By: Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
The arc of many marriages begins with life alone with each other, transitions into life raising children, and then concludes with life alone with each other once again. The first phase of marriage is usually a time when couples are spending quality time with each other, engaging in common interests, and forging a bond that is built on their relationship. When they are blessed with children, the focus can change dramatically. Everything from diapers to carpools consumes most of their available time. Additionally, the responsibility of paying the pills often results in long and exhausting working hours. By the time the children grow up and leave the house, over thirty years may have passed. They are now faced with the daunting task of adjusting to their empty nest.
Empty nest syndrome, as it is known colloquially, is not an official diagnosis, but it describes a process of transition that many couples struggle with when their children leave their home. Many parents derive much of their identity and meaning in their lives from their role as providing a home for their children. When the children leave, they can experience an identity crisis as they wonder to themselves what is their role and purpose in their day-to-day lives. Additionally, anxiety regarding the welfare of their children can be commonplace, as the parents often do not really know with certainty how their children are faring in their lives. Spouses may even experience symptoms of clinical depression during this phase.
This transition can take some time and most parents do emerge on the other end unscathed as they reformulate their own identity and adjust to their new relationship with their children. However, one aspect of the empty nest that can be very difficult for some couples is the health of their marriage.
In a healthy marriage, there is a genuine friendship between husband and wife as is alluded to in the sixth blessing of the Sheva Berachos. The years of raising children and making ends meet can be so time consuming and stressful that many couples forget to tend to the friendship side of their marriage. They can live seemingly happily together as a married couple as long as their focus is not on each other but rather on their roles as parents. Once the children leave the home, that type of relationship is no longer possible.
We all know that the best defense is a good offense. If you want to avoid the marital challenges of an empty nest, you must be proactive in maintaining the friendship aspect of your marriage throughout the years of parenthood. There are many ways that couples can spend quality time with each other on a regular basis. This quality time is vital for the health of their marriage.
If you allow your marriage to take a backburner as you raise your children, you might be faced with an extremely difficult task when trying to resurrect a relationship that has been dormant for decades. Marital counseling might be necessary in order to navigate this journey from individuals living under the same roof to a husband and wife who are thriving in their relationship with each other.