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FRONTLINE: Relationships

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Alone Together
The kids have up and gone, so what do you do now?

The youngest child is anxiously awaiting a college acceptance letter; Dad is already calculating the amount of the final tuition check; and the last 18 years of motherhood are flashing before Mom’s eyes. Last week, your marriage seemed strong. Now, suddenly you’re unsure whether or not you’ll have anything to talk about.

Marital problems don’t have to be inevitable after the kids leave. Local therapist Michelle Marsh encourages couples to prioritize the growth of their relationship right from the start. “The best thing you can do for your children, throughout your marriage, is model a healthy, happy relationship,” says Marsh, clinical director at the Council for Relationships, with offices in Center City, Wynnewood and Bryn Mawr. “This teaches them that loving another person is possible and important.”

Not only does this help couples stay connected while the spotlight is on the kids, it eases day-to-day stress and can bridge the transition from full-time parent back to husband and wife. The key to this, adds Marsh, is communication and what she calls the two Fs: fun and friendship. “With raising kids, keeping careers, worrying about money, maintaining a home and taking care of parents, couples get all serious and forget to set aside time to have fun.”

The first thing to realize when facing an empty nest, is that whatever it is you’re feeling—fear, anxiety, dread, excitement, positive anticipation, self-doubt or even hope—is normal and that sharing emotions is crucial to navigating through this new phase. Couples also need to acknowledge medical issues, financial concerns and other associated stressors that might be complicating matters.

Muddling through middle age while shepherding young adults into the larger world is fraught with transition.

“I refer to many of my clients as the ‘sandwich generation’—keeping up with younger kids, keeping the home fires burning with meals and laundry, keeping up with careers, and often caring for aging parents,” Marsh explains.

The common misconception is that only women suffer from empty nest syndrome, but the reality is that men face similar emotions, especially if they’ve been used to being in the mix, coaching and helping with homework. Some men might worry about living alone with their wife or have strong fears abut changing roles.

“If a woman governs everything at home, there’s high anxiety of what life is going to be like if she’s suddenly going off to school, to work, meetings and business trips,” says Marsh. “He’s wondering if she’ll be available to him and who’s going to do the laundry, the grocery shopping. Neither couple really knows what not having kids around is going to mean to them. In addition, both women and men are coming at this with a combination of emotional and biological concerns.”

Along with physically getting older and facing bodily changes, men may doubt their efficacy and importance in decision making for the family. They’re also subject to other fears—careers getting stuck or derailed; possibly earning less money; contemplating their own aging or mortality; worrying about how they compare to their fathers in terms of success. This can lead to depression, compounded by a sense of being less virile and attractive.

“The normal decrease of testosterone causes some subtle and not-so-subtle physical changes in terms of sexual desire and arousal,” says Marsh. “Depending on the quality of their relationship, this cancreate a lot of anxiety for men, exacerbating performance problems.

Women also experience subtle physical and physiological changes. Hormonal fluctuations can affect mood, sexual desire and a woman’s overall sense of well-being.

On the other hand, many women are just hitting their stride sexually. If their partners aren’t as sexually intense, they may feel frustrated or depressed. They may feel less attractive and be increasingly bothered by societal ideals of beauty, youth and body image. “Men are often attracted to younger-looking women, to the detriment of their primary relationship,” says Marsh.

To complicate matters, both sexes can feel threatened by the emerging sexuality of their kids. “Comments like, ‘I never looked like that when I was 18!’ may indicate fears or insecurities still unresolved from their own adolescence,” Marsh says. “Suddenly, values around sexuality and sexual behavior are re-examined.”

Only Human
One of the most overlooked sources of stress is the “super-parent” myth, which can cause trouble even before kids leave the house. “Families are so child-centered that the marital relationship can easily suffer,” says Marsh. “If it’s waning before the kids leave, the empty-nest experience can be scary, lonely and depressing.”

Marsh tells couples to stay in tune with each other on a daily basis and, later, to address the new-found solitude by asking one another, ‘OK, what do we want to do now?’

“This is a great time to take a new look at each other with fresh eyes,” she says.

Marsh suggests listing the 10 favorite things each of you has done during your life and calculating when the last time was you did any of those. It helps to put a positive spin on things and to reflect upon all your accomplishments as parents. Celebrate: This is the time for fun. And, think of all the pluses: You can use the computer whenever you want, your grocery bills and laundry loads will go down; your calendar is just waiting to be filled with fun things to do with each other; and you can do you-know-what anywhere and anytime you want.

There are plenty of ways to turn this new phase of your marriage into a rewarding journey of discovery. Take advantage of the time you have together to talk about potential hot-button topics—ones that could be a challenge and those that could bring both of you happiness. Life without kids underfoot is certain to have both sad and wonderful moments. But when you think about it, isn’t that exactly what life is with kids?


Learning to CARE

Relationship therapist Michelle Marsh finds this breakdown of the word “care” useful in offering suggestions and principles to guide couples.

Concern and open communication can lead to increased compassion and caring in the relationship.

Attention, acknowledgement and appreciation can lead to increased affection and nurturing.

Respect for self and partner: In a mature relationship, each partner takes responsibility for his or her own behavior, health and happiness.

Effective communication of needs can lead to a healthy relationship where each person understands and shows empathy for the other.