How to cope when your child leaves home

When the last child leaves home it sometimes feels as if you are waking up next to a stranger rather than your husband, wife or partner. This can be caused by years of concentrating on what the family has needed, leaving little space or time for the two of you as a couple.  

Empty nest syndrome

When children leave home either to go to University or permanently move out marks a life stage change, the end of one stage and the beginning of another.  

Empty nest syndrome is the phrase that will often be used to describe this stage. Parents will suddenly find that the family life that has consumed a lot of time and energy when your children live at home has ended, your family life will of course continue but it will be different now. 

Parents experience empty nest syndrome in different ways but feelings of loss or lack of purpose are common and can affect your relationship with your partner. It may be that as  a couple you react differently to this stage and so this can further deepen the difficult feelings when you don’t feel connected as a couple in your responses. 

Preparing for children leaving home

If your children are planning to go to University in a year, or move out to live on their own, then start preparing now. 

Focus on the positive steps that they are taking in their life. 

Acknowledge that you will miss them. Be honest that although it will be a challenge for the whole family at first, it will also be a great opportunity for growth and adventure. This will help your children feel able to grow and move on.  

The fact they are moving on is testament to your parenting that they are ready for the next stage in their lives and many parents feel a mixed emotion of pride and sadness, we want our children to grow and develop but that means they need us less, or rather in different ways. It is about embracing the change and making the adjustments to the next stage. 

As a couple start looking at the ways to reconnect ahead of the event, it is likely that your children are less reliant on you so there should be space for some couple time. The most important thing is to begin the communication about what both of your hopes and fears are and plan the changes that you envisage and how you will manage them 

Reconnecting with your partner

The empty nest syndrome is not as bad as it is made out to be. After an initial bumpy year or so, many couples report rediscovering life after parenting as a time of creativity and renewed pleasure in each other's company. 

But if you feel you've lost touch with your partner, here are some ideas to help you cope with this phase of your relationship: 

First, tell your partner how you feel. Carrying on when you are feeling miserable without the children around prevents your partner from offering the comfort you crave. It is normal that you may not both feel the same, one of you may be embracing the change and the other mourning the loss, take time to listen to each other and accept that you may have different perspectives 

If you are not sure you know who your partner is anymore, try a light-hearted personal quiz to help break the ice. For example, ask them: 

  • What is your favorite meal? Why? 
  • What film have you most enjoyed in the last five years? 
  • What music would you take to a desert island? Why? 
  • What colour would you choose for a coat/scarf/hat etc? 
  • Name two favourite TV programmes. 
  • If you could learn a new talent, what would it be? Why? 
  • What was your favourite read in the last five years? 

Think up your own questions based on your relationship. The object of this is not to demand answers but to get you chatting about what may have changed in the last few years. You may be surprised at the answers. Use the opportunity to share your own feelings and thoughts. 

  • Think of a leisure pursuit you enjoyed when you first got together. For example, did you like motorcycling, dancing or backpacking? Now think of a way you could relive this. OK, you may not want to hike around India anymore, but maybe you could enjoy walking together in your local area or watching motorcycle racing, for example. 
  • Do some things you have always wanted to but lacked the time or money for while the children were growing up. For instance, think about what kind of holidays you might have now or how you might spend an evening out. Consider doing something just for the fun of it. For example, ride a roller coaster or go bowling. 
  • With no children in the house, sex can be more spontaneous and interesting. Invest in a good, basic sex book and follow some of the ideas in it. Put whole evenings aside for lovemaking and enjoy the journey as much as reaching the destination. 

Congratulate yourselves on arriving at this stage of your lives together. Many couples don't get this far so be proud that you made it through together. Take a little time to reconnect and your relationship will grow in strength. 

What to do if you can't reconnect or you just don't want to

For some couples the children may have been the glue that held them together and without that joint purpose they may feel that it is too late for them to reconnect as a couple, it is not uncommon for couples to separate at a life stage change , whether that is the empty nest stage, becoming parents or retirement. All life stage changes are a time for reevaluation and an opportunity to change and do things differently. Communication is key to exploring and  ensuring that you can find a way to negotiate change in a positive way, but it is also important to accept that sometimes two people may have different expectations, wants and needs going forward. 

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