Navigating the Empty Nest (OPINION)

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Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.


My husband recently retired and we seem to be out of sync with each other.  I began working after our last child left the home several years ago and now he’s frustrated that I’m not home as much.  I plan to retire from my job someday in the future, but what can we do in the meantime to decrease the tension in our marriage?


You and your husband have entered a dynamic and challenging transition in your marriage that has the potential to produce years of joy and connection.  I’d like to congratulate you on your desire to make your remaining years together meaningful and fulfilling.

First of all, be careful not to make any major decisions regarding your career until you’ve had a chance to talk about your goals for the future.  You will want to make sure that you and your husband have a clear idea of where you’re headed before you become reactive to current circumstances.

Jan Cullinane and Cathy Fitzgerald , authors of “The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life”, state that “the first couple of years of retirement are comparable to the first two years of marriage or parenthood; it’s a time to negotiate (or renegotiate) roles and share ideas and dreams.”  Couples who move into retirement assuming that the relationship will maintain the same dynamics are often surprised to learn that expectations have changed.

Ronald J. Manheimer , executive director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement says that the biggest challenges for men as they move into retirement include losing their status in the workplace, losing a large part of their social support system, feeling a loss of purpose, declining physical abilities, poor communication with significant others, and dealing with “boomerang kids.”  For women who retire from working outside the home, their challenges include losing their identity, feeling responsible for their spouses’ social life and entertainment, experiencing a disruption of their established patterns, needing to take care of everyone, financial and health issues, and outliving their spouses.

Understanding these challenges can help couples have compassion for one another as they work to negotiate how they will spend their remaining years together.  I encourage you and your husband to sit down and formally discussed the list of challenges men and women face as they move into retirement.  Ask your husband if he feels a loss of purpose in his life.  Tell him if you’re feeling responsible for his social calendar.  This is a critical time to formally discuss how each of you is experiencing this transition.

Many of the patterns you set up in your earlier years of marriage most likely worked to keep your home running smoothly as you raised your children and juggled careers.  Keeping the same routines and expectations is as unhelpful as a couple with a brand-new baby thinking they can stay out late with friends every weekend.  Your marriage has undergone several transformations as you married, had children, changed jobs, moved, and experienced other transitions.  If you’ve struggled to negotiate these transitions in the past, it can be helpful to educate yourself or speak to a professional counselor who can help you create new patterns of relating to one another.

You may find that you can continue working while your husband becomes involved in volunteer work or hobbies that he’s put off while he worked on his career.  You may decide to scale down your work and devote more time to shared interests. The options are wide open when you recognize that the two of you get to decide how you want your retirement years to look.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of “10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters” by David and Claudia Arp.  This book will gives you a progressive map to help you rekindle your relationship with one another and learn to make the necessary adjustments to retirement.  Couples who become intentional and deliberate about creating a healthy understanding of roles and expectations find that their years of retirement are filled with renewed connection.

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