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Is Empty Nest Syndrome Real?

Parents miss their kids but may find each other (and themselves) again.

Like many parents, my wife Lene and I will be taking our kids back to college this weekend. It’s a bittersweet moment, for all of us. Our twins love being home and doing things with us and with their friends, but they also look forward to continuing their college adventure.

For our part, we’ll be sad to see the twins go, they are such loving, smart, and fun companions, but we also enjoy the life we have with just the two of us. Our “nest” will be less crowded than it is when the twins are here, but still plenty cozy.

Dreamstime, used with permission
Here's to you, kids! And to us.
Source: Dreamstime, used with permission

The idea of “empty nest syndrome” was first proposed back in 1914 to describe the slide into depression that supposedly occurred for women after their last child left home and they were stripped of the daily meaning and structure of the motherhood role. As sometimes happens in psychological research, this idea struck some kind of cultural chord and became widely popular, even though there was no real evidence that this was a common experience. When research finally accumulated on this topic, in the 1970s, the “syndrome” was mostly debunked. Most people, dads as well as moms, reported experiencing a sense of relief and freedom when their last kid left home, even as they also had some feelings of loss and sadness.

Research since then has mainly supported this conclusion, as I describe in my book (with Elizabeth Fishel) Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years. Marital relations generally improve, as couples have more time to spend together without being interrupted by requests for money or the car keys. One mom we interviewed told us how after her two daughters departed for college, she and her husband “redefined our life as a couple that has been on hold for 20-odd years.”

However, a lot depends on the quality of the marital relationship at the time kids leave. A good marriage is likely to get better, as couples revive their intimacy and are reminded of all the things they like to do together. But a shaky marriage may really hit the rocks, without the children around to serve as a buffer between estranged parents. In the past two decades, rates of “gray divorce” among couples over age 50 have doubled—even as overall divorce rates declined—as some empty nest couples look to a future of decades together and find that prospect intolerable.

Empty nest parents also find they have more time for their own interests. “Their freedom is my freedom,” said one of the mothers we interviewed. At last parents get to turn their attention back to their own lives and focus on their own goals and dreams. Most people report feeling greater independence and more personal time to start or revive interests or leisure pursuits, from joining a book club to improving that golf swing or tennis backhand. Those who are single now have time to devote to looking for a new partner.

Even relationships with the kids get better! This may seem like a paradox, that you get along better with your kids after they leave home, but isn’t it easier to get along with someone you don’t live with? No more conflicts about who left the dirty dish on the shelf, whose turn it is to do the laundry, who ate the last donut, or who made all that noise coming home last night at 2 a.m. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.

So, there’s no need for a sense of gloom and doom if your own emptier nest is on the horizon. You’ll probably miss your kids, and that’s good! They’ll probably miss you, too. But you’ll both cast a rosy glow on your relationship and recall the good parts more than the… other parts. And hey, if you really find it difficult to live without their daily presence, don’t worry. There’s a good chance they’ll be back! Next summer, and the summer after, and after graduation, and…

More from Jeffrey J Arnett Ph.D.
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More from Jeffrey J Arnett Ph.D.
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