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Three Pitfalls to Avoid in an Empty Nest Marriage

When your kids leave the home, you are forced to consider your marriage relationship in a new light.
By Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates


Bess and Gary couldn’t wait for the empty nest. Raising their kids had been tough. They’d had different approaches to discipline, they’d struggled on a tight budget, and they’d postponed many of their dreams in order to be with their kids. Now the last one was leaving, and they felt they had done the best they could. Finally, they were about to be free from the daily stresses of parenting. They were excited. They couldn’t wait for it to be “just us” again.

Shelly’s situation was just the opposite. She had poured her life into her kids; they had come first. Now, as the last child got ready to leave, she was scared, really scared. ”I don’t even feel like I know my husband. I haven’t been alone with him since I was 26. Our whole life has revolved around the kids. Now what will we talk about at the dinner table? What will we do on weekends? I don’t even know if I have energy left to put into this relationship. And, I don’t know if I want to.”

When your kids begin leaving the home, empty nest couples are forced to consider marriage in a new light. This can be wonderful or it can be scary. You may be thrilled as you look forward to a second honeymoon season with your spouse. Or you may be asking yourselves, Without the kids, do we have enough to hold us together?

Most likely, you will respond with a mixture of both fear and excitement. Yet at some point you will wonder, What will my marriage look like now? Anticipating the hurdles in the road ahead is essential to a good marriage in the empty nest season.

Three common pitfalls

As Christians we believe there is an enemy of our souls who wants our marriages to fall apart. Part of the problem is we don’t often recognize this enemy or his tactics. Instead, we think the problem is us or, more likely, our spouse.

In order to successfully transition your marriage into the empty nest years, you should watch for three common pitfalls that many marriages face in middle-age.

1. A critical spirit. How many middle-aged couples do you know who are still in love with each other and whose marriages you admire? How many do you know who regularly criticize, condemn, and alienate each other?

Newlyweds seem to have cornered the market on being in love. And why is that? They usually have the time and focus. Empty nest couples have the same two commodities; the challenge is to capitalize on them.

We’ve noticed that, for an empty nest wife, it is all too easy to fill the void left by the kids with criticism of her husband. With the kids gone she tends to focus more on her spouse. It’s easy to find fault with what he has done or left undone, to revisit old wounds, to fret about the way she thinks things should be.

Why do we wives do this?

Partly because we are hurting and sad for our loss, partly because we know our husbands too well, partly because we have been mothering for so long we switch our attention from our kids to our husband without thinking. Unconsciously we become critical and we don’t even realize what we are doing. It’s so subtle.

Once you do recognize what is happening, it’s time to change course. Making changes can sometimes be as simple as deciding: You make the choice to give your husband the benefit of the doubt, to not comment on everything he does or doesn’t do, to focus on the things you appreciate about him, and to verbally express gratitude.

2. Emotional divorce. It is so very common to arrive at the empty nest and feel some level of isolation. This has been true for both of us. During transition we are especially vulnerable to this drift as each spouse processes life’s changes differently.

It might happen like this: He’s hurt me again. It’s the same old thing. There’s no use trying to talk it through. I just can’t go there again. It’s too exhausting, too painful. We’ll live in the same house and carry on, but I can’t keep trying. I can’t share with him at a deep level any more.

Picture a glass patio door. In a sense what you are doing is shutting the glass door on your marriage. You still see your spouse, but there’s a barrier between you.

This is emotional divorce—the road to isolation.

When you are pulled this way, recognize what is happening and make the decision to take a hammer and begin breaking the glass. How do you do this? Refuse to give in to the temptation to pull away from your spouse and, instead, talk through the issues. Ask a wise couple whom you trust to talk with you, or get counseling if needed.

Your marriage is too important to let it fade away. A thick glass panel doesn’t crumble instantaneously. It takes constant chipping away until the barrier finally crumbles. In the same way, you need to be patient and chip away at your issues, knowing that God is for your marriage and He wants to remove the thick glass in order that fresh air might blow in and rejuvenate your marriage.

3. An affair. If you fail to stop the drift toward emotional divorce, you will become increasingly vulnerable to an affair. Infidelity in women rarely takes place on the spur of the moment. Instead these types of relationships usually begin with an emotional affair: He understands me better than my husband does. He appreciates me in ways my husband does not. He finds me attractive. I am drawn to him. When we talk, I feel like he really listens to me.

It’s helpful to ask yourself, Am I believing in a fantasy or seeking the truth? God’s Word says that you are to flee from, not flirt, with temptation. You must run away from those temptations and run toward your spouse instead.

No limits

When driving a car, we are dependent upon road signs that signal speed limits, merging traffic, dangerous curves, and other warnings. These signs are in place for our safety. In a similar way, we share these warnings about the road ahead for the safety of your marriage. We are both strongly for marriages thriving, not just surviving. Knowing what the dangers are is the better part of avoiding them.

Remember: Your spouse is not your enemy. He is your partner.

You’re on the same team, and there is no limit to the new ventures that are available to empty nest couples. In planning for and pursuing these ventures together, your marriage can thrive. Ask God to give you wisdom and watch Him work in ways that will go beyond your plans and even your dreams. “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!” (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV).

Excerpted from Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest ©2008 by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates. Published by FamilyLife Publishing. All rights reserved.

You can hear more from Barbara and Susan about life in the empty nest on a recent FamilyLife Today® interview.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.



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