After this just-starting school year, my husband and I are facing an empty nest. Due to some special needs in our family, we have spent much of the last 10 years focusing on our (now thriving) children. I think we have both been looking forward to them leaving the nest so we can finally focus on ourselves, but I realize that I am a little worried about being left alone together. We haven’t been very connected to one another throughout the last decade, and the idea of returning to an empty house and just looking at each other seems so depressing to me.
–Stressed about the Nest
I am impressed that you are naming this fear so far in advance. Commonly, that’s the kind of unconscious concern that shows up in other forms like relentless nitpicking, public passive aggression, or addictive behaviors that numb us to our real pain. Personally, I have seen that the transition to an empty nest can be particularly isolating. But why, when so many of us actively fantasize about getting our lives “back” once Junior is successfully launched? Here’s my take: too many of us make our lives child-centric for too long. When we finally reach the finish line (a.k.a. graduation, moving out, whatever) we realize we have lost our skills at being intimate partners in favor of being co-parents.
When I say “intimate partners” I am not just talking about sex, although that’s often the reason couples finally get themselves to counseling. Rather, intimate partners are couples who turn toward each other when making decisions and setting goals. This is often a stark contrast to how we parent our teenagers, who need to be voting members in those conversations. You don’t need to change how you have been parenting, but you do need to focus on the times when you aren’t in parent-mode.
Quick fix? Make plans to get reconnected, starting now. Reinstitute date night. Start a list of things you want to do together when Junior moves out, and include easy ones (e.g., take more walks together) as well as big time fantasies (e.g., move to a new place, take a long vacation). Make sure you are incorporating appreciations into your daily life. Even if you do this already, I would imagine much of that gratitude is expressed regarding the ways each of you has been caring for Junior(s). Start to refocus that positivity on the things between you. If you need guidance feel free to use my go-to appreciations categories: what you look like, what you do, and who you are. You can make this better, but it will take some time and talk to get there.
Stacy Notaras Murphy (www.stacymurphyLPC.com) is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing in Georgetown. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Send your confidential question to stacymurphyLPC@gmail.com.