Picture this: your kids have moved out, and it’s just you and your husband living at home. Do you feel a mixture of excitement and sadness anticipating your final baby bird leaving the nest? Or are you filled with anxiety because you aren’t sure if your marriage can survive the empty nest?
Whether you said “yes” to the first or second question, don’t wait to work on your marriage until after your kids fly the coop. Prepare now to make sure your empty nest marriage is fun and satisfying because empty nest divorces are increasing. The divorce rate for older adults has doubled since 1990 even though it has remained steady for the general population. Wives over 50 initiate the divorce two thirds of the time. This blog post is the first in a series to help you take steps today to prevent a future empty nest divorce.
Start with this truth: Couples who play together, stay together. Your first task is finding fun activities you can do together as a couple that don’t involve your children.
Step One: While your children are still at home, make a list of fun activities for you and your husband to do together once the kids are gone. Going to concerts, visiting the national parks, golfing, riding bicycles, geo-caching, restoring furniture, serving in a ministry—the list is endless. Make sure to include free or low-cost activities, as well as activities that one of you loves and the other one doesn’t. Don’t forget to add your personal “bucket list” items, like white water rafting down the Colorado or going on an international mission trip.
Step Two: Pick something off the list to try now while your nest still has kids in it. The goal is to explore activities together, so if you try something, and one or both of you don’t like it—congratulations! You were successful because you explored an activity together. However, before you mark it off your list as “never again,” discuss whether you could tweak things so it would be more fun.
For example, my husband loves to backpack so I agreed to go on a one-night backpacking trip with him. Everything was okay until bedtime. While he slept blissfully, snoring under the stars, I laid awake for hours, uncomfortable with a rock-hard pillow and growing colder by the minute. Angry thoughts swirled like “Why did I agree to do this? I am never, ever, no never, going backpacking again!” My frustration and exhaustion boiled over about 4 a.m., and I woke Jeff up by yelling into the pitch black, “This is like being in hell!” It was not my finest moment as a wife.
Fortunately, my husband didn’t just give up. On the drive home, we talked about the specific things I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about our trip, and how we could fix what didn’t work this time. I’m happy to report we spent a night in the woods this weekend—and I had a great time. A softer pillow and warmer sleeping bag kept this fun activity on our Couple To-Do list.
Helpful tip #1: when I share the above advice in my counseling office, wives sometimes say, “Whenever I ask if he wants to do something, he just says no. All he wants to do is stay home or watch TV or play video games.” If this is your experience, try changing how you invite your spouse to join you in an activity. Instead of asking him “Do you want to go antique shopping?”, ask him “Will you please go antique shopping with me? I’d love to spend time with you shopping for antiques.”
Here’s the difference in those two questions. If you ask your spouse, “Do you want to ___________?”, and it is not an activity he wants to do, he’s probably going to tell you the truth and say no. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to spend time with you. You asked if he wanted to do this activity and he told you he didn’t.
However, if you ask “Will you please do ______________ with me?”, you are asking for a favor instead. Your spouse is more likely to say “yes” to a favor, particularly if you say how much you want to spend time with him. You are also asking for what you want directly instead of hoping he will magically want to do everything you want to do.
If he’s still reluctant to say “yes,” don’t give up. Problem solve around what he doesn’t like about the activity. You may need to alter or reduce your request. For example, if he says he gets overwhelmed in a crowded store, reduce your request to “Would you ride along with me to the store so we can spend time together? Maybe you could sit outside and people-watch while I check out the bargains.”
Helpful tip #2: Whenever your spouse joins you in an activity that you like and he doesn’t, be very appreciative. Intentionally tell him at multiple times how much you appreciate his participation and enjoy his company. Even if he looks like he’s not having much fun, just keep telling him what a standup/adventurous/helpful/supportive/fun guy he is for joining you. Appreciation of and recognition of the efforts our spouses put into doing activities as a favor to us is key to getting more future “yeses.”