Column II (Empty Nest Marriage)

Read Column I Here

by Richard and Linda Eyre

Editor’s Note: Richard and Linda Eyre will be guest hosts along with Dr. Joseph Allen on a “Book of Mormon Symposium at Sea” leaving March 21. To learn more about this uplifting and exotic Caribbean cruise click here


Last column we discussed some of the challenging emotional issues that come up as our children grow up and leave home.  This time we will take a step back and think about priorities and LDS perspectives for a minute.  Then we’ll discuss an issue that is at the heart of everything:  Empty Nest Marriage.  Before we can be great parents to our grown kids, we must learn (if we are married) to be great spouses to our spouse at this later time of life.

Perspectives and Priorities

I (Richard) was on an airplane, seated by a stranger – a psychologist as it happened – who knew a great deal about the Church.  (He had several LDS friends and neighbors and had observed them closely.)

“I can’t say that I have too many opinions about the doctrine and teachings of your church,” he said, “but I can tell you this – Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had to be cultural and psychological and sociological geniuses!”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “they somehow anticipated the most common and prevalent development problems people would face – even in our day – and put in place systems and programs that would solve them!”

It sounded like he’d thought a lot about this, so I asked him to go on.

“Okay, let’s start with kids transitioning into adulthood.  Most eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds are too young to make good college, major, and career choices, so they make a lot of false starts and poor choices.  You’ve got your missions at that age.  Kids give service, forget themselves, become more mature and sophisticated, see different parts of the world and its cultures, and come home knowing far more about themselves and their aptitudes and their options – ready to make good education and career decisions, not to mention marriage decisions.  Your missions are a sociological and personal development masterstroke.”

Well, I thought, I’ve never looked at it quite that way.  “What else?” I asked.

“The other most difficult developmental phase,” he said, “is the empty-nest syndrome and retirement.  Most people flounder.  They don’t feel useful or needed anymore, and there are huge increases in everything from nervous breakdowns to divorce to health problems.  But you Mormons have missions for retired couples, and you have that temple and genealogy thing.   People not only stay busy but they also perceive that what they are doing is even more important, so their mental and psychological health and their marriage relationships are usually excellent.  I just think it’s brilliant. Joseph and Brigham were unbelievably farsighted.”

I’ve thought a lot about that discussion. The ideas aren’t Joseph’s or Brigham’s, but they are brilliant.  Of course, missions, genealogy, and temple work aren’t just for the benefit of those who participate in them, but they are masterstrokes indeed – strokes from the Master.

The whole process and transition of empty-nest parenting is made more positive and more productive for us ENPs (Empty Nest Parents) and for our LTNs (Leaving the Nesters) by the inspired programs of God and of his Church. Full acceptance and activity in every opportunity we have as members is the most powerful key in unlocking the door to successful empty-nest parenting and a happy and hopefully long second half of life.

The First Priority of the Second Half

There are lots of books about this transitional time of life – many of them written to and for baby boomers – books with titles like The Second Half of Life or Life After Fifty or The Autumn of Life.  Most of the books are about finances or travel or various ways to enjoy our newfound freedom.

But what matters most?  And what will ultimately have the most bearing on our happiness?  The answer, of course, is our family and our children.  So it is ironic that so many of us plan so carefully for every other aspect of our upcoming retirement and our life’s second half but think and plan so little for what remains our most important stewardship and the key to our happiness – our families and our ongoing relationships with our children.

There’s no single right answer for the issues and challenges of empty-nest parenting.  We each have to find our own.  But there is one right attitude, and that is to prioritize our families, even after they leave, above every other aspect of our lives.  After all, we’ve invested eighteen to twenty years in each child – and we’re now nearing the homestretch. This is no time to slack off or slow down.  We are now in a position to build the beautiful family culture of a three-generation family.

It’s so interesting to speak (as we often do) to audiences made up of parents of other faiths.  While they share the same kind of unconditional love for their children as LDS parents, they often think about commitment and priorities differently than we do.  After one speech on the East Coast a person said, in essence, “Before my kids grew up and left, I had to pretty much make every decision with them in mind; the kind of house we lived in, where we went on vacation, what I spent my money on.  Pretty much everything had to be oriented to them, and I think I passed that test.  Now I’m at a place where I can think about what I want.”

Not that there’s anything so wrong with a little of that kind of thinking, but as Church members with testimonies of eternal families, we are naturally going to be more concerned with preserving and strengthening relationships and with things like family reunions, inter-family advice, mutual assistance, helping with each other’s testimonies and lifestyle choices, and so on.  For us, there has been no change of priorities, just a change in the address where those priorities live!

Empty-Nest Marriage

How often have you heard this story: The last child moves out, and within a few months one of the parents moves out too.  So, if you are a two-parent family, along with all your efforts at empty-nest parenting, there should be some serious attention paid to empty-nest partnership.

Single empty-nest parents have a different set of challenges.  If your partner has preceded you to the next phase, you will want to consider what he or she might have thought or felt as you complete on your own the stewardship you started together.  If you are divorced or separated, you may still find ways to work together or at least in some kind of tandem agreement on matters relating to your children.  If you have remarried or blended families, your relationship with your new spouse will also have a profound influence on your children and on your relationship with them.

If you are fortunate enough to still be married to the father or mother of your children, begin with an understanding of the profound importance of that partnership.  It is the new and everlasting covenant; it is the relationship that preceded and created and still gives nourishment and security to your relationships with your children.  It is the trunk of your family tree, the connection between your roots and branches.  It is the ultimate key to your happiness here and hereafter.

The old phrase, “The best thing you can do for your kids is to love their mother” (or father) is still true.  Nothing gives adult children more security and happiness (not to mention an invaluable example) than seeing that their mom and dad are still in love.  Remember that the goal is an eternal family.  To be even more direct, the goal is a kingdom – a kingdom within God’s kingdom.  And the first requirement for any lasting kingdom is a unified “king” and “queen.”

From Orchestra to Duet

Forgive my (Linda’s) musical analogy, but let’s face it: With kids pulling at our heartstrings for at least two decades, when the children leave home, our marriage is bound to be somewhat, or perhaps even drastically, out of tune.  For marriages that have survived, some adjustments probably need to be made when our children leave home in order to get our marriage partnership back in full harmony.

For many mother and father “birds,” one of the greatest worries living in an empty nest is learning to live together as a couple again after many years of sharing that nest with younger and smaller people and all their problems.  As we anticipate being on our own, we have empty-nest visions of traveling at will, eating gourmet food, no longer being prisoners to homework, not having to wring our hands when teenagers have missed their curfew, and being able to go to movies whenever we feel like it.  But will we be able to survive each other – just each other – full time?  All those years of car pools, juggling schedules, and sweating over being late for ballet are gone.  Yet somehow, things are not really that much less complicated.  There are still career issues and community involvement and church jobs to deal with as well as the inevitable needs of the children even though they are away from home.  Life is not easier, but life is different in an empty nest.  How do we re-tune our marriage in order to make it into an exciting partnership for the future?

Before we get to the big questions, let’s talk about a couple of the little ones that make a big difference.  One might be: How does one deal with those annoying habits of a spouse that have sort of gotten swallowed up in the hurricane of life with children?  Chances are that those irritating idiosyncrasies will now be exposed and somehow easier to stumble over in that empty nest.  For years I have complained sporadically about Richard’s habit of flossing his teeth in bed at midnight and been disgruntled by the fact that when he makes the bed, it looks like somebody is still in it.   It’s easier to dwell on little things like that when there are just the two of us in the house.  We have learned that, even though one spouse or the other may be worried about something that may seem to be a silly little thing, the best thing that can go through a spouse’s mind when there is a need to change is, If it’s important to you, it’s important to me!  (He can be quieter with the floss and neater with the bed.  I can be more tolerant on both and keep them in perspective.)

We’ve also learned that “constructive criticism” is usually destructive.  After years of complaining about some of Richard’s idiosyncrasies, I have realized that the best way to change behavior is not through criticism but through praise.  Praise is a powerful tool, not only to build someone else up but also to help you realize how grateful you are for a spouse who is really trying to be the best he can be, even though it may not seem like it at times.  Praise focuses your attention on the things you love rather than the things that bother you.  Praise is almost like a magic wand to help a spouse feel worthwhile and eager to fulfill expectations. It is a vehicle for choice.  It maximizes both spouses’ chances to change.  Criticism is a judgment, a verdict, and a stifling dead end.

The empty nest is a place (and a time) to consciously change old habits and patterns.  Years of dealing with the realities of life produces habits that are sometimes simply modes of survival rather than something that is really helping to enhance your marriage.  Even though I tried to be loving and helpful to Richard when all of our children were home, the message that usually came through from day to day was, “I love you but I’ve got all these kids’ needs to attend to today.  I can’t handle another child, so you’re just going to have to take care of yourself!”  Now mind you, on many days that attitude was absolutely justified, but I think I established a habit of thinking of the kids’ needs first.  Now that most of them have gone, it has taken a conscious mental shift as well as deliberate physical action to let Richard know that he really is my first priority.  This is the person I plan to live with for the rest of my life – and even beyond.  Our children will all eventually have their own spouses and their own separate homes and children to care for.  The prime relationship for eternity is that of husband and wife.

Learning from Missionaries: “Companionship Testimonies”

Perhaps the biggest ongoing worry of most mission presidents is companionship problems.  It was certainly true for me (Richard) in London. Whenever the phone rang, there was a chance that the elder or sister on the line would say, “President, I just can’t stand my companion any longer,” or “Elder               is driving me nuts,” or even “Well, President, it finally came to blows.  I told you, you should have transferred one of us.”

After a year or so in the field, I noticed something.  One of the questions I asked in missionary interviews was, “Do you have a private companionship testimony meeting each week as suggested in the white handbook?”  Those who did rarely, if ever, had serious companionship problems.  As I thought about it, and asked about it, I realized that those weekly testimony meetings, besides being an endearing private expression of faith, belief, and love, were also a time to clear the air, to get feelings and frustrations out in an atmosphere that defused them and put them in perspective.  After bearing his testimony and telling his companion he loved him, loved the work, loved the investigators, and loved the Lord, it became easier and far less painful or threatening for the missionary to mention something that was bothering him or that could be improved on.

It turned out that this little twenty- or thirty-minute weekly companionship testimony meeting was the single most effective thing we ever found to eliminate companionship complaints, criticisms, and contention.

With the mission in mind, and with the commitment of devoting prime time in our marriage relationship, we decided that we would have a “companionship meeting” of our own every Sunday night.

A few things that make it work best for us:

         Meet in a quiet, private place at the same time every Sunday evening.

         Start with each of you bearing your testimonies – real ones that end “in the name of Jesus Christ.”  Include things like, “The thing I like most about you is…” or “What I admired about what you did this week was…”

         Ask what you can do from that week’s experience to change for the better.

         Discuss what the challenges of the coming week will be.

         Talk about how to accomplish the things that need to be done during the week and divide responsibilities so that you feel you’re working as a team.

         Decide on a time and place for a date that week.  Go over the schedule.

Over the years, our favorite part of these partnership meetings is always the private, one-to-one testimony-bearing where we express our feelings about the blessings of our lives.  These positive feelings go a long way to get us safely through the week and add greatly to our “emotional bank account,” which inevitably has substantial withdrawals from the hassles of the real world during the week.

The Three Cs

There are plenty of books about rekindling romance after the kids are gone, about learning to be alone together again, about filling the void together that the kids have left.  We’ve read a few of these and think most of the good advice they contain can be summarized into three Cs:

Commitment to each other, and to each other’s happiness.

Communication with each other, and enjoying being together.

Conceptual planning with each other, and working toward common goals.

Each of these becomes a new challenge and a new opportunity as the kids leave.  The requirements and the patterns for each are straightforward but difficult, simple to say but downright hard to do.  But there are two overwhelmingly important reasons for tackling all three with vigor and energy: First, succeeding together at them will bless the lives of your children; second, succeeding together at them will deliver more peace and happiness to you and your spouse than anything else in the world.

So, let’s think hard together about the three crucial elements of empty-nest partnership.

1.    Renew Your Commitments

We know one couple that actually retook their marriage vows after their last child left their nest.  The way they saw it, they were going back to their courtship – back to the one-on-one romantic relationship they had the first time they were married, and they wanted to reformalize that love and personal commitment.

However we do it, we do need to recommit to each other as our kids move on and leave us alone together.  And when you think about it, it’s a pretty exciting thing to fall for each other all over again – you’ve probably got more money and more freedom than you did the first time, so you may enjoy it even more this time around.  Think back to those things you did to win your spouse over in the first place, and do them again – flowers, romantic dates, gifts, and love notes.

Renewed, unconditional commitment is a marvelously powerful and security-giving thing. In the warmth and glow of our spouse’s complete commitment, we can relax and truly be ourselves.  In our initial courtships, we earned each other’s love.  In the intervening years of raising children and expanding careers, we have served and helped and loved each other in so many ways.  Now, as we move toward some kind of retirement (or at least toward new situations in both our family and our work), we should be capable of even deeper commitment to each other and support for each other.

But that recommitment isn’t automatic or assumed.  It needs to be made.  Let us share a written commitment that one husband made to his wife on their thirtieth anniversary as their last child prepared to go away to college:

My darling: Thirty years ago I pledged to love and be faithful to you in sickness and in health, for time and eternity.  In those thirty years we’ve raised our children and built our careers.  We’ve sacrificed for and supported our children and each other in countless ways.  We’ve disagreed and fought and argued, but we’ve always made up and gradually come to understand our differences and the way each other thinks.  Through all the struggles, we’ve kept our marriage vows and kept our dream of unity and of growing old together, surrounded by children who still love us and grandchildren who know how much we love them.

On this anniversary and as our youngest child leaves the nest, I feel prompted and prepared to make a simple recommitment to you – one that carries with it all of the love and all of the faith I have.  It is this: Since I believe in the eternity of the soul, that love can outlast death and that relationships can carry over to the next life, I now pledge to love and be faithful to you for eternity.  My commitment to you and my love for you is co-eternal with my soul and with your soul.

With this eternal commitment comes a new realization – an epiphany I have recently received.  It is that there is nothing I would change about you – that with my unconditional love is an unconditional acceptance.

This is not to say that I am under the illusion that you are perfect or that I will not support you in ways that you want to change and progress, but I have realized that there is nothing I would choose to change about you.  You are a complex biological and spiritual organism, and I love the whole too much to risk changing some part of it, which might make the whole something different than what I have come to love.  Besides, as the song says, “For every fault you have, I have ten,” and “The little faults you do have just make me love you more.”

So, my thirtieth anniversary gift to you (and my “second wedding gift” as we start our voyage as empty-nesters) is this: my eternal and unconditional recommitment of love.

What wife wouldn’t want to receive that kind of letter – or what husband?  We are all warmed and filled by the commitment of our spouse.  It is one of the key reasons we get married in the first place.  And with a solid recommitment from each other, a married couple at this stage of life is ready to face the challenging readjustment of an empty nest.

The goal is not to make our spouses better but to make them happier and to expand the joy we have together.  The awesome and sometimes frightening thing about a marriage – especially a long-lasting one – is that we each have more influence on the happiness of our spouse than we do on our own.  By now we know how to make each other happy.  We simply have to recommit ourselves to doing it!

2.  Work at Total, Open Communication

You think you’ve been communicating all these years, but so much of it has been about the kids, and about the life you lived while they were home.  When they are gone, it can feel like there’s not much left to talk about.

The whole process is a little like starting over – a little like getting married again.  We tell young couples, in our marriage seminar, that there are five things they must talk about openly and constantly, revealing to each other their whole mind and heart.  The five things are:

         Sex and physical intimacy
         Goals and dreams
         Feelings and beliefs
         Children and parenting

The beginning of the empty-nest phase is a time when all five topics take some shifts and turns, requiring an extra effort at clear communication.  Where are the finances now and what kind of budgeting or planning will you do to see that everyone is taken care of?  How will your physical intimacy be affected by being alone again – what do you hope for and expect from each other?  What goals and plans and hopes do you have for this new season of life?  Are you on the same page about how you want your lifestyle to change?   How are your testimonies, and what are you both feeling emotionally?  Do you each have a different mix of missing and wishing?  What continues to need to be discussed about the kids?  What kind of empty-nest parents do you want to be?

The bottom line: There is not less to talk about now – there’s more.  This is a new phase, and with it comes lots of issues, lots of opportunities and options, lots of challenges.  Step up your communication – open it up – the sooner the better!

3.  Conceptualize and Plan the Rest of Your Life

Out of our renewed commitments and communication should flow some solid conceptual planning about our married life together as empty-nesters.  In our own case, even as we’ve dreaded the day our last one leaves, we’ve relished and looked forward to having the opportunity to do some things that weren’t possible (or at least not practical) while the kids were with us: from simple things like more reading to complex things like travel and humanitarian service on a whole different scale.

It’s best not to leave these visions and dreams of what to do with the second half of your lives to chance.  Sit down together or take a trip together and plan what you want to do as a couple after the kids are gone.  Give yourself some things to look forward to – to balance and counteract the dread you may feel about your children leaving.  Learn to see the empty-nest phase as a natural progression and a great opportunity.

We heard of a couple who went about this in a very organized and systematic way, and while the structure of it might not appeal to all of us, what they were trying to do and what came out of it were very interesting.

         First, they each made a separate, independent list titled, “Things I want to do before I die” – places they wanted to visit, adventures they wanted to have, even people they wanted to meet and contributions they hoped to make.  They didn’t worry much about what was realistic – they each just created a dream list.

         Then they combined their lists – seeing how many matches they had and trying to win each other over into unanimity on their favorites.

         Then they tried to calendar the ones they agreed on – chronologically in terms of when they thought they might be able to do them.

         Then they set their completed dream list aside and made a second list – one they called a “hope list” – and it had two columns.  On the left they listed the things they still wanted to take care of and feel some responsibility for (their children were at the top, followed by their aging parents and then by things like their health, their small company, their church, their house, and their little summer place).  In the right column, they wrote their hopes for each thing on the left – the things they wished for each one.

         Finally, they had both lists artistically laid out on parchment by a calligrapher and framed.  The lists now hang side by side on the wall of their library.

The husband told us that he had read somewhere that “All happiness starts with hopes and dreams.”  He said their hope list and their dream list had become a reference point for their plans and goals, and that, since they had created them together, the lists seemed to keep them together mentally and spiritually and lent a certain excitement and anticipation to their life together.

Best of luck in your beginning or upcoming Empty Nest Marriage.  And we’ll see you next month for Emptying Nest Parenting, Column III.

*   *   *

Please respond to the following three questions about your own Emptying Nest feelings and experiences. Your answers (with or without your name- your call) will be shared with other empty nest parents throughout the world (just as their answers will be shared with you) on the web site.  Further questions and ideas will come to you later by email.

1.  What has been your hardest adjustment as your child (children) grew up and left home?

2.  What’s the best idea you’ve had for communicating effectively with a child who has left home?

3.  What questions or concerns would you like to see addressed by other empty nest parents?

Submit to:ri******@ar**.net

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