After the kids take wing to begin their own lives, your marriage can fly high. Or it can crash.
"The focus is no longer on the children, the focus then has to be on the marriage, and that could be good news or bad news," says Wendy Aronsson, author of "Refeathering the Empty Nest" (Rowman & Littlefield, $36). Aronsson, a psychotherapist based in Greenwich, Conn., says "refeathering" typically means rekindling a marriage that may have lost its sense of purpose because it became singularly focused on raising children.
While kids have been leaving home since the dawn of civilization, the term "empty nest" arrived with the baby boomers. Aronsson notes that "empty nest" was apparently first used in 1966, just as the oldest boomers entered their 20s. She prefers the term "the shift," because she says children leaving the family home is a process that takes years to play out. "You don't all of a sudden have an empty nest," she says. "There are stages."
Aronsson says unless couples find new common interests, the marriage could become empty and perhaps unsustainable. "Marriage has taken a backseat while raising children, and it's time now for that marriage to take a front seat," she says. Aronsson advocates preparing a "bucket list" of things the couple would like to do together. The best part of making plans is that the spouses are communicating, something they may not have done for years. The advice is useful for all older couples, no matter how long their nest has been empty.
The spouses can pursue individual interests as long as they find time to be together and enjoy each other's company. "They don't have to be attached at the hip to have a successful marriage," Aronsson says. "If they are feeling fulfilled in their own individual lives, then what they bring to the table are two very fulfilled people."
For single parents, the dynamic is different but the outcomes -- good or bad -- can be the same. Some single parents who have invested so much of their identities raising their child find an overwhelming emptiness. But others expand their lives by seeking new opportunities or even re-entering the dating scene.
One excellent way to find a sense of fulfillment is to enjoy the company of your grown children. Aronsson says establishing an adult relationship is rewarding for both generations. "All of a sudden, as a parent you can see the fruits of your labor."