A couple I’d been working with reached the end of our work together, and it was time for our closing “graduation” counseling session. As they walked out of my office afterwards, the wife turned to me and said, “I am so grateful that we have spent this time with you. I now have hope for our future together…But I feel like we wasted the last 21 years of our marriage.”
This was both encouraging and heartbreaking. The couple was in their 50’s and had been married for over 25 years. They longed to recover the closeness and intimacy that they felt during their first four years. And although they regretted “wasting” so many years, they now had (God willing) another 30+ years to experience the closeness!
So what happened after those first four years? Why is it that almost half of the couples I work with are in their “empty nest” years and want to work on their relationship now? They long to be free from the patterns that seem to have trapped them for decades.
When and How Does This Begin?
When we are first married, we are able to simply enjoy the relationship. We have responsibilities, but we are able to “escape” the details and frustrations of life when we are with each other. We feel completely loved and are able to focus our love fully with no distractions. It is just “us” and spontaneity reigns.
Then, usually about the same time we have kids, the responsibilities of our careers increase, and we seem to have no time for each other. We thought we were really busy “pre-kids,” and we wonder, “What in the world did we do in our free time before we had kids?” We begin to forget what is was like, and our relationship begins to get lost in the busyness of life itself.
When Do We Notice?
What is especially heartbreaking is many couples do not notice when they begin to drift apart. Life is filled with homework, soccer, dance, carpool… And when they actually do have time for a date, what do they talk about? The kids, their homework, their soccer practice, their dance practice, who will drive whom where…“dates” merely become an opportunity to make sure that our schedules work and ensuring none of the kids are left somewhere in the process!
Often, when the last child leaves the home, everything suddenly becomes quiet – it is just “us” –and we have forgotten how to “do marriage.” The reality of this new phase of life together begins to sink in. It wasn’t intentional. We think we still love each other – even though sometimes we feel we don’t like each other. We no longer know how to experience the safety and closeness we long for. It’s often replaced by irritation, anger, strong words, or – even worse – long periods of silence. How sad!
How Do We Start: For Newlyweds or New Parents
The best time to prepare for the kids leaving home is before they are born! Or at least soon thereafter. Strange as it sounds, this is easiest to talk about before we have any inkling that we might be caught up in these patterns.
Often writing each other a letter describing our relationship and what our spouse means to us provides a type of anchor to our past when it is almost forgotten. Hide the letters in some type of “time capsule” for when your oldest is entering adolescence.
During the Parenting Years:
These are the years when exhaustion sets in. When between picking up the kids, dinner, baths, and eventually homework precede falling into bed utterly exhausted. Only to be awaken by the pesky alarm clock and begin all over again.
Our rationale for focusing on the kids makes sense. We only have 16 years before their desire for separation begins – which coincides with puberty and that “all important” driver’s license. You may have heard to treasure these years – they are so fleeting. In the moment, though, there seems to be no end to the cycle of exhaustion.
There’s so much truth behind the saying, “The best way to love your kids is to love your spouse.” Kids are often more perceptive than we think. They may not know what is wrong, but they can sense tension between parents.
If we thought we were in survival mode when our kids were younger, we are entering a more intense time of stress when they enter puberty. They often demand, argue, manipulate and bring about many emotionally-draining conversations.
What can we do? Steal time away from the kids for each other. Even saying this doesn’t seem right, but it is so true. Our desire is for our kids to have everything they want (or think they want). After all, we have such a short time with them, and a lifetime left with our spouse.
But if we do not consistently spend quality time with our spouse, patterns develop that are difficult to reverse 20 years later. A good way to measure this quality time is by how much we look forward to it and by what we talk about. Need some help? Try these questions on a date. They help to direct our conversations to our relationship – not the details of simply living life.
Is My Spouse My Priority?
During the parenting years, one or both spouses begin to feel that they are third or fourth on the other’s priority list. Sometimes the job becomes so consuming that they forget to work on the relationship. It’s common to receive more positive feedback at work than from their spouse. Or the children become the top priority for one spouse (often the wife), and the husband begins to feel left out – so he focuses on work . . . and the wife then feels left out of his life.
How do we keep our spouse our priority? It requires some intentionality – and sacrificing something that is “good” for something that is better – our lifetime relationship.
Some couples commit to three evenings a week for just 30 minutes with no distractions (cell phone, TV, kids) for “us time.” It can be difficult to etch out even 30 minutes a week. You have to essentially “fight” other priorities for this time. Otherwise, we won’t realize how much we have lost until it is just “us” after 20 years.
But What if We are Already Empty Nesters?
Many couples are not aware of the challenges in their relationship until the distractions of childrearing have evaporated. Our life slows down. And we forget how to fill it back up with meaningful relationships – even the relationship with our spouse.
It is not too late! But it is certainly more difficult. Talk about your relationship and what you remember it once was – and how you desire to recover that feeling of closeness, safety, and intimacy.
Focus on what YOU can bring to recovering this relationship – not what expectations you have for your spouse. What are their needs?
For more resources or to dig deeper, consider reading some of my other blogs that focus on experiencing everything God desires for us in our relationships at https://crossroadcounselor.com/author/steve-fox/