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3 Ways Becoming an Empty Nester Can Damage Your Relationships — & How to Avoid Them

You’re probably familiar with the term “empty nest” — but are you familiar with the ways this monumental life change can affect the way you feel about yourself, and how it can damage your most cherished relationships?

Empty nesters, of course, are parents whose children become adults and leave the family home. And as a couples clinician and a Ph.D. level sexologist for over a decade, I have seen couples struggle in their relationships when children leave their nest. Typically around the spring and fall, my clients celebrate graduations and dormitory move-in dates, often basking in their child’s accomplishments. And while most parents are proud to have their children successfully navigate the world, they are also often unaware of — and unprepared for — the gap that is left behind.

That gap usually affects at least one of three categories: the self, the romance, and the parent-child relationship. Still, the emotional pitfalls that come with an empty nest can be avoided, especially if you’re aware of what to look out for. Here are three ways becoming an empty-nester can damage your relationships — and what you can do to avoid them.

You’re Suffering From Empty Nest Syndrome

Empty nest syndrome refers to the feelings of sadness, loss, and loneliness experienced by parents when their children move out. Often empty nesters feel a loss of identity as their parenting duties diminish. Adjusting to the absence of children can lead to feelings of purposelessness, emptiness, and even feelings of depression. This may look like lamenting over old pictures, not enjoying anything individually, repeatedly calling the children who left, inserting yourself into their lives without invitation, lack of appetite or sleep, and an overall lack of daily enjoyment. Further, empty nesters can also lose themselves without a regular routine outside of the child(ren) who once lived in the home. 

If you’re experiencing this, first of all, know that it’s incredibly common for empty nesters to struggle to adjust when children leave home. Changing the family configuration can be a drastic shift — and it can come with loss that can trigger grief. That grief isn’t necessarily solely for the child who is no longer around, but also for the life that existed for so long prior.

Know, also, that there are things you can do to cope. For starters, recognizing and addressing your distressing emotions can help relieve any anguish you’re feeling. Further, work to re-establish your individuality by identifying hobbies, interests, and building community to provide a path to self-exploration and ideally joy. If your situation is not improving — meaning you notice that your mood is not improving, there is a lack (or overabundance) of sleep to avoid the pain of the loss, or if other people express concern, seeking out professional help may be the next necessary step. 

You’re Over-Parenting Your Partner

Sometimes empty nesters are so used to parenting that when their children leave they find themselves shifting roles from parent of their child to parent of their lover. Parenting a child can be very rewarding, especially when you feel good about being able to take care of someone who needs you. But when that child is no longer present, some parents make the mistake of starting to parent their partner. This might look like taking over their household tasks, delegating their responsibilities, and taking away some of their autonomy. When one partner over functions in a relationship, it creates a place where the other partner can under function. The dynamic of over-function and under-function then degrades both partners and creates relationship distance.

Nothing gets old as quickly as having a partner become a parent. 

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As a parent, you inherently have power over your children; you are the authority. But romantic relationships, unless expressly consented to, typically have a shared balance of power. When one partner starts to shift this balance — especially without consent from the other partner — the relationship can become full of resentment, avoidance, and annoyance. The key is to ensure that each partner is showing up as a fully functional adult and that roles are re-negotiated when children leave the nest. Maybe instead of one partner always handling dinner because they were the better cook, the other partner can do more meal planning for just the two people at home.

Even more than a re-negotiation of functionality, I often find couples have to re-negotiate time for intimacy. For most partners, this is the first time in a long while they have time and space to be intimate with reckless abandon, but almost every couple I have treated for empty-nest-related issues reports a discrepancy in their libido and desire. This mismatch often causes couples to struggle to find ways to connect physically.

With a child out of the home and with less need of a parent, I regularly work with couples to get back in touch with their own pleasure and joy. I also give them permission to prioritize their pleasure and joy, which is the opposite of what parents often have been doing and have been told. 

Further, it helps to strengthen non-physical intimacy in the relationship when both partners are able to share their own feelings of grief, hope, excitement, and fear when it comes to re-defining their relationship sans children in the home. 

You’re Micromanaging Adult Children

Empty nesters may also have a hard time changing their actual parenting style for adult children. This can lead to over-parenting or micromanaging their adult children’s lives, even when they are no longer living at home. Having adult children who can make their own decisions, learn from their mistakes, and establish their independence is a testament to parenting skills; however, it can be frightening to have a child experience. Over-involvement can strain the parent-child relationship, hinder the young adult’s personal growth, and even lead to a cutoff of communication. Over-parenting can be a way to handle anxiety, depression, and fear, but ultimately it hinders the child’s ability to leave the nest and launch into the world successfully — and it hinders the parent’s journey, as well! 

In order to avoid micromanaging adult children, empty nesters need a balance between being supportive and offering guidance when it’s requested. Helping an adult child learn to trust their own instincts and make their own decisions with reassurance may be helpful in fostering more autonomy and creating a relationship based on mutual respect. Having the ability to take a step back from hands-on parenting also helps establish an empty nester as fully human to their adult children, which helps foster a more mutually supportive relationship over time. 

No matter what the issue, empty nesting can be hard and every couple will have different experiences. Taking time to de-center the parent role, connect with your partner, find joy outside of parenting, and foster adult child autonomy are integral to navigating empty nesting successfully. 

Dr. Lexx Brown-James, AKA The #CouplesClinician, is a sex therapist, educator, and consultant who shares her expertise, advice, and wisdom about sex, relationships, and more.

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