At that moment the final child leaves the family home, you and your spouse go through a transition from parenting to empty nesters. For some, perhaps wives more than husbands, this is almost like postpartum depression as you are confronted with the grief that comes from a loss of a major stage in your life.
So today we’re going to be talking about Empty Nest Syndrome: the impact, the causes and how to support your marriage through this transition.
What Is Empty Nest Syndrome?
It is more often associated with women but for both parents, ENS creates a transition in life and a change in roles and responsibilities[i]. This change can be challenging to go through. Sometimes there are feelings of loneliness, depression or distress that come when the final child leaves the family home[ii].
I remember seeing this when I came to pick Verlynda up to move from Vancouver Island, where she was living with her folks. She was the last child. And I was totally unprepared for the grief that I saw. I guess I was inconsiderate: it had not occurred to me that this would be difficult for Verlynda’s mom.
Empty Nest: Good or Bad for Happiness?
I would tend to think that if you have a good relationship with the last child leaving home, even if you are looking forward to the independence and no more making lunches and the freedom of having an open conversation with your spouse in your home and all that…there’s still some grief at the time of depart.
But, is it a positive or a negative for most people, overall?
Most research shows that for the majority of people, children leaving home is good for marital satisfaction and can also be good for overall life satisfaction.
A classic study from 1975[iii] reports that 71% of couples consider their post-parenting lives to be as good as or better than their lives with children in the house, with only 6% of women and no men reporting that their lives are universally worse.
A slightly more recent study by White & Edwards[iv] surveyed 402 parents and found that children leaving produced significant improvements for martial happiness regardless of the characteristics of the children or parents. Similarly, another study finds that children leaving the home improves psychological wellbeing for parents and Mitchell & Lovegreen (2009) found that only a minority of parents experience a negative “empty nest syndrome”[v].
Who knew, right? Do you think our 11 year old is ready to live on her own?
Popular wisdom paints the empty nest phase as one of the loneliest and hardest times in a parent’s life. But for a majority of parents, this clearly isn’t the case. So what are the benefits of the last child moving out?
The researchers found that children moving out allows for increased “alone time” as a couple, more intimacy and spontaneity, greater freedom, and improved financial conditions[vi]. The general picture here is that it gives you more time and resources to spend on each other, rather than on the kids. All of this can positively impact marital satisfaction.
However, contact with children is still important. While marital satisfaction may increase after children leave, overall life satisfaction only increases when the parents remain in frequent contact with the children[vii].
That’s a very interesting caveat. Your marriage may improve, but without the kids still in your life, the net gain to your overall life satisfaction isn’t much. This makes perfect sense because you’ve invested so much in your children. Staying in touch allows you to maintain the value of that connection you’ve created.
So the empty nest stage can, if you keep in regular contact with the children, be good for marriage. However, it is also possible that children leaving the home can be a crisis time for marriages due to the sudden changes in routine and identity this stage creates[viii]. Some research finds that the empty nest phase of marriage is often the least satisfying, and has the highest rates of divorce and conflict[ix].
Part of me wonders if, represented in that research, are the folks who hold the marriage together (consciously or unconsciously) for the sake of the children. Then the children leave. Then the motivation for civility is removed.
It’s worth noting that all changes to happiness (both positive and negative) were only found when the last child had been launched- when the house was truly “empty”[x].
Let’s go deeper on this and see what is really at the root. Why do these changes occur, and why do some people take the empty nest phase in their stride while it wrecks the marriage for others? And what about when kids leave but come back; the so called “boomerang effect”? How does that impact marriage?
What Causes Empty Nest Syndrome?
Roles in marriage and in family are an important part of psychological wellbeing as they provide stability and a sense of meaning. Losing direct contact with children may affect the role of a parent, resulting in distress[xi]. If we draw a great deal of meaning from daily parenting, and then we’re suddenly not parenting every day…that is a big adjustment.
This would also explain why maintaining close contact with the children after they leave would reduce the distress caused by them leaving- it lessens the change in role and identity for the parent.
Inability to Function as a Couple.
Some couples may have focused for so long on being parents that they have forgotten how to function and be intimate as a couple[xii].
This can be especially true for women, who may have invested all their time and energy into raising the kids and end up without much of an identity outside of being a mother.
In a sense, a time of rebirth follows. There’s pain and joy in that process and the expansion of personality… that’s a lot going on.
Relationship to Children.
Parents who have “overgiven” of themselves and consistently placed their children’s needs above their own will often feel empty nest syndrome the hardest, as they will suddenly be faced with a void and have little idea how to meet their own needs.
Relational Turbulence Theory[xiii] states that any time of transition in a relationship, such as getting married, having your first children, children leaving home etc, creates “conditions ripe for upheaval, turmoil and tumult”.
During these stressful periods, couples experience higher levels of uncertainty about themselves, their relationship and the future. As they try to figure out this uncertainty and their new roles they may come into conflict. They become more susceptible and reactive to interpersonal issues that were already present in the marriage.
Meaning: if the relationship is going well before a big transition (like children leaving), they will be likely to make the transition successfully, help each other figure out new roles, and become happier as a result. But if things were going badly, the transition may exacerbate existing problems and partners may come into conflict over roles rather than helping each other.
So according to this theory, times of stress and change can bring out both the best and worst characteristics of a marriage. During these times you’ll be especially responsive to both the good and the bad.
Parent Child Relationships after the Child Launches
We have a bonus audio track for our much-appreciated supporters. We are dealing with the marriage component of this transition here in the show. But since Empty Nest Syndrome is alleviated by keeping close contact with children after they go, we wanted to talk a little about what the research says parents need to think about with regards to children leaving home. There are six levels of connection with your adult child who has moved out. What are those levels? If you are deficient in any of them, how can you improve that part? These are vital questions. You can get this bonus audio track by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Now another modern issue, especially with the price of housing in some parts, is the Boomerang Effect — Children returning home. How does this impact marriage?
Boomerang Effect- Children Returning Home
The numbers of young adults returning to their parent’s homes has increased in recent years[xiv].
They come home because of major events or turning points in their own lives, such as leaving higher education or losing a job. Or, the economic downturn in many western countries means that finding employment after graduation is not guaranteed, causing many young adults to have to go back to the family home[xv].
How does this impact marriages?
Overall the negative effects on the parents of children moving back in are fairly minor, provided certain conditions are met. A rather revealing study from 2002[xvi] found that children returning home did not produce any mood changes for the parents, but did reduce frequency of sex in the first year after the child returns. That would be a funny conversation to have. “You can move back in but this means your mother and I won’t be able to have sex on the couch anymore, you know.” That’s a good reason to make them pay rent, right? It’s gotta cost them something too!
Another study by Mitchell[xvii] found that such arrangements were not typically associated with distress and conflict but did stress a few key items that were necessary to make this dynamic work well:
- Autonomy for the children,
- Mutual exchanges of support
- The children forming adult roles and responsibilities
Similarly, Aquilino & Sharpe[xviii] found that most parents were satisfied with their living arrangements when children returned home and described mostly positive relationships. However, the level of parent-child conflict was very strongly related to satisfaction for the parents. Level of conflict was, in turn, linked to the child’s unemployment and/or level of financial dependency.
The overall picture is that kids returning home doesn’t have to wreck your marriage (although it may knock your sex life a bit!) provided that the children understand they are expected to be fairly autonomous and start relating to you as adults. Perhaps you as the parents might need to be aware of this, too. I think it was good to have this research just to balance the picture. It may not all be rosy.
So the boomerang thing is an interesting sidebar. Let’s get back to empty nest syndrome, and what you can do about it.
Ways to fight the Empty Nest Syndrome
Before it occurs:
- Devote time to intimacy in your marriage and to looking after yourself as well as your children, so that these practices are in place for when the children leave
- Develop a role and a sense of purpose and who you are that is not dependent on your children
- Work on having a healthy marriage generally, as this will guard against relational turbulence
During the empty nest phase:
- Work on becoming more intimate with your spouse, and starting a new phase of life together
- Enjoy the fact you can spend more time together and have greater freedom
- Maintain close contact with the children to ease the transition
- Work together to establish new roles and patterns in your marriage. Be explicit about this so as to avoid uncertainty about the future affecting your marriage
If the children return home:
- Encourage autonomy and the transition into adulthood.
- Develop a more adult relationship based on mutuality.
Now one last point for those of you that are in this but really struggling as a couple after going to the empty nest phase. Research shows that the negative effects of the empty nest syndrome are often small and not long-lasting[xix]. Often couples manage to transition into new roles and establish a new phase of life within 2 years of the nest emptying. So even if empty nest syndrome is affecting you badly, it won’t last.
[i] Nagy and Theiss, “Applying the Relational Turbulence Model to the Empty-Nest Transition.”
[ii] Mitchell and Lovegreen, “The Empty Nest Syndrome in Midlife Families.”
[iii] Glenn, “Psychological Well-Being in the Postparental Stage.”
[iv] White and Edwards, “Emptying the Nest and Parental Well-Being.”
[v] Mitchell and Lovegreen, “The Empty Nest Syndrome in Midlife Families.”
[vi] Nagy and Theiss, “Applying the Relational Turbulence Model to the Empty-Nest Transition.”
[vii] White and Edwards, “Emptying the Nest and Parental Well-Being.”
[viii] Borland, “A Cohort Analysis Approach to the Empty-Nest Syndrome among Three Ethnic Groups of Women: A Theoretical Position.”
[ix] Nagy and Theiss, “Applying the Relational Turbulence Model to the Empty-Nest Transition.”
[x] White and Edwards, “Emptying the Nest and Parental Well-Being.”
[xii] Nagy and Theiss, “Applying the Relational Turbulence Model to the Empty-Nest Transition.”
[xiv] South and Lei, “Failures-to-Launch and Boomerang Kids.”
[xv] Stone, Berrington, and Falkingham, “Gender, Turning Points, and Boomerangs.”
[xvi] Dennerstein, Dudley, and Guthrie, “Empty Nest or Revolving Door?”
[xvii] Mitchell, “Too Close for Comfort?”
[xviii] Aquilino and Supple, “Parent-Child Relations and Parent’s Satisfaction with Living Arrangements When Adult Children Live at Home.”
[xix] Nagy and Theiss, “Applying the Relational Turbulence Model to the Empty-Nest Transition.”