The “empty nest” is a common milestone in coupling. Earlier milestones are “exploration” and “engagement,” then “early childhood,” followed by “launching.” Before getting to our “golden years” we have to pass through “middle age,” which usually begins with an empty nest.
The early dating and “exploration” phases begin when we send out our best-dressed and most well-mannered self to meet our prospective partner.
We move into the “engagement” period, where we begin to correlate our dreaming into a single stream of who to invite and how to decorate the house. This may sound trivial, but important patterns are set.
“Early childhood” and professional development will occupy the next 10 to 15 years as we suffer through poor sleep and challenging financial times. Hopefully the romantic love and earnest hope of family development will sustain our coupling as strains on time and distracted attentions seem to divide us.
“Launching” is a fun time of graduating and marrying of children. You put them in their boats and push them out onto the big sea. You have packed their steamer trunks with self-confidence and eagerness and cut the ropes of financial and emotional dependence.
We enter the “middle age” phase of coupling when the children are gone and you look at each other and ask, “Who are you?” Or, “What are you doing here?” This is a common theme in my office. Folks tend to say, “I want to save the marriage.” Or, “We’ve got 20 plus years invested.”
So much attention has gone into what are ego ideals of accumulation, appearance, achievements and ambition -- all essentially superficial tasks. It slowly dawns on us that we no longer know or appreciate the depth of our beloved.
I hear, “We used to be friends.” Or, the opposite of this, “We don’t have anything in common.”
Are you recognizing this middle phase of marriage?
This time has been called the second half of life or “living your unlived life.” We have reached this middle phase of coupling once the tasks of young adulthood are finished, when we’ve raised the kids -- or slayed the vocational dragon. It arrives when there is nothing new at home or at work and a restlessness or dissatisfaction has settled in.
Just before the “golden years,” we have this time of looking at our partners and simultaneously at our selves and finding the truth about our lives. We have this unique opportunity to grow in a way that we never knew we needed to grow.
Hopefully we are courageous enough to say, “This is what I need,” with the parallel confession and commitment, “This is what I need to change.”
Just recently a man was telling me about his wife’s complaint: “She says I don’t listen to her.” They’ve been married 40 years. He’s got one of those task-oriented minds -- maybe you do, too. But he cares, and he is hurt that he is hurting her. He wants to learn to listen, but this is new territory.
In a separate setting, a woman was reflecting about how she had always done everything for her husband. She was realizing this was a way of managing her own anxiety. If he were happy, then she would be okay. But this pattern started with her alcoholic father.
She can break this chain. By letting go of some control and risking some anxiety, she may find some unexpected strength where fear and resentment had lived.
Bruce Conn is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and works with individuals and couples. Contact him at Bruce@BruceConn.com or call 478-742-1464.