How can we help our marriage to thrive in the empty nest years?

How can we help our marriage to thrive in the empty nest years?

Bill left a voice message for his wife, Betty, saying that he was still at the office working on an urgent project and would be late for dinner. Betty? She had already left a note on the kitchen counter telling him that his dinner was in the oven—she was carting kids to play practice and soccer games. Missing each other was nothing new. For Bill and Betty, parents of three boys, ages eight, twelve, and fourteen, family life at best was hectic and couple time was rare. The intimacy and easy-going relationship they experienced before the kids came along was simply missing. "Well, someday," they reminded each other, "the boys will grow up and leave the nest; then we will have time for each other; then we can recapture the closeness we used to enjoy."

As optimistic as Bill and Betty are, trends indicate having a great empty nest marriage may not be so simple. Consider another couple. A few months ago Alan and Leah dropped their last child, Julie, off at college. A week later they called Julie to tell her, "Mom and Dad are getting a divorce." Statistics validate that empty nest marriages are breaking up in record numbers. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, although divorce in the United States generally declined from 1981 to 1991, divorce among couples married thirty years or more showed a sharp increase. Overall, divorce went down 1.4 percent during the decade, while divorce in the thirty-years-plus marriages increased 16 percent.

Maybe you haven't reached the thirty-year mark, but you can imagine it from here. What can you do now to prepare your marriage for the empty nest so you won't become a statistic? A lot! And we're going to get you started.

Our Own Story

It seems only yesterday that we were in the middle of the parenting battle. Three active and energetic boys filled our quiver and often challenged our sanity. Time for us as a couple was missing in action. We remember kidding about our front-door relationship. That was where we passed the kids off as we headed out for our next appointment or meeting. Both of us were overcommitted and overinvolved in activities outside the home. Our marriage was headed nowhere fast and then everything changed. What happened next wasn't pretty and it wasn't fun, but it salvaged our future empty nest marriage by forcing us to make some much needed repairs.

Campus Crusade for Christ asked us to move half way across the world to southern Germany to help begin the ministry in Switzerland. The move was Dave's best dream and Claudia's worst nightmare, but it was God's wonderful plan to help us refocus on our children and on our marriage.

One benefit of life in a foreign country is the "slow down" syndrome—especially if you don't speak the language. But we had a double challenge. Not only did we have to learn to speak German, we had to learn how to communicate better with each other. In the midst of cultural stress we discovered some principles that revitalized our marriage for the short-term and for the long-term helped us prepare for what is now the very best stage of our marriage—the second-half empty nest years! Here's what we learned.

Stop, Look, and Listen!

Stop! Now that's a novel idea, but it's hard to do in our busy world. It isn't so hard when you move to a foreign country and you have no one to talk to but your spouse. We found ourselves physically together but emotionally miles apart. We felt disconnected. Alone. Isolated. Before moving to Germany, we had prided ourselves on having a great marriage. But over the years, little barnacles had built up on our marriage ship. They became glaringly evident when the waves of activity subsided. Suddenly we had time to talk, time to face issues previously ignored.

One morning as we stared at each other across the kitchen table, we realized how far apart we had drifted. The one thing we did agree upon was that we both wanted to get our marriage back on track.

Perhaps you can identify with us. You never intended to drift apart and you want to move back closer to each other. Then take our advice: Stop and take a time-out. Carve out some time for two and begin to talk about your relationship. If you feel that your life is out of control and if you feel your marriage is headed down a one-way street the wrong way, you won't get turned around until you find some way to slow down and stop.

Look! Our next step was to take a serious look at our relationship. That morning over two cups of coffee we began to talk about our relationship and to focus on the positive memories. Our conversation drifted back to the time we met. We talked about our first date and about our certainty three weeks later that "this was it!" We found ourselves reliving a long-forgotten part of our lives.

As we focused on the positive memories, we were able to tackle the problems of the present. For the first time we took a good look at our marriage and talked through our relationship—where it appeared to be heading and where we wanted it to go.

Why not take a serious look at your own marriage? Look back and revisit your own memory lane. Talk about those things that attracted you to each other. What were the things you used to do for fun? Then look into the future. What do you want your relationship to look like when you graduate to the empty nest years?

Listen! Too often marriage is a dialogue of the deaf. The roar of kids, family life, work, and other activities drum out real communication and we fail to listen to one another. Years ago in Germany as we began to retool our marriage, we discovered how important it is to listen to each other. Instead of concentrating on what we wanted to say when the other stopped talking, we began to listen. We also worked on dealing with anger and conflict. It was hard not to attack each other, but when we took time to listen to each other and to calm down, we were able to resolve issues together and our relationship was strengthened.

Now it's your turn. Remember to stop, to take "time-outs" for your marriage, to look at your marriage and take regular check-ups, and to listen to each other. Your children will wait while you grab some time for your marriage, but you marriage won't wait until your kids leave home. Now is the time to upgrade your relationship and to invest in your marriage.

Feather Your Nest Now

Consider the following ten ways you can feather your future empty nest now.

1. Take five minutes a day to focus on each other. Maybe you'll want to get up five minutes early or grab a few minutes after the children are in bed. A sure way to find some daily couple time is to clean up the kitchen together. Our kids stayed as far away as possible when it was time to do the dishes.

2. Kiss for ten seconds every day. If you wonder what's so special about ten seconds, time it. In our Marriage Alive seminars we share about the ten-second kiss and continually get lots of good feedback. One wife e-mailed us, "We're just up to seven seconds but today my husband didn't make it to work on time."

3. Write love letters. Our Marriage Encounter friends are great letter writers. Take a tip from them and write your honey a note to say how much you love him or her.

4. Give marital vitamins. In our experience, stress is cumulative but encouragement is needed daily. So look daily for ways to encourage each other. Collect positives and generously give them to each other. Any act of kindness you give your spouse is like a marital vitamin. If your wife comes home exhausted, prepare a bubble bath for her and tell her you'll watch the kids and start dinner. If he forgets to hang up his towel or clothes, give him a gift of love and do it for him without complaining.

5. Make a wish list. If there were no limitations, what would you like to do together someday? Start your own empty-nest dream list.

6. Take a 24-hour getaway at least twice a year. Getting away without the kids—even for just twenty-four hours—can make a difference in the quality of your relationship and it can reignite intimacy, romance, and laughter.

7. Look for humor and have some fun. Laugh together and look for fun. In our national survey of long-term marriages we discovered that the greatest indicator of a successful empty-nest marriage was the level of the couple friendship. And you build your friendship by having fun together. So plan some great dates to celebrate your love for each other.

8. Pray together. You can grow together spiritually when you pause each day to thank the Lord for each other, for your family; and as a couple, give God your requests. Consider reading a favorite passage of Scripture together, or talk about how God has led you in the past, or share answers to prayers you have experienced.

9. Plan. Plan what you aren't going to do. This alone is a great marriage enricher. For instance, you are not going to give up time alone with your spouse; you're not going to spend money you don't have; you're not going to overextend your schedule. Now is also the time to plan for the empty nest. Realize that your active parenting years will not go on forever. Come up with your own de-parenting plan. Together talk about what you want your marriage to be like in the empty nest.

10. Persevere. Realize that the adolescent years can be draining both physically and emotionally. Don't put your marriage on the back burner. The empty nest is just up the road. You may think you will never get there, but we did and you will too; so keep on persevering.

The Empty Nest Is Just Ahead!

Within the walls of our home, it is now quiet. Yet in the recesses of our mind we hear the echoes of happy children and treasure memories of the hectic parenting years when once we struggled to make time for our marriage. Now our sons are grown and married and have families of their own. We have passed on the baton of active parenting and the challenging task of building a great marriage while parenting kids.

And every now and then we once again hear little voices in our home, when our precious grandkids come to visit and fill our empty nest with the wonderful sounds of childhood. We see again the stresses, strains, and joys of parenting through the bloodshot eyes of our own children. Our wish for them and for you is to seize the day. In the middle of your hectic lives as you parent your kids, make time for each other. One day, like us, you will pass on your own baton, but you can also pass on the heritage of a loving, vibrant, and enriched empty nest marriage. Trust us, the best is yet to be.

David and Claudia Arp, founders Marriage Alive International, are marriage educators, conference speakers, and authors of numerous books and small group video curriculum, including 10 Great Dates and The Second Half of Marriage (both Zondervan). Visit their website at:

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