Empty Nest Doesn't Have to Mean Empty Marriage
“A lot of times, people focus so much on their kids, and then when their kids leave the nest, they look at their spouse or partner like they’re a stranger. It’s just as important, if not more important, to focus on your relationship with your partner because your children are going to leave one day. You have to maintain a relationship that’s going to outlast your child’s needs for you.”
-Chris Pratt, husband to Anna Faris and father to Jack Pratt
It's so easy to prioritize your children over your marriage accidentally. Let's face it. Children are loud. They're needy. Your spouse is unlikely to throw a tantrum because you are playing a fifth round of Candyland with your four year old. The four year old, meanwhile, will pitch a fit because his parents are touching each other and he's not in the middle. It's easy as a parent to do whatever the kids want just to stop the incessant noise. Your spouse, however, could be suffering in silence as your relationship erodes. It's basic Squeaky Wheel Syndrome, but the problem is that adults' desires are not less valid simply because they aren't as loud in expressing them. Sadly, the silence sometimes comes only after voiced concerns have gone unheard. Why discuss things if nothing ever changes?
I frequently see empty nesters who just don't have anything in common anymore without the kids around, and it's sad. These people had a close relationship before the children came along. They were young and in love! Then they had kids and, for a while, their relationship floated along on the ocean of love still stored away from pre-kid days, but eventually things faded, too subtly to be noticed, until they became nothing more than financially codependent roommates.
These couples can go one of two ways. They may intentionally seek to rediscover that relational spark, or they may decide to go their separate ways in search of greener pastures. The problem is that those new pastures are rarely as green as they seem. The dating market is unlikely to yield a more attractive partner than your spouse unless you're significantly more marketable than when you got married (and who is?).
On the other hand, rediscovering passion isn't always a simple task, and it does take two. Research suggests that seeking out novelty can help two old dogs learn new tricks, but what if one partner is satisfied to remain in a loveless, sexless, roommate-like co-existence? I always counsel my clients who are thinking of reconciliation to try to rekindle things even if they don't feel like it, and to investigate physiological causes for their disinterest (hormonal disorders, nutritional deficiencies, depression, etc.). People in healthy partnerships are happier and they live longer, and there's something to be said for the enjoyment of growing old with the wife of one's youth.
And of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. My general advice is that your kids' NEEDS should come before your spouse's NEEDS (on the theory that your spouse can usually address his/her own needs), but that your spouse's WANTS should come before your children's WANTS.
Prioritizing your partner's desires over the kids' desires sends an important message to your partner: I haven't replaced you, and you matter to me. Sometimes hearing "the children are cute, but you are IMPORTANT to me" is the best preventive medicine for deep problems in the marriage 15-20 years down the road.