I have noticed an alarming trend in marriage. Couples that have been married for 18 – 20+ years deciding to go their separate ways. We all grew up hearing about the seven-year-itch, but it seems even stranger that a couple would end a marriage after investing that many years into raising their family.
Every couple has the hope and desire for a lasting marriage when they exchange vows. In that moment, no one thinks, “Well, this isn’t going to last.” Rather, the couple begins to dream, plan and build a family life together. When they hold their first child in their arms, rarely is there a thought that this family will not make it.They are ready to sacrifice and work hard to protect what they have.
Raising children is a lot of work…A LOT of work.
Being a parent is a life of sacrifice…(think about all those recitals, soccer games, homework, social events, late nights, doctor visits and financial costs)
Being a parent is a life of frustration…(attitudes, disrespect, lack of problem solving skills, inability to communicate, sibling rivalry, more to-dos than time to do them,)
Being a parent is a life of worry…(from the friends they hang out with to peer pressure, bullying and your stress when they begin driving a car!)
As a parent, it is not until your kids leave the house that you realize how much of the last 18-20+ years have actually been all about raising your kids.
The house is empty…
You and your spouse look at each other in the stillness of the moment…
No shoes to pick up…
No dishes to gather from every conceivable corner of the house…
No clutter that magically appears right after a room has been cleaned…
No urgent crisis phone call demanding you drop everything to fix their dilemma…
No…it’s just the two of you. The joint adventure of raising a family has left you tired, different, uncertain and curious.
Do you know the person you married anymore?
Has your life become so enmeshed with your kids that you lost the soul-connection with your spouse that started this whole adventure?
Do you even like each other anymore?
Unless you approach your parenting with a long-term plan for your marriage, you might enter the empty nest years thinking that raising kids was a death-sentence on your relationship. Unfortunately, this is what I see happening in so many marriages today. No plan to stay connected and in love during the years of raising kids, and as soon as the kids get to the age where they can take care of themselves, couples are looking for greener marital pastures.
As I have just entered into those empty-nest years with my wife Amy, I am actually excited about what the future holds (I hope Amy is too!) I love my kids and I am proud of who they have become and the journey that they are currently on…but I also love their mom. She has been my best friend for the past 33 years. We are both different now. We both know each other at a far deeper level. We both bear the scars of raising kids in a very challenging age. Yet we both still like hanging out with each other.
Here are a few of my thoughts that can help you transition into the “Empty Nest” years with your marriage intact:
1. Pray Daily For Your Spouse:
I am putting what I believe to be the most important practice to keep your marriage strong at the top. Find time every day to stop and pray for your spouse. If you are mad or angry, praying will begin to break the foothold that bitterness and unforgiveness establishes. Praying helps you move more quickly to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. Prayer realigns your heart with God so that He is able to reveal things that need to be repented of, or made amends for. Your marriage has many enemies today. To purposefully and consistently pray for your mate is the way to fight for your marriage. I’d recommend three times during the day where you do this: In the morning before the day begins; Lunch time and then before you go to sleep. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. A simple word to God to protect, watch over and keep your hearts knit together is a great place to start. From their, your prayers will expand. If your kids are still young this practice will pave the way for a strong marriage in the empty nest years.
2. Words of Affirmation:
Never stop being the primary encourager and fan of your spouse. If you aren’t, someone else will, and that is where the enemy can gain traction. Every single person that breathes needs to hear things like:
- I am so proud of you.
- I love who you are.
- You are so good at _____________
- You look hot;awesome;gorgeous;stunning;sexy;handsome;beautiful;_____________
- I love the way you ________________
- I know you’ll do a great job at that!
- I just like being around you.
This list can go on and on but I think you get the point. We are all affirmation-starved people in a world that affirms very little. Each day we are bombarded with 1000’s of messages that say:
- You are not good enough.
- You are not pretty enough.
- You are too fat.
- You are too thin.
- You’ll never amount to anything.
Be your spouses best cheerleader and you will move into the empty nest years will anticipation and not dread.
3. Surprise Your Mate:
When you have been raising kids for many years you know that establishing a routine is crucial to survival. That same routine that helped you survive can also eliminate the spontaneous “spark” that your love-life needs. When was the last time you surprised your spouse with something? When you surprise your mate, they are generally more impressed with the amount of time, energy and thought you invested in them than they are the gift! They feel cared for, loved, appreciated, valued. It doesn’t need to be much, it could be something like:
- A book you know he/she wants to read.
- Dinner out, baby-sitter booked, restaurant reserved.
- A weekend away.
- A Stay-cation in your house that you cleaned.
- The dishes, laundry, lawn, project is completed.
- Book a hotel for your spouse to have a “solitude” break for a night.
4. Never Stop Dating:
This is an important rhythm to establish when your kids are little. If you keep dating in the early years, you will have a great connection in the empty-nest transition. If you are approaching the empty-nest years and haven’t been dating, then it’s time to start! Select a consistent time that works with your schedules and make sure that NOTHING gets in the way of that time. If you have hit the empty-nest years and you haven’t been dating, this can be an awkward reintegration but a fun one!
Start dating as if you have never been out before. Don’t talk about the bills, ask questions about the hopes and dreams that your mate has. Re-meet your spouse. Be attentive. Be romantic.
We tend to take each other for granted when we have been married for 20+ years. While we think we know everything about each other, we really don’t, and the years of raising kids has changed us.
We are different now.
We are trying to figure out who we are, what has changed, and what we have lost as well as what we have gained. So, there is so much to learn about your mate, so go and learn it on a date!
5. Learn his/her Love Language:
If you have not read the best-selling book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, then now is the time to read it. This book, while very simple, has helped thousands upon thousands of couples figure out why they were not really meeting each others needs. When you discover your spouses love language, it becomes a blue print for relationship success (if you actually do what is revealed). So grab a copy of the book, and use it on your next date night to discover how God wired you and your spouse to receive love. You won’t regret it.
6. Serve Together:
Our church has many opportunities for Amy and me to serve a greater purpose together. We have helped build teams in Russia, served in Mexico, and more locally, served the poor and marginalized in Seattle through our Urban Mission Team. When you do something together that serves a greater purpose, you are creating a divine connection with God and your spouse. Perhaps you could volunteer at your local food bank, or tutor at the elementary school your kids used to go to. On your next date, throw some ideas around about what you could do together.
7. Self Differentiate:
The empty nest is also a time for you to rediscover some of those passions that were benched while you helped your children discover theirs. As you get to know yourself better, and become increasingly aware of who you are (and who you are not) give yourself permission to be you…
As you are…
Not what others what or need of you or think you should be…
Who is it that God created you to be that was swallowed up over the past 20 years?
Rediscover that person and give yourself permission to explore.
As you rediscover who God made you to be, share that with your spouse, you will both grow closer together as you become known.
May your next adventure in the empty-nest be your best!