Danger! Danger! Mine field ahead!
This is the clear message I’ve been getting from friends since my eldest child left for college a month ago. They are giving me a heads up that life is changing now the kids have started heading out the door, but what they are really trying to let me know is this change is going to impact my marriage in ways I cannot yet imagine.
One friend with older children could not believe how many of her long-married companions split as soon as their nests were empty. Other friends ask, trying to be circumspect, how are things going with your wife now that your oldest is gone?
If rumor and anecdote were not enough, last year a paper called “The Gray Divorce Revolution” came out of Bowling Green State University documenting the doubled divorce rate in the over-50 crowd during the last 20 years. It is not our imagination, golden anniversaries have become an endangered species.
Honestly, I get it, all the reasons couples split up when the kids move out. All those seemingly petty issues you’ve shoved aside because, really, who has time to work on their marriage when the kids are little? Suddenly, those little things become gigantic. Other couples spend non-stop years with the children, the family, and work, and suddenly you realize you do not recognize your spouse anymore, or have anything in common. Family homes become silent and empty and the space is too big for your partner to fill. I heard one wife say of her husband, “I look at him now and wonder if I really want to spend the rest of my life with him.”
It turns out there are books and magazine articles by the dozen explaining why it is a perilous time for couples when the child-rearing phase is finished, but the message I take from them is it is too late for me. Not that I should write my marriage off, but that the time to prepare for the children’s departure is not when they are packing up their rooms, but rather when they are little and all through their childhood. That is the time to attend to your spouse and your marriage, to put that relationship money in the bank for withdrawal when the college bills come due.
I dream there is another way. Let the kids move back in after they have gotten their degrees. They could live at home while they work at unpaid internships, then during grad school. If I try hard enough, I might be able to keep my girls around until they have children of their own, at which point my wife and I can turn into doting grandparents and never really face an empty nest.
Rather than focus on all the things I have or have not done for my marriage these past 18 years of parenthood, and which I can not change now anyway, I would like to look at the potential for fun and excitement ahead in my marriage, the spontaneous dinners out, weekend trips, the chance to spend time with friends.
I just need to make sure my wife and I are on the same page or I could find myself having a lot of time to myself.