Right before my nest emptied, I asked one of my friends who was about a year into her empty nester life what was different about her marriage now that the kids were gone. “Well, there’s a lot more nudity!” she said. I think I screamed and put my hands over my ears in protest. Wow! Okay! Um, I then proceeded to tell her that I was not looking for that kind of information! “No,” she replied, “what I mean is that when we are getting ready in the mornings, and we want something from the fridge, we just go and get it. No worries.” (At the time I remember thinking that sounded fantastic, as well as very handy for dealing with hot flashes, just sayin’.)
I’m here to tell you that she was right. There is a lot of, um, freedom in the empty nest. (Insert high five here.) Without a doubt, when the kids leave the nest, dynamics change with your spouse. Even if your marriage was healthy when the kids were in the nest, things do shift when it’s just the two of you day after day. Marriages are kind of like fires – they need to be constantly rekindled to keep going strong. How do we do that if love is an emotion? Is love an emotion? Experts are divided on this. Like emotions, love is complex and actually can produce physiological and psychological changes. But unlike emotions, it doesn’t have an apparent trigger (like, for example, frustration or anger). In her book, Emotional Agility, Dr. Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, says that people often feel like love is something that happens to them, rather than something they can influence themselves. Just like other emotions, we can affect, manage, and shape our feelings of love every day. This is important news for empty nesters! All that new-found “togetherness” can tend to either foster irritation, emotional distance, and resentment, or appreciation, closeness, and intimacy. In one of my favorite books, Love is a Decision, authors Gary Smalley and John Trent share a plan for increasing depth, warmth, and excitement in marriage. They believe healthy marriages are no accident. I must say I agree! I’m no expert, but I will be transparent and share what’s worked for our marriage.
Remember You Married a Coin
In trying to explain marriage to our kids early on, we used the word picture of a coin. We told them that the “heads” side of the coin represents a person’s strengths, while the “tails” side represents their negative qualities. In her book, Personality Plus for Couples: Understanding Yourself and the One You Love, best-selling author and speaker Florence Littauer says that we fall in love with a person’s strengths, but then one day we wake up and realize we’re married to their weaknesses! Weaknesses are simply strengths taken to the extreme. Bob and I have come to realize that differences in the way we see and approach things are largely a matter of temperament and personality type, and we can make a choice to focus on heads rather than tails.
When our kids were younger, dating meant scheduling a time on the calendar, arranging for a babysitter, prepping the kids (homework done! baths done! jammies on!) for the sitter, and finally prepping ourselves for our date (clothes! makeup! brush teeth!). It was a big deal. Even as the kids got older and could stay by themselves, it involved some planning and preparation. That all changed in the empty nest. I’ve shared before that my husband’s motto for the empty nest is, “We can go wherever we want, whenever we want, and stay as long as we want!” It’s a great motto, but truthfully, it’s just easier to stay home in our jammies and watch TV or crank through our to-do lists. This is not okay. When our nest first emptied, we sat down and made a list of places and restaurants nearby that would be fun to go to as a couple. (Think museums, concerts, unique restaurants, sporting events, etc.) If you follow me on Instagram or Snapchat, you know that our default date activity is Tuesday night at the movies ($4.75 per person, seriously!) preceded by dinner at the fine dining establishment of In-N-Out Burger. While we have checked a few of things off our fun activities list, we are still a work in progress on this one! The important thing is, we have a date night at least once a week. Every week. By the way, research shows that when couples try something new together, they feel more attracted to one another. The more adrenaline-producing – the more attracted you will be. Bungee jumping, anyone? 🙂
Talk and Ask Questions
If you’re like us, when you first met you talked and talked. As the years went on, we kept talking, but the talk turned from our hopes and dreams to the day-to-day intricacies of life with three kids. Now that the kids are gone, we’re making an effort to talk about those hopes and dreams again. What’s on your bucket list? What would you eat for your last meal? What are your fondest memories of your childhood? If you need help getting started, Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages (If you’ve been hanging around here long, you know I love that book!), has written another book called 101 Conversation Starters for Couples. It is excellent (and would make a great Valentine’s Day gift!).
Make Tiny Tweaks
Make eye contact. Hug goodbye every morning. Smile at each other. Rediscover the power and fun of kissing. Remember to say thank you to one another. We’ve realized we can make a choice and exert the effort to engage one another. It’s made a big difference for us.
Thanks for coming along on our journey and for letting me share what has worked for us. Above all, I think being intentional about prioritizing our relationship has been the key. You can fall back in love in the empty nest. We have! Have you? Leave me a comment and share your tips!
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Top photo by Megan Weaver.