Dear Hobie & Monk,
My wife and I are dropping our only child at college in August and suddenly are realizing that our marriage has taken a back seat to parenting for many, many years. Everyone keeps joking about how we’re going to handle being empty nesters, but frankly, I think we’re actually pretty worried that we don’t have much of anything in common now that it’s going to be just the two of us at home.
– Concerned parent and husband
Monk: One of the perverse ironies of parenthood: As new parents we’re desperate for a few minutes of “grown up” time. As seasoned, child-rearing veterans sending a new adult out into the world, we’re wary of too much togetherness.
Of course, you know that what you are experiencing is not at all unusual: Marriage often takes a back seat to parenting (as well as careers, friendships, hobbies and other commitments). Feeling worried and recognizing the origin of your concern are the first steps to addressing the issue. The second step is noting that, besides your devotion to your daughter, you both have one very big thing in common: you’re worried about your marriage.
If you haven’t already done so, I suggest that you initiate a conversation about your mutual feelings about being empty nesters, a conversation that you may well need to revisit often as you adjust to your new, less demanding, role as parents and now front seat role as spouses. Be honest with one another, even when addressing areas of concern is painful or difficult. And please consider tapping into professional resources, like the work of John and Julie Gottman (www.gottman.com) as you and your wife navigate the next stage of your lives.
Hobie: Yes to all of that, but think of it this way — you two get to start dating each other again! You can think about being new empty nesters and read about it and talk about it and/or you can just start making the time now, even before the college drop off, to go out and do things as a couple. Sometimes the feelings actually follow the behavior rather than the other way around. Go out for dinner, take a bike ride, catch a concert — whatever you feel like. You might choose activities you enjoyed before kids came along, or maybe try something completely new and adventurous together. You’re practicing being just you two, and growing into it.
Resist any pressure to “get your marriage back” all at once. This is a transition for all of you and you get to take your piece of it at your pace. But as a different future unfolds, let it beckon you toward new possibilities and the excitement of change. I guarantee that if you only focus on the worry, that’s all you’ll find.
Hobie and Monk are two Alexandria women with husbands, children, dogs, jobs, mortgages, unmet New Year’s resolutions, obsessions with impractical shoes, English novels … and Ph.D.s in clinical psychology. Their advice, while fabulous, should not be construed as therapeutic within a doctor-patient context or substituted for the advice of readers’ personal advisors.