-energize the marriage if he would forgive what amounts to her good-intentioned parenting and give her the one-on-one focus she is craving that he, too, had craved for so long himself when the kids were younger.
I’ve seen this happen in more marriages than I can count. For twenty years, a wife and mother fixates on her children and marginalizes her husband, unintentionally causing him to feel secondary, if not insignificant. Over the years, the husband comes to conclude, “Friendship with me matters little to her except as it relates to the children.”
Now, two decades later, when the kids are gone and the house is quiet, she appeals to her husband to love her. But sadly, his marital plant has withered due to the years of neglect. He says to himself, “My interest in having her adore me as she did in courtship and to light up when I enter the room is wishful thinking. My nightly arrivals home received a brief news item: 'Oh, hi dear. The school event is at 7:30. We will eat earlier tonight to arrive before the crowds.' Long ago, I lost my romantic passion toward the woman who, at that time, befriended me as the center and substance of her life. With the coming of the family, my persona and longings fell into the category of expendable. I desired then the connection she puts voice to now, but the children were toddlers then, and she downplayed the feasibility of this kind of mutual preoccupation with one another. Now I hear her requests rooted in her self-interests to fill in the gap from the children's absence, not as a yearning to support me as her hero on a mission to make a difference in this world."
How to best avoid this post-kids marriage that is more of a loveless partnership and roommate situation than a thriving, passionate marriage is an extremely important topic for a different time. But what this wife who wrote me needs answered now, what perhaps you too are asking in this moment, is, “What do we do now? How do we get back to where we were? Or is it too late?”
Well, as I’ve already said, situations like these are more common than many realize. The great news is, this wife recognizes it, and you do too! Putting voice to such struggles is the first big obstacle to overcome, so take heart that you’re already on the road to recovery.
The next step is to ask forgiveness from the neglected spouse. I admit, it sounds weird to ask forgiveness for parenting so well, for being supermom and helping to balance and maintain such overloaded kids’ schedules with the success that you did. But as was the case with the wife who wrote me, was it at the expense of your husband? Maybe the kids never felt unloved or deprived, but can your husband say the same?
The wife above wrote that she wants to feel more “secure” and “loved” in their marriage. But for twenty years her husband was likely crying out for the same. The road to the future she desires begins with addressing their past. If she would only say something like, “I know now that the kids took so much of me while they were growing up. And while I am thankful, as I know you are too, that they were happy and given so many great opportunities while in our home, I regret that it was oftentimes at the expense of us. I am sorry for brushing you aside, for basically saying, ‘It’s the kids’ time now, not yours,’ and for neglecting our relationship, as well as your physical needs for sexual intimacy. Can you forgive me?”
A good-intentioned man will most likely crumble at this amazing act of humility from his wife. It might not be immediate, but in time her request for forgiveness will soften his heart and may actually drive him to ask for forgiveness himself for his part in not cherishing her as he should’ve during the parenting years.
After seeking forgiveness, I would then recommend the wife who wants so badly to spend more time with her husband doing “something fun” or going away for the weekend, to simply ask him what he would like the two of them to do together. She mentioned wanting him to cook with her or help her with things, but maybe cooking and chores are not what he wants to do when he’s not at work. Maybe he’s not really saying no to doing things with her, only no to doing these things with her. So what would he like to do? If the goal is to do things together, to repair their relationship, then she should seek to do that through the activities he suggests.
Does he like to hunt or play golf when he’s not at work? Maybe neither has ever interested you before, but certainly reigniting your marriage does, right? So if joining him during some of these activities is what it takes to do that, isn’t that worth it? Maybe it’s just sitting in silence while watching a game together. What she might see as a waste of time and completely unproductive in reigniting their marriage, he may see as the most amazing time of bonding they’ve ever shared. Give it a try!
The Rewarded Cycle
So first, ask forgiveness. Second, ask what he would like to do together with you. And third, no matter how he responds, remember the Rewarded Cycle: His love regardless of her respect. Her respect regardless of his love.
We can never guarantee our spouse will respond in a specific way, even when we do what we know is right. But we can be guaranteed that when we choose to unconditionally love and respect our spouse, we are actually showing unconditional love and respect unto Christ, who stands just beyond their shoulder. And the Lord is closely watching you and intending to reward you. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:5, “Each man’s praise will come to him from God.” And again in Ephesians 6:7-8, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does.”
The Glue In Your Marriage
In speaking about marriage, Jesus said, “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Mark 10:6-9). Your children were never the glue in your marriage; it was always God. Which means that though your children may be gone, your glue—God!—remains. Let no man, or child, separate you!
Questions to Consider
- How has adding kids affected your marriage for the better? How has it affected the marriage negatively?
- If a married couple takes twenty years off from strengthening their marriage and directs all of their focus on the kids, what will their relationship look like when they have their “empty nest”?
- Why can it be tempting for some to tell a husband feeling neglected due to his wife’s focus on the kids to “grow up” or “stop being so selfish”? Is their validity to his feelings? How so?
- Have you found any effective ways to maintain the marital focus while still being the attentive and loving parent you are called to be? Can you share?