Empty nesters – healthy relationships and physical distance


Coming home from dropping off your youngest at uni is a big day in the life of any parent. Shutting the front door to a newly quiet home. It’s quite a moment!

Either you will feel it’s time to crack open that bottle of champagne you’ve had laid down for the past 25 years – or you’ll be sobbing into your pillow.

When the kids are little, sometimes parents can feel that time is inching by and … whisper it … much though they adore the little darlings, they are quite looking forward to the day when they start school.

But, so the cliché goes, time seems to fly from that point onwards and before you know it they’re heading off to uni, or to an apprenticeship, or moving in with girlfriend or boyfriend … and suddenly the door shuts and, for couples, it’s just the two of you again.

Whether you’ve been looking forward to this moment, or not, the most important thing to realise is that things will become a bit different. The dynamic of your home will shift. Of course, we never stop thinking about our children, but we probably won’t be focused on them quite so much when they fly that nest.

You may experience feelings that are not far off those of grief when your children leave. It’s a big chunk of your life that is being – if not entirely removed – then certainly altered to a large extent. When they were babies, your children depended on you, utterly. This grows less over the years but often we don’t realise how independent they have become until they leave home. The feeling of no longer being so needed can hit some people very hard. If this is you, be gentle with yourself. It’s fine to feel this way. Give yourself time. Do nice things for yourself. Cry as much as you want. In time, it will become easier. They are just a phone call away.

How do you fill time?

Of course, you may not be at the stage of retirement when your kids leave home, so things will carry on as normal on that front, at least for a while. Many people take the opportunity to try to retire early when their children leave, feeling the need to make the most of time together, and this is a great idea if you can afford it.

But there’s no doubt that, even if you are still both going to the office, there will be more time for couples – weekends, evenings and the like – and it’s a good idea to think together a bit beforehand as to what your priorities may be.

How do you get on with each other, now it’s just you two?

Many couples find spending more time together when their children have left home surprisingly difficult. This may seem odd, as it may seem that having more hours to relax and enjoy time together would be the envy of many others who simply have no time in their busy family lives to even contemplate such things as going to the pub with one another or even going for a walk.

As so often, though, when something is very much looked forward to, it may not turn out quite as expected when it actually happens. Our expectations as to what life will be like when we are empty nesters may be too high; normal life does carry on to some extent, after all!

But a deeper issue is often this – that, over time, we all change. And often, because of our hectic lives with our children, we may not notice the changes in our partner. Their political views may have become more entrenched. Their priorities may have shifted. Yours may well have, too.

It’s important to realise that our lives when we are empty nesters are different from our lives without children – we are older, by a few decades!

How do you manage a relationship?

As with many of these things, the key is always to give the matter time, space and thought. Often couples in later life can hurt each other, less by intent than by thoughtlessness; forgetting anniversaries, shutting off for hours at a time on a computer. Because these things seem trivial, they may not be mentioned, but this only leads to a build up of resentment and petty words.

In order to have a flourishing, happy, relationship when you find yourselves empty nesters, put some thought with your partner as to things that you’d really like to do together; that holiday you’ve wanted but which the kids wouldn’t have enjoyed, going for walks in the countryside which you could never get them to do, to take a couple of examples. Going to concerts playing music you actually like! But also, acknowledge honestly with each other those things that you actually prefer to do without the other person; shopping for clothes, perhaps, or having some time alone on the golf course or a bike ride. These things can be said in a loving, thoughtful, way that lets the other person know they are still adored, but that everyone likes to be on their own sometimes!

Giving them space, too

It’s not just to each other in a relationship that we sometimes need to give space to. Our kids need it, too. They need to be allowed to grow up and become adults. They need to be able to have problems, face them, make mistakes, and deal with them. Anguished phone call late at night? Resist the urge to drive up the motorway every time they have a crisis. Just talk to them calmly, suggest ways they could resolve their problem, and leave them to it. Tough love – you know it makes sense!

Giving them virtual space

This one’s a modern issue, certainly, and an important one. Many of us are far too assuming when it comes to social media. We freely ‘tag’ our friends in photos, and join all sorts of ‘youth’ platforms so as to keep in touch with our children. But take our advice – leave them alone on social media. It’s just not fair to spy on your children in this way, and, make no mistake, it is spying. Think back to when you were young, and some of the scrapes you got into. Would you have wanted your parents to see the pictures? Thought not! So don’t do it to them.

Empty nesters have a great opportunity to really relish their time, if they put some thought into it and get it right. They may not say it but your kids will really appreciate it if you are happy together, too. They worry about you as well, you know!