Being Quietly Married in the Empty Nest

One of the most challenging things, when your kids leave home, is being comfortable with the quiet of an empty nest.

Despite a fundamentally good marriage, there are hours…days…sometimes longer when my husband and I don’t have much to say to each other. It’s not that he’s not interesting – and it’s certainly not that I’m not fascinating – it’s just that some days we run out of energy, or anecdotes, or simply don’t want to be in the same room.

What if, after all these years, we’re talked out? What if we live the next 30+ years in that weird, awkward silence that you see between some couples? You know, the cliched pair, sitting in a restaurant not saying a word, not even looking at each other’s faces. That couple.

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 individuals who divorced were 50 or older. Almost 20 years later, that number jumped to more than 1 in 4. In 2009, more than 600,000 people ages 50 and over got divorced.

With statistics like that, the empty nest can be a scary place, especially when it’s really quiet.

The issue here is not how to start talking after those days spent in near-silence. It’s how to be content with the quiet and know that it doesn’t mean the end is coming. Most of the time for us it’s fine, and we happily go about our quieter days with little moments of chatter here and there. Sometimes I’ll be a little remote, and sometimes he’ll be a little obsessed with football. Or something.

 

When you’re raising your children, there’s always something to communicate about.

For most parents, the act of parenting is far more enjoyable than working. It’s no wonder we spend so much time talking about our kids – they bring us so much happiness.

According to a study by Pew ResearchAmerican parents with children under age 18 find 62% of their child-care experiences “very meaningful,” compared with 36% of paid work-related activities.

Whether it’s the mundane, like schedules, or the profound, like college choices, children bring an enormous amount of information into our lives that is often discussed, processed and filed around kitchen tables or on family car rides. How many times did my husband and I go to bed and spend those precious quiet minutes before sleep talking over our concerns about our children? How many date nights were focused on where our son would apply to college or what the odds were that our daughter would make the softball all-star team? How many conversations did we have that wasn’t somehow centered around our immediate or extended family? Not as much as we should have, I think.

The empty nest and having two grown children have eliminated so much of the wonderful busy-ness that we lived with when we were raising them. When they left home they took with them the day-to-day concerns that consumed so much of our daily thoughts. The minutiae of managing their little, then big, then bigger lives suddenly was gone – and my husband and I had to find other things to talk about around the kitchen table and in the car.

We began to talk about planning for our future together, much like we did when we were engaged – only now the future is about us, not about the children we’ll have or the family home we’ll someday buy. We talk about what’s going on in the world, what’s in the news – which we often watch before dinner (or sometimes during). We talk about our friends and their kids, what flowers to plant in the yard, whether or not to get another dog (not, for now). And sometimes, we don’t talk much at all. Sometimes we just sit and read, or surf the internet, or watch The Big Bang Theory or House Hunters.

“What do you think it would be like to live in Costa Rica/Bhutan/Savannah/Austin/Dubai?” one of us will ask the other.

And then the conversation begins. Again.

 

 


empty nest, empty nesting, midlife, parenting
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51 Comments

  • When my son first left to go away to college, I was worried we’d have nothing to talk about. I was worried I’d be so sad at my son leaving I’d be devastated. I love being a mom. Fast forward a whole week later and I was worried for nothing!

  • I’d never thought about it, since I don’t have kids, but you’re right. Kids do fill up the world when you’re a parent and it must be so quiet when they leave home.

  • I have about three years before the first one goes away and about 10 till they are all out and involved in their own lives, but I could totally see that this would be a problem for me. I will tuck this info into my mind for future reference, and remember to enjoy the crazy of the school years!! Thanks!

  • I love (love!) the quiet of our empty nest. We have the same conversations you described, we watch baseball together (previously our daughter was my husband’s baseball buddy) and we both have our own projects (writing for me, painting for him). We’re now working on a shared project… his paintings, accompanied by my writing. Oh, and we have plenty of shared laptop evenings. Hear the quiet clicking of the keys? The sound of our empty nest.

  • Helene Cohen Bludman

    I remember compiling a list of things I needed to discuss with my husband each night (almost entirely kid-related). These days there are definitely times that we fall silent, but it is a comfortable silence.

  • I started my blog 3 years ago because I recognized these years, the empty nest years, were fast approaching and I had done enough research to know that the divorce rate spikes for couples after their children leave. With our nest not yet truly empty but our children old enough to be independent most of the time, we are in the “purgatory years”, somewhere between the business of the younger years and the true empty nest. We are using this time to learn how to reconnect and develop new interests with the intention of having something new to share when the discussions about our children wane. Great post, Sharon!

    • Sharon Greenthal

      You are very smart to start before. I waited a year after my youngest left to get started blogging, and I wish I’d done it sooner. That was a tough year, for sure.

  • Great post, Sharon. My kids are 16 & 18 and my oldest is off to college this August, so we’re getting closer to the empty nest syndrome already and it’s an odd sort of limbo right now. Nice to hear from others that it sorts itself out in a positive way.

  • The quiet, not what we are looking for. Good thing millennials are so communicative. Love this, sharing.

  • So true how much our talk about the “kids” comings and goings takes up our lives. I find it still does, with email and texts they never quite leave. And that’s good. I actually look forward to the quiet because with technology someone is “talking” to me 24/7. Now with two grandchildren who live nearby we’ve added to the conversation.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I sometimes go a couple of days without talking/texting to either of my kids – it’s a little strange, but I know they’re doing ok when I don’t hear from them.

  • Sounds just like my house. It’s definitely taking some time to get used to. We aren’t retired. We had kids early so now we are enjoying spending our time the way we want to. Planning trips and where we are going to live when we sell this big barn of a house. Of course I’d love to go live somewhere else but can’t go to far. What if I get grandchildren? =)

  • John and I totally love the quiet of the empty nest. He is no doing some volunteer work and I enjoy being home alone for a few hours. Takes me back to the days when he was working. I think we all get into habits and sometimes they are just hard to break. Great post, Beth

  • I made dinner plans with other couples almost every night for the first month of our empty nest because I was used to noise and chatter and afraid of the silence. We finally got to the point where we just wanted a quiet night and then found it so relaxing for it just to be the two of us. Empty nesting is an adjustment, but eventually you find the sweet spot.

  • My kids have been out of the house for more than six years and I’m still adjusting. Now that there is text and email some days I feel like we don’t talk to each other anymore.

  • Our quiet was replaced by the noise of kids – and grandkids – moving home. Now, not only do we have the original six to discuss, we also have the spouses and grandkids. Quiet? Sigh. 🙂

  • Hi Sharon. I imagine that it is difficult for many parents to redefine their relationship after their children leave. However, in all of my 37 years of marriage I’ve never considered my nest empty. 🙂 It’s definitely a different perspective on life, and meaning and purpose but at any age, with or without children, and with or with a partner, it is important to be able to find and appreciate the quiet and the peace with ourselves and others. ~Kathy

    • Sharon Greenthal

      You’re so right, Kathy – if you can’t be alone and quiet, you’ll spend a lot of time being unhappy.

  • I have five kids at home right now so the noise is sometimes deafening. I enjoy reading your posts on the empty nest because it’s something on my mind with my oldest leaving for college this year. It feels scary, and I enjoy your assurances that it all turns out okay. 🙂

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Five kids is a lot of noise! It’s funny how I never really cared how loud it was around here (well, not much) when I was raising my kids, and now I can get irritated very quickly by too much noise.

  • You’re absolutely right about the trepidation parents experience and I love your comment about finding contentment with the quiet (rather than trying to make more noise). You really captured it well, and it’s not an easy thing to describe.

  • After our son graduated, I remember watching, with a good degree of horror, the first set of parents from our son’s class separate and then divorce. Then the second fell and we started to talk about how that was not going to be us. I never realized how much energy we spent raising our son and how much it really took over our lives and dominated our conversations. Good thing I married my best friend and we had, through it all, remained solidly on common ground. Thanks for sharing your thought provoking insights Sharon!

  • Yep, you nailed it! My husband and I work together, so it can be a struggle sometimes not to fill our time with work-related chat…but we’re trying!

  • Lovely thoughts, Sharon. Our two youngest, along with my son-in-law, moved to Montana four months ago, while husband and I moved to Kentucky for a new job opportunity. So not only out of the house, but physically far away. We’re still in the adjustment stage, but had a little practice with the oldest when she married and moved two states away. Hubby and I have always talked about all kinds of things, from current events to the books we are reading, from our hobbies to what funny things our pets did that day, in addition to kid-centric subjects so we haven’t really noticed a lull in conversations, although the noise level in the house has decreased substantially.

    I think it also depends on the personality types of husband and wife whether a couple will experience the ‘awkwardness’ of quiet or feelings of separation between couples after children move out. Introverts tend to enjoy quiet, even crave it, while extroverts may be uncomfortable without some action going on. Hubby is an extrovert, while I’m an introvert, so we have learned to read whether one needs to talk or one needs a break in talking. I think If couples take the time to understand one another’s personality, and make concerted effort to pour into the other’s introvert/extrovert cup (initiating conversation when you don’t feel like it or vice versa) it may help with the feelings of separateness.

    We have found one subject we can’t wait to talk about together: our two year old grandson! Lol

    Great post! I just discovered your blog, Sharon. It’s going in the Feedly!

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I agree personality type is a big factor. I am an introvert, my husband is more of an extrovert – though it might not appear that way to the general population.

  • I miss my son, but he’s been out of the house for years, so I’m used to it. I now live with my sweetheart,but prior to him moving in two-and-a-half years ago, I lived alone for about five years. I liked it. Lots. Now, I find it a bit of a challenge to balance alone time with together/couple time. Truth be told…I’ve been missing me lately.

  • Have you tried talking to Lambeau to ask if he wants a dog pal now that “his” kids are grown and gone?

    • Sharon Greenthal

      No way – Lambeau is an attention whore and only wants to sit on my husband’s lap. Another dog would cramp his style.

  • It took a long time to get used to the quiet. I love when the kids come home and their friends come over and there’s a lot of hustle and bustle again. But I have to admit I also like the quiet now. It’s a different kind of quiet that’s comfortable and intimate and one I’m truly grateful for.

  • Tami

    Oh man!! This is so spot on!! I can totally relate!! It scares me as I catch myself thinking “do we have anything in common?” This is definately an adjustment!!! One that, honestly personally is very difficult – I hope we can discover this “new conversation” as well! Thanks for yet another great article!!

  • Right now I just want a few minutes of quiet, but I can totally see how I will miss all of the activity when the kids are grown and gone.

  • Honestly,
    I was sure that I would be devastated when my 3 daughters moved out, but the most difficult thing wasn’t living without them. The most difficult thing was allowing myself to put myself first time in my adult life.

    This is MY TIME – I told myself.

    It was frightening to realize that I could make choices based on what I wanted and needed, and even more frightening being faced with the decision which one of those choices to make.

    And just when I finally started to ease into it, two of my daughters are back home “Just until I get back on my feet, I promise”

    And the sewing room and the office have turned back into bedrooms.

    And dishes magically fill the sink again while I’m at work.

    And I long for the days, just a few weeks ago, when the time was mine.

    And naturally, like any “good mother”, I’m plagued with guilt for reminiscing about my very recent yet short lived independence, but not enough guilt to stop pining away for it.

  • Dorit Guttman

    Does anyone have tips on how a stay at home mom (of 23 years)prepares for being an empty nester in 2 more years?

  • Oh dear. I sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with me. I love our sons, but I didn’t love all their teenage shenanigans. I also realize that my husband and I are both people who crave quiet—teenage brothers are not quiet. I think becoming empty nesters enhanced our marriage and I didn’t feel at all bereft when each son was dropped off at college. When the boys were both home, like you, we pretty much only spoke about them. We all had dinner together almost every night, but our sons were pretty much disinterested in how our days were, so my husband and I oft times didn’t get to that subject either by the time we fell into bed exhausted.

    We have things we do together (travel, certain TV shows, a shared home office (his and her desks), but at other times, we are content to be in our own little zones doing something that doesn’t particularly interest the other spouse—i.e. I watch Rachel Maddow, he watches Game of Thrones. (We both live and die with the Philadelphia Eagles, so we do share the joy of victory and the agony of defeat together during football season).

    We celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary on June 6th (si Dios quiere) and I’m very grateful that we were granted this empty nester time together. My husband’s ten year younger brother died suddenly of undiagnosed heart disease at age 50 at the end of April, so we are keenly aware that this time we are having together is not promised.

  • Cindy Blanton

    I can totally relate to jenniferjune! My husband and I were very involved with the marching band while our girls were in high school (8 years). We enjoyed it as much as our kids did. Our friends would ask, “aren’t you going to miss this?” I could honestly say, “no.” I loved it while we were involved but when the time came to move on, I was ready.

    My husband and I were excited about being empty nesters. I even started an Empty Nester photo album on Facebook! We thoroughly enjoyed a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Cancun. My house stayed neat; no flip flops to trip over or diet coke cans laying around. It was wonderful for 9 months. Then, our youngest came home from college for the summer and our oldest has moved back home with her 18 month old daughter. I love my girls and my granddaughter with all my heart but I got a taste of how sweet empty nesterhood could be. I miss it dearly!

  • What a great post. My youngest child is going into 8th grade in the fall and I often think about life as an empty nester. I have been a single Mom for the past 12 years and I think the silence is going to be deafening when she leaves for college in 5 years. I have three teens in the house still (2 oldest are 28/29, married and raising my grandchildren), so this home is still full of life — we do a LOT together. I think I will fill the future void by buying more dogs and inviting my grandchildren over for sleepovers. Constantly. 😉

  • Thanks for this , Sharon. Another spot on post about the adjustments we make when our nest becomes empty. Like so many other life changes, we adapt when we didn’t think it would be possible. A great reminder to keep enough space in our lives for ourselves (no matter how small it may be) so that we are not completely blind sided by this new phase when that last chick leaves home.

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