Empty Nesters: Challenges and Opportunities

December 5, 2019

4 min read


With the kids out of the house, a whole new set of challenges suddenly appear.

Many of my friends are empty-nesters so I’m getting a front row seat to the challenges – and to the opportunities. Some of them seem standard and obvious – from nourishing the marriage to figuring out how to cook for only two. But I heard a new one the other day that caused me to rethink the issue and led me to realize how much more complex and nuanced it may be.

The situation wasn’t all that dramatic; in fact, it was pretty ordinary. But it was illuminating nonetheless. My friend is a homebody. She loves cooking, puttering around the house, intimate conversations with her children and her friends and curling up with a good book. Her husband is an adventurer. He loves hikes and fly-fishing and snow-shoeing and, well you name the adventure, he’s up for it.

She was always indulgent and tolerant of his desires. You want to go on all-day hike? Enjoy. You want to join a men’s ice hockey team? Have fun. You want to climb Yosemite? Just be careful. She didn’t mind because she had her children home with her to keep her company. But now they are gone and when her husband makes the same requests, it means she will be left alone – either at home or at some vacation spot. It’s not the same – not for him and not for her.

So she is left with a dilemma (as is he). He has certain expectations, expectations which she has nurtured and fed. His expectations haven’t changed but her needs have. Does he have to adjust his expectations to meet their new circumstances? Can she express her (now different) needs and curtail his adventures?

I would think that she has to because otherwise she will be not only lonely but resentful as well. But he’s also going to have to be flexible. He’s going to have to acknowledge the new circumstances and reduce some of his solo activities accordingly.

Their situation is perhaps more dramatic than most, but I could see this happening in many circumstances – whether it’s the husband who is used to working late or the woman who is used to going out with her girlfriends. The lack of built-in company in the house creates a new problem, a new reality that must be dealt with.

The secret is to focus on the new opportunities in front of them.

While they always had to take each other’s needs into account, there were other human beings to fill in the gaps. When that is no longer true, the burden may be greater on the marriage. At the very least, a new modus vivendi must be negotiated.

And it isn’t always easy. Whose needs come first and when? Obviously, a committed couple finds ways to compromise, situations to indulge one partner’s desires and circumstances to indulge the other. But that means that one partner may feel that something has been lost. And this is where the mistake is made. Because instead of focusing on what they can no longer do, like with everything in life, the secret is to focus on the new opportunities in front of them – the chance to spend more time with your life’s partner, the chance to grow together in new ways and discover new things about yourselves, the chance to figure out how to resolve this new challenge and thereby deepen your connection in the process.

As much as we may resist change, we really don’t want things to stay the same. My friends are empty-nesters for only good reasons – and this is their opportunity (and hopefully all of ours someday) to embrace their new situation with excitement, thanking the Almighty that they have the energy to confront something new and to turn it into something wonderful.

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