Married for 32 years, and now empty nesters, Mike and Anna found themselves struggling to connect with each other in their marriage. Until recently, when the last of their children had left the house, Mike and Anna’s lives were filled with the typical busyness of parents having active children. Weekdays and most weekends were filled with a never-ending stream of school activities, rehearsals and practices. Friendships with other couples were usually connected in one form or another through their children – connections made with other parents who, like themselves, were attending to their children’s numerous activities. Pretty much everything in the last thirty years of their marriage revolved around meeting the needs and wants of their children. Like so many, Mike and Anna focused on being good parents, often putting themselves, and each other, last. Over the years, when conflicts occurred, they were typically swept under the carpet and rarely returned to at a later time. The pursuit of interests and hobbies were typically done individually or with personal friends, seldom with each other, and usually in the name of tag-teaming so as to give each other a break from the rigors of work and family life.
Now, with the last of their children out of the house and the absence of child-centered activity that characterized most of their married lives, Mike and Anna came to the startling realization that without the kids they had little in common that tied them together. It seemed that the passion and connectedness which characterized their relationship early on had now been replaced with a complacent cohabitation with someone each felt they no longer knew. While having always been faithful to each other, neither was sure if they were still in love with the other. Had their love for each other simply died on the vine?
The experience of Mike and Anna is not uncommon. Often couples who spent their entire married lives seeming to do all the right things can have their marriages fall apart after their children leave home. From the outside looking in everything often looks fine. So what happens to cause empty nest couples to drift so far apart?
More often than not it is not the big things we think about that cause marital breakdown. You don’t have to cheat, gamble, abuse drugs, or be violent for things not to work out. All you have to do is consistently neglect to do the small things that connect couples. Instead of making time to have daily check-ins with each other, or go on regular dates together, you let yourself get caught up in making a living, take on big tasks that suck up all your free time and put all your effort into raising your children while systematically neglecting the needs of their other parent.
Couples whose marriages thrive are intentional about guarding and nourishing their connection. Each commit to being “the best version of themselves” they can be, even during the times that their spouse seems less committed to do the same. Tensions are managed so that resentments are not allowed to build up. Each learns to self-regulate so as to maintain respect for their partner. Conflicts are debriefed quickly with each listening to and acknowledging the other person’s perspective and feelings. There is a courageous effort to show empathy and offer forgiveness rather than keep score of hurts and dig up the past. Each consciously focusses on the positive attributes of their spouse rather than dwelling on their petty short comings. The quality of the marriage is not judged in it’s entirety by the occasional conflicts which occur but rather by the level of connection and respect between the times of conflict. Each partner maintains a high level of positivity about the relationship. The tone of the relationship is characterized by a spirit of giving and cooperation rather than self-seeking and competition. Each resists the urge to casually share with others information about the marriage that would put their spouse in a bad light. Instead, there is a conscious effort to safeguard the reputation and dignity of their spouse, most especially with mutual friends and family members. If outside support is needed, it is mutually agreed upon as to where it will be sought.
A marriage that can weather the storm of raising a family and come out the other side stronger and more connected does not just happen. It requires two individuals who are principle focussed, committed to personal growth and who’s mutual respect for each other supersedes their own individual interests and desires in an effort to collaboratively meet the needs of both.
Following are a few recommendations that may help strengthen the connection in your own marriage during the years that the nest is still full.
- NOTICE EFFORT – watch for things that you see your spouse doing that you appreciate – and ignore (unless dangerous, hugely disrespectful or illegal) negative behaviours.
- ENCOURAGE – every day tell your spouse something they did, something they do regularly or a particular quality of character that you appreciate about them.
- RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS – actions speak louder than words. Be mindful of your words, behaviours, tone and body language. Do your best to convey warmth and appreciation – make it your goal to make your spouse feel loved.
- MAKE TIME FOR EACH OTHER – put aside time to talk daily, debriefing how the day affected you. If possible, make it a habit to date each other weekly. Pre-arrange baby sitting support as an ongoing arrangement.
- PERSONAL GROWTH – make a commitment to yourself that you will try to be the “best version” of yourself regardless of how you may feel. This does not mean being insincere or fake – it means that you do not let yourself react to your mood in that moment
- TALK ABOUT FEELINGS AND LISTEN WELL – try to avoid the temptation to bury your feelings, withdraw and nurse a grudge. Instead, take a time out, recover and request a time-in when you have calmed down and self reflected. When having the time in, start with owning your part and identifying what you think is your partner’s thoughts and feelings on the issue. Only when you have accurately understood and acknowledged how they think and feel do you attempt to share your perspective. Take turns hearing each other out with out interrupting, but remember to keep it short when it is your turn to talk – your partner is going to have to paraphrase everything you just said and identify how the situation has made you feel.
- TRAVEL LIGHT – do your best to resolve issues (do business) on the same day – i.e. “do not let the sun set on your anger…”. Make it a point of forgiving the other person by letting go of hurts and avoiding the temptation to score keep.