Couples eagerly awaiting the day when the kids move out and they can be a happy couple again might be in for a surprise: data suggest this can be a difficult time for couples. Elizabeth Bernstein joins Lunch Break with Lise and Emil Stoessel, who have their own experience to share. Photo: Nora Mertens.
Many people look forward to an empty nest—when the kids finally move out—so they can get back to all the fun things they used to do together as a couple before diapers and car pools and homework took over their lives.
Couples eagerly awaiting this day might be in for a surprise. In the sudden quiet may come the discovery that years on a treadmill—raising children, building careers—have left them very different people than they were in the their 20s or 30s. In short: They've woken up with a stranger.
There are signs of this empty-nest syndrome in statistics that track divorce rates, according to a March 2012 white paper, "The Gray Divorce Revolution," by researchers at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. In 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 individuals who divorced were 50 or older. Almost 20 years later, that number jumped to more than 1 in 4. In 2009, more than 600,000 people ages 50 and over got divorced. (The researchers analyzed data from the 1990 U.S. Vital Statistics Report and the 2009 American Community Survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau.)
Many couples miss the warning signs that something is wrong. "People think that when spouses grow apart, it's because there is some big conflict or major divide," says Eli Karam, assistant professor at the University of Louisville's Marriage and Family Therapy program. "That's not necessarily true." One of the biggest predictors of divorce, he says, is withdrawal.
Here's a typical scenario: One partner sends out "warning flares"—asking to spend more time together or trying to initiate a dialogue about the relationship—and the other person ignores it. Men often retreat into their hobbies, researchers say, while women may disappear into child-rearing, friendships or caregiving for an elderly parent. "If you can't pick up on those cues, then you might be one of those people who wakes up and finds that your partner is out the door, and it hits you like a ton of bricks," Dr. Karam says.
Complicating matters, some long-term spouses relate to each other primarily in their roles as mothers and fathers and not as romantic partners. And if the emotional connection has diminished, chances are the sexual one has, too. It is easier to justify not having sex when a couple is focused on the kids. Now the spouses have time together. And this connection can be awkward and difficult to reignite.
When their youngest child went away to college, Lise Stoessel and her husband of 23 years almost stopped talking to each other. Each woke at a different time, ate breakfast alone and went to work. When they had dinner together, the conversation was little more than updates on their three daughters. For most of each evening, he read in the living room and she spent time on her computer in the den. It was a far cry from their past routine, when the family of five ate dinner together, hiked, planted a vegetable garden in the backyard and made jam in the fall.
"It seemed as if all our differences and issues that were forgotten when the kids were there suddenly sprang up again," says Emil Stoessel, a 65-year-old contractor from Charlottesville, Va.
"When the kids were there, at least we did things together," said Ms. Stoessel, 59, a preschool teacher. After they left "we were on separate tracks, just two ships passing in the night."
The Stoessels began to bicker. He liked the house quiet in the evenings and complained when she had company. She harped on him to clean up his mess. They went to marriage counseling, discussed getting a divorce and agreed to wait until their youngest daughter graduated from college.
Soon after her graduation, the Stoessels found an unusual solution.
Ms. Stoessel told her husband that she didn't want to go on living with him. She said, she recalls: "I am not fun. You are not fun. We are in each other's way." He asked if they could go to counseling again and offered to build an addition on the house, so his wife could have more space. She said it was too late for such measures.
But she didn't want a divorce. Instead, she wanted to reinvent their marriage by living separately. "I wanted to see if we could live more constructively," says Ms. Stoessel. "I still loved and deeply valued him."
Mr. Stoessel says he quickly realized his wife's idea was a good one. "I would have my house to myself and wouldn't have to worry about making it look a certain way or what she would like or wouldn't like," he says. "I could expand, unfold, feel free."
The couple went house-hunting together and found Ms. Stoessel a place 5 miles away. "That, in and of itself, was exciting, like a new chapter," says Ms. Stoessel, who has since written a book called "Living Happily Ever After, Separately."
Now, almost six years after she moved out, they have dinner at her house on Monday and Tuesday, spend Wednesday evening alone, and sleep over at one or the other home Thursday through Sunday. They also go for regular long walks and have date nights out at restaurants. (They pay for two households by cutting back on expenses such as clothing.)
The arrangement has saved their marriage, they believe. "We don't try to impose anything on each other; we live without all the baggage," he says. "Our time together is much more intentional," she says. "And there's not the constant annoyance of being alone together."
What can other people do to better weather the empty nest together? "Prevention is the best intervention," says Dr. Karam. "You need to know and nurture your partner's world, from the very surface—such as favorite foods and TV shows—to their deepest hopes and dreams."
He suggests you create a long-term strategic plan, just as you would for your finances. What do you want your marriage to be like once the children are gone? Where do you want to live? What types of experiences do you want to share? Start talking about these things early, say when the oldest child is a freshman in high school.
Dr. Karam also tells spouses to start early to prioritize what he calls "Protected Time"—a period every week to do something together and, at the same time, talk. An example: Take a dance lesson and go to dinner after. "There should be time to learn about each other's world," he says.
Other measures from the experts: Discuss your sadness about the children's departure, as sharing the experience can bring a couple closer. Make sure your spouse knows what activities and interests are important to you—and why—and find a way to include him or her in them.