We’ve all heard the stories over the years: married couples either come together or grow apart once the children “leave the nest.” Empty nesters will party, travel, and date again like there’s no tomorrow, or they will soon find that they have nothing in common anymore. For many couples, kids are the glue that keeps them together.
This can be avoided if the foundation of your marriage is friendship.
Once the major stress of child rearing has passed (but let’s face it, it never truly passes completely), couples will often exhale a huge sigh of relief. When the bulk of managing kids, not always agreeing, and at times resenting each other (you do more, he does more), couples really can reconnect if they become and/or are seen as individuals again. Marriage is indeed a complete roller coaster. Sometimes you’re having fun, presenting a united front for the kids, helping each other in ways that committed couples do, but honestly…? Sometimes you’re just going through the motions. Sometimes you’re like two ships passing in the night, roommates who casually wave to one another. You have some tender moments along the way, but often you are stuck inside a mundane, “maintenance” type existence when it comes to your marriage. Raising children isn’t a walk in the park. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. And if we’re keeping it real here, if nothing else, sometimes the only way you remember that you’re married is by way of a quick romp between the sheets. This is what marriage is during child rearing, sometimes, and it’s okay. But for a lot of couples, it may never be better (or worse) than this.
But it can be better if you want it to be.
Once the kids leave, it’s time to get to know your spouse again, through a different, less jaded set of eyes. By less jaded, what I mean to say is that it’s important to see your spouse as a real person who is trying and has tried over the years…a person who is in charge or his or her own happiness, not yours. A person who is a person: a human being who makes mistakes, doesn’t always do or say the right thing, doesn’t always tend to your needs, and isn’t perfect.
One night, after a few beers on the deck (yes, sometimes a little alcohol helps when it comes to re-connection), my husband and I looked at each other, and instantly recognized one another. This is to say that we both saw the person we met years and years ago, before we were bomb dropped into parenthood and adult things. Before we had to be role models. Before taking care of the business of setting up a household, and managing the needs of the little people in our lives. In that moment, we became, again, the people we were before we had to put others in front of ourselves. We sat there punch drunk from all those years of being on that roller coaster ride. All those years of working hard to make ends meet and trying to manage and keep in check our individual resentments about our lives and each other, while attempting to be good parents. We finally really saw each other as the people we were before.
If you are able to recognize each other, you will both be okay.
And, if you can let some shit go, your marriage will be more than okay. That night, I was just a girl, witty and full of life and he became that handsome boy I met in a bar. As we bantered back and forth, sparks ignited once again, and it was fun. We didn’t talk about the kids for once. Then and there, even though we never said anything out loud, we decided to start dating again. We’ve always been a fairly independent couple…he did his thing and I did mine. No harm, no foul. We muddled through the day, had a few laughs, and came together for the important stuff. When it was time to “really parent” we did it. Not always well, of course, but we tried. I had my annual girl’s trip to Block Island, and nights out with my friends. He did his flea market thing, and played baseball on Saturdays. In order to get some reprieve from the stress of parenting, we just gave each other room and time off to do our own thing. It suited us just fine (and it still does!). It’s just who we are. This is great and all, but after the kids left, we knew we needed to find something new in common, something we could do together. So, we started “dating” again. A few times a week we took long power walks. He has been extremely supportive of my weight loss and fitness journey, and all the walking together helped tremendously. In doing so, we started to really talk again. Power walks should be considered therapy – when else do you get a person’s undivided attention? I honestly gained a whole new respect for my husband and his opinions on these long walks. We agreed on many things, but disagreed respectfully about other stuff, and none of it was related to the kids! We started hiking and biking. We made dates for rail trail adventures that included lunch dates and scenic pit stops. We laughed a lot more. This is pretty important. You can’t keep doing your own thing all the time and expect to re-connect. That’s not how it works. And in order for your kids to really grow up, your focus must shift from them to your spouse. He or she has waited long enough.
The kids are fine without us.
I now find my husband is just plain fun to be around. He’s different when he’s not being a father. We’ve let a lot of stuff go, petty stuff, and boy do we feel light these days. Our next chapter seems exciting because it genuinely is, and we are happy. I’m nicer to him, and he’s nicer to me, and it feels good. And the kids are fine without us. They’re in their next phase too. Thank God.
I don’t know everything, but I do know this much is true: seeking re-connection when the nest is empty is indeed worth it. And as we begin again, I am happier now than I have been in more than 20 years. I have my healthy self back and I have a solid, lovely friendship with a man I respect. What more can a person ask for?
In a tender moment, when feelings came rushing to the surface, I wrote a poem for my husband.
You can read it here: Who She Loves Is You