Editor’s note: Since this is the season for kids to leave home–either for college, or after a pandemic pause–we are re-publishing a very timely advice column on making the most of an empty nest marriage. What are you waiting for?
Dear Answer Queen:
My twin daughters head off to college this fall, and my husband, J, who is eight years older than I am, is about to retire. Before we had the girls, J and I traveled a lot and loved hiking and all things outdoors. Now he doesn’t want to travel because we’re spending so much on college, and he can’t hike because he hurt his knee and isn’t in great shape. I know couples who play chess together (J hates games), ride bikes together (J is not into exercise), or love antiquing (J despises shopping). I’m envious of those couples, but even more, I’m worried about us. J is happy to stay home and read or watch TV—not exactly the best recipe for building our post-kid life together. Any advice?
—Worried We’ve Got Nuthin’
It’s so normal for you to be nervous about a family transition of this magnitude that I’d be concerned if you weren’t restocking the Xanax and making sure Siri has your therapist’s number memorized. Let’s face it, your house could go from bustling (with all the attention conveniently on the kids) to morgue-like just as you’ll be face-to-face for more hours than ever with the man who has primarily been your co-parent for the past two decades.
Facing this transition, I’d be concerned if you weren’t restocking the Xanax and making sure Siri has your therapist’s number memorized.
The questions “Who have you turned into?” and “Do we even still like each other or is it time to move the hell on?” might well be tossed around, if not out loud then certainly in your heads. And the fact that the divorce rate in the past two decades has roughly doubled for adults over 50 suggests that a lot of people our age don’t exactly have happy answers to these questions. So, good for you for getting proactive here, rather than settling into denial until one day you’re single and have no idea how it happened. Oops.
Every married couple falls somewhere on the great spectrum between doing absolutely everything as a pair—eating, sleeping, traveling, watching TV—and each partner being so autonomous that they travel, dine, even sometimes live apart. The key to making marriage work as far as how much time to spend together—just as with, say, how much sex or how many children to have—is to find the place on the spectrum that’s acceptable, at least somewhat, to both of you. If not—well, the road to divorce, adultery, and just plain bad marriage is paved with resentment, right?
Negotiating the Empty Nest Marriage
I think J has a right to be a mostly solitary homebody if that’s what he wants at this stage of life, though he’ll also have to give you the space to do what you want, either alone or with others. (Hopefully, for his sake, those “others” won’t feature 30-year-old outdoorsy types with boundless energy and a thing for older women such as yourself, but, hey, who can really control fate?) But J also needs to find ways to meet you on some of this stuff, since your desire to do things together is also not only perfectly valid, but wise: the danger of too much autonomy in a marriage is becoming two people living parallel lives in one house, with little or nothing to make you feel loving or appreciative of each other.
Tell J you need to have a talk. Come prepared: a chilled pitcher of something cold and strong that he likes; two (large, Amy Schumer-ish) goblets; and an attitude that’s more loving than defensive or accusatory. Pour the drinks, toast to your long-time marriage, and tell J you miss hanging with him and want to find some things you can do together now that the kids are gone. It’s actually possible he misses you, too—or feels embarrassed about his shortcomings—but doesn’t want or know how to say it. (Yes, Virginia, women do do more of the emotional work in relationships. It is what it is, let’s move on.)
The danger of too much autonomy in a marriage is becoming two people living parallel lives in one house.
Mention that traveling is something you used to love to share, and you’re sad and a little worried you don’t do it anymore—tuition payments or not. Suggest that maybe you could find some low-cost escapes—even just a weekend drive with a bed and a hot tub somewhere different—with a more substantial vacation to celebrate, say, the girls’ halfway point through college. If he balks about money, remind him—gently? jokingly? whatever your style—that divorce will be more expensive than an occasional vacation together. In the interest of compromise, propose that he come up with a list of TV shows you might watch as a couple, and you’ll pick from the list; tell him you’re happy to do the same.
Finally, suggest that you do something out of the house together, say, two to three times a month: as simple as dinner and a movie, but also maybe a little more interesting now and then—a couples cooking class, a museum outing, fostering a puppy or kitten. (Shut up! It’s cute!) If he hates your ideas, suggest, kindly, that he come up with some—and that you meet here next week, same place, same time, to discuss.
Be patient as you try to forge this new phase. As with all transitions, it might take time to figure it out, but saving a long-time marriage that still has love there is worth it. In the meantime, cultivate your life outside of J—and your ability to be contentedly alone. I’ve always thought it’s dangerous to look to a relationship to provide your happiness—not that you’re doing this. Better to figure out how to get happy on your own, and let your relationship enhance or be part of that happiness. Put another way, it’s easy to blame your marriage for your unhappiness—because it’s right there, front and center. But often I’ve found that once I got my own emotional house in order, the “problems” I was blaming on my husband or marriage miraculously faded away. Or, as my friend the writer Vivian Gornick once put it to me, “You’re looking externally for solutions to problems that can only be solved internally.” How right she was.
Good luck finding common ground and learning to love this next phase of life, both with and without J at your side.
A version of this story was originally published in July 2018.