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Three Common Traps of Empty Nest Marriages

By Barbara Rainey

First posted on

Every year in the early fall, moms and dads across the nation find themselves in a new season of marriage—the empty nest. Their last child has moved out of the home, and for parents it’s a time of major readjustment. Many of you may be entering this season of life, and that’s why my friend Susan Yates and I wrote a book called Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest. Here is an excerpt about the impact of the empty nest on moms and dads and their marriage:

Bess and Gary couldn’t wait for the empty nest. Raising their kids had been tough. They had different approaches to discipline, they’d struggled on a tight budget, and they’d postponed many of their dreams in order to be with their kids.

Now the last one was leaving the nest, and they felt they had done the best they could. Finally, they were about to be free from the daily stresses of parenting. They were excited. They couldn’t wait for it to be “just us” again.

Shelly’s situation was just the opposite. She had poured her life into her kids; they had come first. Now, as the last child got ready to leave, she was scared, really scared.

“I don’t even feel like I know my husband,” she said. “I haven’t been alone with him since I was 26. Our whole life has revolved around the kids. Now what will we talk about at the dinner table? What will we do on weekends? I don’t even know if I have energy left to put into this relationship. And, I don’t know if I want to.”

Wives and mothers, who most often feel the losses more than the dads and husbands, usually approach the empty nest with a mixture of fear and excitement. Yet at some point they will wonder, “What will my marriage look like now?” Anticipating the hurdles in the road ahead and being proactive is essential to a good marriage in the empty nest season.

Three common pitfalls

As Christians we believe there is an enemy of our souls who wants our marriages to fall apart. Part of the problem is we don’t often recognize this enemy or his tactics. Instead, we think the problem is us or, more likely, our spouse.

In order to successfully transition your marriage into the empty nest years, you should watch for three common pitfalls that the enemy will throw at you with subtlety or with vengeance. Being prepared is always half the battle.

1. A critical spirit.

How many middle-aged couples do you know who are still in love with each other and whose marriages you admire? How many do you know who regularly criticize, condemn, and alienate each other?

Newlyweds seem to have cornered the market on being in love. And why is that? They usually have the time and focus. Empty nest couples once again have the same two commodities; the challenge is to capitalize on them.

We’ve noticed that, for an empty nest wife, it is all too easy to fill the void left by the kids with criticism of her husband. It’s easy to find fault with what he has done or left undone, to try to help in a parental way, to revisit old wounds, to fret about the way she thinks things should be.

Why do we wives do this?

Partly because we are hurting and sad for our loss, partly because we know our husbands too well or we discover we’ve overlooked habits in our busyness and now they are glaring. Partly because we have been mothering for so long we switch our attention from our kids to our husband without thinking. Unconsciously we become critical and we don’t even realize what we are doing. It can be so subtle.

Once you do recognize what is happening, it’s time to change course. Making changes can sometimes be as simple as deciding: You make the choice to give your husband the benefit of the doubt, to not comment on everything he does or doesn’t do, to focus on the things you appreciate about him, and to verbally express gratitude.

Or it may not be so simple. Still you must choose to remain teachable and make your marriage a priority; but you may also need to work at building more understanding between the two of you. Find ways to spend more time together doing activities you both enjoy, or see a counselor who can coach you on dealing with loss and significant life change.

2. Emotional divorce.

It is so very common to arrive at the empty nest and feel some level of isolation. This has been true for both Susan and me. During transition we are especially vulnerable to this drift as each spouse processes the losses of life changes differently.

It might happen like this: He’s hurt me again. It’s the same old thing. There’s no use trying to talk it through. I just can’t go there again. It’s too exhausting, too painful. We’ll live in the same house and carry on, but I can’t keep trying. I can’t share with him at a deep level any more.

Picture a glass patio door. In a sense what you are doing is shutting the glass door on your marriage. You still see your spouse, but there’s a barrier between you. You can’t hear each others’ words or heart anymore.

This is emotional divorce—the road to isolation.

When you are pulled this way, recognize what is happening and make the decision to take a hammer and begin breaking the glass. How do you do this? Refuse to give in to the temptation to pull away from your spouse and, instead, choose to courageously talk to one another about the issues. Ask a wise couple ahead of you in this season whom you trust to talk with you. We all need someone who’s been where we are to help and assure us it will get better.

Your marriage is too important to let it fade away. A thick glass panel doesn’t crumble instantaneously. It takes constant chipping away until the barrier finally crumbles. In the same way, you need to be patient and chip away at your issues, knowing that God is for your marriage and He wants to remove the glass in order that fresh air might blow in and rejuvenate your marriage.

3. An affair.

If you fail to stop the drift toward emotional divorce, you will become increasingly vulnerable to a physical affair. Infidelity in women rarely takes place on the spur of the moment. Instead these types of relationships usually begin with an emotional affair: He understands me better than my husband does. I feel appreciation in my job more than from my husband. This male friend finds me attractive. I am drawn to him. When I’m busy with my ministry cause I feel needed, valued and important. I don’t feel that way in my marriage.

It’s helpful to ask yourself, Am I believing in a fantasy or seeking the truth? God’s Word says that you are to flee from, not flirt, with temptation. You can still have a second career or mission in your life but not at the expense of your marriage. Your marriage is your first and most important mission so work to make it healthy and safe and vibrant again. Then, from that secure place venture out into new frontiers with your husband or on your own.

No limits

When driving a car, we are dependent upon road signs that signal speed limits, merging traffic, dangerous curves, and other warnings. These signs are in place for our safety. In a similar way, we share these warnings about the road ahead for the safety of your marriage. We are both strongly for marriages thriving, not just surviving. Knowing what the dangers are is the better part of avoiding them.

Remember: Your spouse is not your enemy. He is your partner.

You’re on the same team, and there is no limit to the new ventures that are available to empty nest couples. In planning for and pursuing these ventures together, your marriage can thrive.

Ask God to give you wisdom and watch Him work in ways that will go beyond your plans and even your dreams. As Ephesians 3:20-21 tells us, “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!” (NIV).

Adapted from Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest © by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates. Published by FamilyLife Publishing. All rights reserved.


My Heart, Ever His: Prayers for Women (NEW from Barbara Rainey)

As we search for meaning in our world of shallow online relationships and glamorized selfies, many are returning to traditional and liturgical churches. The repeated words, benedictions, and historic hymns connect us to saints who have gone before, giving us a sense of belonging, richness, and transcendence. Written prayers, once cast off as archaic, are now welcomed as guides to tune our hearts to the heart of God.

In My Heart, Ever His Barbara Rainey shares 40 prayers for women. Readers can read and meditate on one prayer throughout the week or read a prayer a day for 40 days as a way to express the longing of our hearts to our Father who loves us even as he sees who we truly are. Like the psalms of David, these prayers are honest, sometimes raw. Barbara uses these transparent expressions of common female experiences to encourage us to surrender to Christ and help us see God as he is, not as we assume him to be. My Heart, Ever His provides a stepping-stone to help you become more transparent with God and discover his welcoming embrace.


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