Tips for couples becoming empty nesters

Alison Bowen
Chicago Tribune

When her oldest daughter was leaving for college, Veronica James was too emotional to step onto the plane.

“I knew I would be a basket case,” she said.

Instead, she said her goodbyes at the airport. Then, she sat in the car for two hours.

“I just cried and cried and cried,” she said. “It was horrible. I just felt like my heart had been ripped out of me.”

By the time their last child headed for college, she and husband David had a plan — and a plane to Italy to catch.

“It was really important,” she said, “because I would’ve been a basket case had I not distracted myself.”

Finding your new normal after kids leave the nest can be exhilarating, emotional and everything in between.

After spending years focusing on children, sometimes it can feel strange to have only each other.

“As they raise children, (couples) tend to put that relationship on the back burner,” said Dr. Terri Orbuch, a marriage therapist and author of “5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great.”

So how do a couple equip themselves for this new frontier?

First, before the nest is empty, talk about expectations. One parent might be thrilled — ready to go on a long-dreamed-of trip. Another might dread the moment the dorm room door closes.

“It can go either way,” Orbuch said. “It’s natural to feel a sense of loss. It’s natural to feel sad. It’s also natural to feel a little excited.”

Two people might feel differently and process emotions uniquely, she noted. That’s common — and OK.

Consider making a list of what you love about parenting and what you will never miss about parenting.

Note all the benefits of a child fleeing the nest: having the house to yourselves, more freedom to travel, less mess.

“One of the biggest challenges is unrealistic expectations,” said Natalie Caine, who offers empty nest counseling in Los Angeles.

She remembers taking her only daughter to college in New York, giving her a goodbye hug, and then, on her way back to Los Angeles, it hit her.

“I just sobbed and sobbed,” she said. She realized, “Oh my God, this is really happening. We’re really this far apart. I won’t be seeing her tonight or tomorrow morning.”

Not every reaction to a child leaving the nest is predictable. For example, parents might feel different with another child years later.

Orbuch herself understands the safety fear. When her youngest child, now 19, left for college, she found herself anxious in a new way.

“It’s the realization that your last child has left, and then it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m worried,’ ” Orbuch said.

Caine reminds parents, “You did the best you could. You gave them a foundation. You taught them good values. And now you need to trust that they’re going to make good decisions. And if they don’t, they can handle it.”

After navigating emotions, couples should work to reconnect.

Orbuch suggests talking at least 10 minutes a day about something other than the house, work or children.

That’s what helped James. Looking ahead to the next step, she and her husband Googled “empty nest.”

“The first thing that popped up for us was an ad for Alzheimer’s,” she said.

They quit their jobs, bought an RV on eBay and began traveling together. What resulted were the adventures cataloged in their book, “Going Gypsy: One Couple’s Adventure From Empty Nest to No Nest at All.”

James encourages couples to find something new to enjoy together. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to speak Spanish or appreciate wine.

This time is a new frontier for your child, but also for you.

“We have this full orchestra of different parts of ourselves,” Caine said.

For James, she realized their time raising children was “all hands on deck.”

“You kind of forget who those people were that you started out with,” she said. “By doing new things together, we were able to discover the fun-loving youngsters that met 30 years ago.”