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For parents, empty nest can be full of promise

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The school year is almost upon us and it is a moment parents anticipate with a pulse-pounding mix of hand-wringing fear and giddy excitement – ushering the last kid out of the house and off to school. But, once the nest is officially empty, what is next?

If the first major adjustment in a marriage comes when kids are born, the second major shift comes when those kids are on their way out of the house, said Ron Cox, associate professor and Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension marriage and family specialist.

“It can be a tough time for parents when their last child leaves home,” he said. “The couple has been in the routine of raising kids for 20 or more years, and that all changes once it’s just the two of them again.”

Through no fault of their own, kids often come between spouses, who are focused on their kids’ well-being, which is easily a full-time job. In fact, Cox points to a robust body of research indicating marital quality takes a hit when children come along. 

The dip is normal, and expected, even, as couples settle into the hectic routine of raising the kids and keeping the household running. Meanwhile, the couple’s relationship often gets neglected and they stop doing the things that maintain their bond. 

But, when the nest empties, parents are forced to make another big adjustment.

“It’s a crossroads in a marriage, where husbands and wives renegotiate the relationship,” Cox said. “It can be a wonderful time of rediscovery for them or it can become a problem where they don’t feel like they know each other anymore.” 

There is a small spike in the divorce rate around the 22-year marriage anniversary mark, proving just how tricky it can be to revert to days sans pacifiers, soccer practices and homework. 

However, for plenty of couples, the so-called empty nest is a bright, shiny chance to start anew. 

One key to couples successfully managing the transition from full house to empty nest is finding positive experiences they can share together. For instance, taking up ballroom dancing, seeking out other couples and socializing, beginning to plan your retirement home. 

“With the kids gone, you’ve got all this time to fill, and it’s important that a sizable percentage of it is spent doing things you both like,” Cox said. “Maybe you put your dreams on hold to invest in your kids. As your role as a parent becomes less demanding, you and your spouse have a chance to start pursuing old dreams or chasing new ones.” 

In fact, couples do not have to wait for the kids to clear out to start seeking things you and your partner can do together. Start by setting aside a date night or scheduling lunch together once a week.

Beyond spending recreational time together, Cox also suggested getting involved in a cause, perhaps through a social service agency or a church. 

“Giving back in a way that is meaningful to both of you not only benefits someone else, but also serves to bring you together as a couple,” he said.  

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