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Rethinking the empty nest divorce

Patrick looked shell-shocked. We knew him to be a gregarious man with a great sense of humour, accomplished, confident, and almost intimidating. Yet he sat in front of us, swirling in a mental and emotional fog. “I can’t deal with this. I just can’t”, he said. “I’m not ready, and I don’t think I’ll ever be ready. I’ve got to process it.”

Patrick was in his early forties. His parent’s marriage was breaking up, and it was tearing him and his adult siblings apart.

“They were the last couple we ever expected to go through this,” he said. “How can I have any confidence in marriage now, including my own?”

One of our good friends, Dr. Melissa Niehaus, did a doctoral dissertation on the impact of divorce on adult-aged children. One of her conclusions is that divorce could be even more devastating to adult-aged children than to young kids, and Patrick’s real-life story was proving it.

Here’s how an adult child of divorce, Lungelo Mhlongo, explained it to us, “Imagine you’ve almost completed piecing your giant jigsaw puzzle, and are only left with few pieces. Then someone comes and turns the table over, scattering your puzzle pieces all over the floor. That’s what it feels like when you’re launching out as an adult, and your parents get a divorce. Part of the reason the divorce is so painful is that everything you were raised to believe about marriage, and perhaps used as the basis of your own marriage, has been ‘scattered all over the floor’.​”

Studying the most recent marriage and divorce statistics in South Africa, it appears that more and more grown up couples are going their separate ways later in their marriages. It seems to us that many married couples have the notion that they’ll hang around each other until the last child goes off to the university, but on the way back from dropping their youngest child at the campus, they stop at the lawyer’s office to begin divorce proceedings.

We’re fooling ourselves if we think breaking up our children’s home will ever not be painful, even if they no longer live in it.

We believe the empty nest season, which is the period after every child has left the childhood home to pursue their independence in the world, is actually the worst time to consider a divorce. When you’re done with your full-time parenting responsibility and are left by yourself as a couple in an empty home, you should have more time to work through issues, you should have far more energy to rebuild a lonely marriage, and generally have less stress to attack the marriage. You have more freedom to rediscover sexual intimacy, more time and money to start doing more recreational stuff together. You’ll have more drive to pursue not just one another, but your lifelong dreams either as a couple or individuals.

The empty nest years should be seen as a season of tremendous hope, not doom. If your marriage is gasping for air, this is exactly the season it will be easiest to resuscitate it.

Much of the cause behind the divorce of older couples stems from the fact that they have either lived as strangers for years, or they have grown apart so much that one or both now wants to rediscover themselves in life. Often they think there’s something wrong with each other, rather than the simple fact that the relationship is starving. Instead of getting a new marriage you can invest the same time and energy into rebuilding the old one.

A warning to younger couples, don’t let this happen to you. Don’t allow your marriage to have a lifetime of shared tasks, but no shared intimacy.A good marriage is something you make, not something you find.

If you’re about to become an empty nester couple, the initial patterns and routines of an empty nest are crucial. Your marriage will be in a state of flux for a few months, but it won’t be much longer than that before it settles down into the “new normal”, the same old alienation, or a new sense of companionship, purpose, and intimate relating.

One of the couples we look up to, who are now empty nesters tell us, “we consciously decided to do more together than ever before. We now often travel together for speaking engagements. We’ve together settled on a few favourite television shows. Our friends of many years have also become empty nesters, meaning we spend more time together. And we’ve figured out that since it’s just us in the house, we can “go for it” whenever you want to. The clock doesn’t matter. We miss being active parents, but our relationship has never been stronger, closer, or more intimate.”

For your own happiness, and certainly for your children’s, use the empty nest years to rediscover each other, recreate shared meaning, build a deeper legacy, and a more intimate marriage. Instead of killing an estranged marriage, choose to rebuild it, reshape it, and rediscover it. Wouldn’t you rather leave an even more inspiring legacy rather than send your adult children reeling with the news that their childhood home no longer exists?

The last child leaving home needn’t be seen as the “finish line,” but rather the starting line to a new intimacy, a bigger legacy, and even the best years of your marriage.

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