Long after the wedding cake topper has yellowed and frayed, there comes a point when most long-married couples face a new challenge: what to do with themselves—and their relationship—after the last child departs home.
"After being together for 10 years, many couples are wrapped up in elementary age kids’ activities, probably own a house, and are so busy juggling their schedules that they don't spend a lot of time alone as a couple," says clinical social worker Beth Sonnenberg. The next decade brings a similar focus on family: "Most couples have teenage children, and they're stressed about getting them into and paying for college." And then, suddenly, the kids are gone, and you have more free time alone together than you have in ages.
While that might be a good thing, there's no denying that it's a major shift. And in some cases, the transition can be stressful and shine a light on aspects of your relationship that you've been ignoring while you were tending to the kids.
Will your marriage thrive or wilt during this new chapter? What happens next just might be in your hands. We asked relationship experts and family counselors to share their top tips on living happily ever after... for the rest of your lives.
Talk it out.
Discussing whose turn it is to take out the garbage or feed the cat is certainly necessary, but it's not really connecting. To strengthen your bond and bring the focus back to you as a couple (rather than as parents), it's important to speak up and communicate your needs, wishes, and desires. Likewise, if something substantial is bothering you about the relationship, speak up.
"Don’t be afraid to speak your truth," says therapist Jane Reardon. "I would say the biggest challenge is not to 'settle' for a relationship of unspoken concerns. If silence becomes preferable to speaking the truth, those unnamed feelings will eventually turn to anger and bitterness and slowly erode any love that was once there."
Rediscover each other.
Professional counsellor Michelle Puster recommends starting off your empty nest relationship with a simple conversation. “Make your intentions known by telling your partner you want to get to know them again,” she says. “You might be afraid to initiate more closeness, but making your interest in them clear and letting them know you hope to receive the same in return is a powerful message to send.”
Puster recommends each partner answer some questions to restart the friendship and romance. “What did you see and experience with your partner that made you fall in love? What was it that drew you in and attracted you to your partner?” she says. “Answer these questions separately, then share with one another.”
Be physical outside of the bedroom.
Sex is still important, but that shouldn't be the only time you're physically connecting. "Physically touch each other, whether it's a kiss hello or goodbye, snuggling on the couch, or holding hands," Hershenson says. “Even nonsexual touching builds connection between partners and keeps the romance alive.”
Focus on the past.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to move forward together, but sometimes it helps to take a brief trip down memory lane. “With kids, life and careers it is likely that there has been little time over the past 20-plus years to enjoy what started it all,” Puster says. “Bring that initial closeness back into focus.”
“Remind yourself of what made you choose that person in the first place," says clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Susanna Mittermaier. "Remember how you met, and think about what they offer that you're grateful for."
Let go of your assumptions about sex and intimacy.
After all these years, you likely know quite a bit about what sex means for you as a couple, but it's not too late to mix it up or to learn new things about what excites the other person. "Keeping the spark alive means never assuming you know everything about your spouse," says Australian relationship coach Manjit Khalsa. She encourages couples to remain open to exploration, which might start with each of you doing some self-exploration. "If you don’t know what turns you on—what you find romantic, what you enjoy—then how can you ask for it?" she says.
Relax and have fun.
“The best way to keep a relationship strong and fulfilling over the years is to continue to have fun together and not just be partners but also be friends,” Sonnenberg says. “You need to not only continue to enjoy each other's company, but also like who you are in their presence. If they make you feel like the best version of yourself when you are with them, that's a sign of a good relationship that can continue to grow over the years.”
Have a weekly date night.
If money or time is tight, you don't even need to leave the house. Therapist Kimberly Hershenson recommends setting aside one night a week for "date night in." Use the nice dishes, light some candles, and have a delicious meal together. Turn off the electronics, and focus on conversation.
“Prioritising time together is key," says Sonnenberg. "Intimacy is created not just by touching and having sex, but also by shared experiences, whether it's watching TV together, watching a sunset, or doing something new like taking a skydiving lesson."
First published: 19 Nov 2018