The empty nest years don’t have to be filled with longing for the good ol’ days with the kids. By adding some effort, the two of you can thrive together.
Our very first kitchen space featured a 100-year-old farm table my husband and I bought for $20 the summer we got married. After stripping off layers of light-green milk paint, we sanded and conditioned the wood, restoring its luster. The table served us well until our third child was born and we needed to upgrade to a bigger table. We found an affordable new Amish-crafted table that did just the trick; the farm table found new purposes in the basement.
Our youngest child recently moved out of the house. When he did, my husband and I found ourselves sitting smack dab in the middle of an empty nest. With this transition also came a move to a smaller home. At that time, we decided to put our Amish dining set up for sale and keep our old farm table. That antique piece has once again become the centerpiece of our kitchen, with plenty of room for two.
As my husband and I sat sipping our coffees one morning, I thought about the changes that old table has seen. While it felt familiar to once again be using it daily, it also had a strangeness about it, much like our new empty-nest stage of life. With no one needing help getting on the school bus or asking to be driven to sports practice, our days became eerily quiet. Our fridge stayed full longer, and the house stayed tidy.
After a few weeks of wallowing in my sadness, I decided I needed to make some changes and find ways to reconnect with my husband. I knew that this new season of life did not come as a surprise to God. I would go to Him for direction as to what our new routine as a married couple should look like in this unfamiliar stage. I recalled Jeremiah 33:3, which urges, “Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know” (HCSB). Well, there were a lot of things I did not know. Things such as …
How am I going to adjust now that my children don’t need me as much? How am I going to fill my extra time? What changes will the absence of kids in the house make in our marriage?
God was faithful and supplied the answers to all my questions. With His guidance, I’ve learned a few tips that have helped me implement new routines and find fulfillment in my marriage during this season of life. If you’re experiencing the strange quietness of your own empty nest, perhaps you’ll find these tips helpful, too.
Reorder your days for just the two of you
In days gone by, your itineraries were most likely set by combining all your kids’ schedules and then figuring out how to shuffle everyone to their events and take part in their activities. Now it’s just the two of you with only two schedules to mesh. Sit down one evening and try to come up with a new daily, weekly and monthly routine, adding back in some of the things you did together before the kids came along.
Did you used to go out to the movies or concerts once a month? Out to dinner every so often? Did you take walks in the evening as newlyweds or drink coffee in the morning before heading to work?
Did you work on hobbies together? Try to incorporate some of these old routines as part of your new normal. It will feel both familiar and fresh at the same time.
Morph mundane chores into charming dates
Without having to attend sports or school music events, you have gained time to do some chores together that you formerly accomplished alone. Did you used to grocery shop while your spouse typically was the one who took the car to the mechanic for maintenance? Make a day — and a date — of it! Go together to get the car serviced, sipping a favorite beverage or going for a walk while waiting. Then trek off to the grocery store to shop before heading home to unload your bounty and enjoy a candlelight dinner for the two of you. Doing unglamorous chores together as a couple can often turn the routine into a little romance.
Our favorite recent “date” was to tackle some yardwork together, stopping for a break to eat sandwiches and relax on our front porch. I made a trip to the local bakery for a sweet treat to share after our lunch. It made the chore a little more charming.
When you and your spouse first met, you were eager to learn all you could about him or her — your true love’s likes, hobbies, thoughts and dreams. However, over the years, you may have fallen into a rut and no longer seek to unearth your spouse’s preferences.
One Saturday when my husband and I went out for breakfast, I noticed him digging through the basket of individual jams and jellies. When I asked him what he was looking for, he replied, “Orange marmalade. I love that stuff.” We’d been married for more than 20 years at that point, and I never knew this. It made me wonder what else I didn’t know about him. I began a quest to ask questions more often, and it has unearthed some fun facts in the process.
Consider busting up the boredom by getting to know your spouse all over again. Spend time together at an eatery, coffeehouse or simply at home on the back deck, asking your spouse to share his or her thoughts on anything from his or her favorite toy growing up to a memorable teacher to one thing he or she has always wanted to try but was afraid to.
Make seasonal bucket lists
At the start of each of the four seasons, make a new habit to craft a bucket list with your spouse for the two of you. Put down activities like “Go apple picking and make homemade doughnuts” for autumn or “Stay the night in a cabin at a state park and make s’mores over a bonfire” in the summer. Then, seek to check off as many items as you can. This past year we went to a throwback concert of oldies tunes and felt like teenagers, took a tour along an old highway to marvel at the fall colors dancing in the sun and drove to see a waterfall at a state park we’d never been to before.
Go help your “old selves”
Another great habit is to regularly look back over your life at what challenges and struggles you faced in marriage. Were you once a young couple struggling to corral three small children under five years of age, and you rarely had breaks to spend time together as husband and wife? Were you a child of divorce or did your spouse struggle in school? Find people in a similar situation today, thinking of them as your “old selves.” As a couple, reach out to them and spread a little kindness their way, living out the Gospel as you do. Perhaps offer to babysit for those maxed-out young parents or tutor that student who needs a little help academically.
The empty nest years don’t have to be filled with wistfully longing for the good ol’ days with the kids. By adding a little ingenuity and effort, you can build in some habits and routines that will bring you and your spouse closer together. Even though your own children may not be joining you each evening for dinner, there is always room at your table for others and — most importantly — for each other.
This article first appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. It was originally titled “Just the Two of Us.” © 2020 Karen Ehman. All right reserved.