When David and Claudia Arp’s youngest child moved out and started university, they came home unsure of their identity as a married couple. Where did the years go, and what were they to do with this empty nest?

The Arps wanted to hear from other couples in similar situations. In their book The Second Half of Marriage: Facing the Eight Challenges of the Empty-Nest Years, they surveyed 5,000 married individuals – most of whom were married longer than 25 years – and found that couples can best prepare for the empty-nest years by maintaining a strong sense of companionship.

Research warns of friendship-free marriage. According to a 2011 study in the United Kingdom, the top reason surveyed couples cited for divorce was falling out of love, suggesting that spouses would be more willing to work through the pain of infidelity than rebuild their faded friendship – a friendship that can be unintentionally overlooked during the parenting years.

Whether you’re planning for kids in the future, currently raising a family or are already empty nesters, you can invest into the future of your marriage by strengthening your friendship today.

Lasting love takes work from the start

Every wedding anniversary is a significant milestone that deserves to be celebrated. However, research shows that marital longevity doesn’t necessarily guarantee a lasting marriage. The Vanier Institute of the Family reported that four out of 10 Canadian marriages will end in divorce before the 30th anniversary – likely after all the kids have moved out.

Falling out of love can happen over a long period of time, easily without the couple realizing it. Since children require full attention from their parents the moment they’re born, couples may lose sight of the importance of investing in their marital relationship along the way.

The case for friendship – now!

Based on the Arps’ survey, 10 per cent of couples said that the greatest stress in their marriage stemmed from having "no time," suggesting that the busyness of life got in the way of making time for them to grow in their relationships. Many said what they most look forward to experiencing in the empty-nest years was having time to share a greater sense of companionship. While companionship is something look forward to, experts suggest it’s best to start working toward it now.

"Don’t wait till you drop your child off at college to think about this new developmental period of time," says licensed marriage therapist Sharon O’Neill, author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage. "Start considering what it will mean for your life six to 12 months before it happens, so you can be ready."

Parents often comment about how quickly time passes while raising their kids, so keep in mind that these major transitions often come sooner than you might anticipate.

"Prior to the kids leaving the family home, there is a time when [the children] are wrapped up in their own lives," says licensed psychotherapist Christina Steinorth, author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships, "which leaves parents a little extra time to re-engage with one another."

Rediscover what was lost

Sit down as a couple and look back to your early married years. What did you love doing together? What kinds of dates did you go on?

"So much of having a positive empty nest experience is re-establishing the bond you once had with your spouse prior to kids," says Steinorth. "Your lives and house will seem far less empty if you re-learn that you have each other."

Melody Brooke, married 13 years and an empty nester for three years, says she and her husband grew closer together by doing things they didn’t have time to do while their kids were still at home. "My husband and I are creative people whose careers have not allowed us to express those creative urges," she says, adding that their newly found free time allows for creative exploration. "We have begun writing screenplays and producing films together. It has provided us with an outlet for those creative impulses that [were] dormant."

Get started today

  1. Set up creative date nights.
  2. Ask questions to better understand your multifaceted spouse.
  3. Read up on practical tips that will strengthen your marriage for years to come.

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2012 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.  

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