Although ’empty-nest syndrome’ is not yet an official medical term, it is commonly used to describe the emptiness felt when the last child leaves home and it feels like you’re 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. The problem can be especially acute if your family has been the chief focus of your attention and their leaving creates a gap in your life.
Accepting they’ve gone
Before you begin rebuilding your relationship together you need to accept that the children have gone and not dwell or live in the past. It is normal for parents to feel some sadness at this time and to have a little weep now and again – and it is even normal to go into the absent child’s bedroom and sit there for a bit in an attempt to feel closer to him or her.
However, if you are crying excessively, or if you’re so sad that you don’t want to mix with friends or go to work, then you should seek professional help – especially if these symptoms go on for longer than a week.
In this kind of situation, what seems to happen is that the child’s departure unleashes seriously depressed feelings – and these need treating. So if you know that your sadness is overwhelming you, go and discuss your feelings with your GP as soon as possible. You may need anti-depressants and you almost certainly could use some counselling to get your feelings into perspective.
Christine Webber, psychotherapist and lifecoach and Dr David Delvin, GP and family planning specialist, recommend the following tips for dealing with your children once they’ve flown the nest:
Don’t swamp your children
When your child leaves home, you’ll obviously want to keep in touch with them but don’t try and do this excessively; be sensitive to the fact that they are trying to take a big, significant step in life – which isn’t actually much to do with you. The more you cling to your children or show that you’re upset, the less likelihood there is of them contacting you.
Use communication wisely
Ration your calls to no more than two a week and try texting or using email instead of phoning. You’ll be able to put your feelings succinctly without getting too emotional. This form of communication will probably suit your child better, too. After all, it’s much easier for a young person to say: ‘Hi, mum. I really, really miss you,’ in an email – rather than on the phone where other students might be listening.
Support them all the way
If your child is having a miserable time at university or college, do resist the impulse to be pleased about this… and don’t suggest that he or she gives up and comes home. Plenty of teenagers are very miserable and lonely for a couple of weeks, but they deal with it. And that is a great accomplishment. So be supportive, but don’t sort everything for them – and certainly don’t try to bring them back home.
You need help and support for your feelings. Lean on your friends – maybe some of them are going through the same thing, or have gone through it. Think positively, like the fact that you can treat yourself more; you could have a long lie-in a scented bath for example – in fact you may come to see that although you’ve lost a teenager, you’ve gained a bathroom!
Then you can do some practical things to help you feel better:
- Buy some credit for your son’s or daughter’s mobile phone.
- Try to agree a time once a week when you can both have a good natter to each other on the phone.
- Email some funny snippets of what’s happening at home.
Building a better marriage
You may have been meandering along just fine when the children were still at home but unfortunately their leaving exposes flaws in your relationship. However, some new research has recently found that many couples feel 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. If the will is there to rebuild your marriage or relationship, it can be done.
First and foremost, tell your partner how you feel. Soldiering on when you are feeling miserable without the children around prevents your partner from offering the comfort you crave.
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 favourite meal and why?
- What film have you most enjoyed in the last five years?
- What music would you take to a desert island?
- 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?
- 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 couldn’t 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 love making 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 babyhood, toddlers and the terrible teens in one piece. Take a little time to reconnect and your relationship will grow in strength.
By Jessica SmithLast modified: January 8, 2021