A Taste of Empty Nest

Last Saturday, to celebrate our wedding anniversary, my husband and I went out to dinner alone – meaning without our kids – for the first time in almost six years. I know, I know. The reasons for this are too varied to detail in this post, but suffice to say it was a long-awaited and much-needed date.

My friends all asked the same question: “Did you have anything to talk about?” Thankfully, interesting conversation had always flowed easily between my husband and me. We talked about the kids. We talked about work. We made observations about the restaurant. We touched on the state of the world. We enjoyed each other thoroughly and delighted in the fact that we were actually able to complete so many different conversations without a hundred interruptions.

About halfway through the dinner I realized that I was really noticing my husband in a way that eludes me when we’re home. I was thoroughly present, and with this presence came a bit of the fear that I experienced regularly early in our relationship. How interesting, I thought. We’re here alone together, without the kids, and I’m feeling that old fear try to creep into the periphery of my heart. Utilizing the tools I teach my clients, I didn’t allow the fear to take hold, but I was fascinated by its attempt.

One of the most common themes among my clients is that their marriage fear is usually a fear of intimacy, a fear of the risks involved with sharing your heart completely with someone who is available and committed. We can say that we fear being engulfed or abandoned in some way, but I think that there’s also an existential fear that we all feel when we choose to be intimate with another human being. With the enormity of the marriage commitment, the fear often jumps to center stage and tries to convince my clients to leave the relationship with lines like: You don’t love him enough. You’re not really in love with her. You’re settling. You don’t have enough chemistry. You can do better. Fear is smart, and the lines play so perfectly into the cultural messages that espouse being madly in love with your fiance and being 100% sure that you’re making the right choice that it takes a lot of skills, tools, commitment, and accurate information to counteract the fear and battle it out of the driver’s seat.

The early years of marriage find a couple with a lot of time spent alone together. But once the first child enters the picture, the quality and quantity of time alone shrinks considerably. As I sat with my husband that night I realized that the kids are like a sheet of glass between us, thin enough that we can still see each other but enough of a presence to prevent a full experience of intimacy. I thought about what I imagine couples experience when all of their kids have left home, the transition that we refer to as empty nest. As I have very little professional and no personal experience with this transition, my date with my husband offered a small window into the empty nest: the grief of letting the kids go followed by a liminal stage of unknown and a rebirth not only of Mommy and Daddy as individuals but also a rebirth and, ideally, a renaissance, of the marriage.

5 comments to A Taste of Empty Nest

  • Briana

    Sheryl,
    This was a great post, and it was great to hear how the things you talk about affect you personally. That definitely makes me feel like I’m not alone!
    I enjoyed your comment about your kids being like a sheet of glass that prevents the vulnerability of full intimacy, thus preventing those feelings of fear, engulfment, and true committment. I often find my feelings of anxiety surface most when my boyfriend (and most likely, soon to be fiancee) and I are alone together for longer periods of time just the two of us. I think to myself, “How can we sustain this relationship for the rest of our lives?”, and then I start to question if I’m with the right person. But when other people are around, or we’re distracted by something we’re doing, it’s easier for me to let loose and enjoy his company(and not overanalyze). Your post helped me realize it is probably the fear of true intimacy and everything associated with it (fear of engulfment and fear of loss) that causes my anxiety…and that it’s not that he is the wrong person!

  • Ginger

    Yes, yes, yes….to both of you…I regularly read the blogs to keep myself at bay…Sheryl, what you said, “You don’t love him enough. You’re not really in love with her/him. You’re settling. You don’t have enough chemistry. You can do better.” forever creep in…or the “theres someone better out there for him…or he’s settling or what could he possibly see in me…(to flip the coin)…

    My boyfriend and I live long distance. When we do see eachother we iether have a great time or a bickering time…iether way I have a emotional reaction…good times equals “lets set the date”…hard times equal “oh noooo, Im not marrying that man!” I have actually come to the place of feeling these emotions but very proud to say I get over the “heck no” feeling pretty quick when I remember why I love him and that he deserves as much grace as me because as much as I am in denial, Ive got some issues too!!! lol

    Im really glad to see that you Sheryl deal with it too…only because it makes me feel more normal and theres others who deal with it…Im definatly understanding my anxiety over intimacy and being hurt…”a fear of the risks involved with sharing your heart completely with someone who is available and committed”…

    Thanks again for your heart Sheryl and yours too Briana

  • Kasey

    I really enjoyed this post, and the comments of Briana and Ginger. I considered a moment my own fear of intimacy. My partner does not sit still all too often, so I don’t regularly feel a fear of being engulfed because he doesn’t slow down enough to engulf me. 🙂

    My worry is that I think I fear more my partner’s humanity. Knowing he’s just a person, a human, not able to meet all of my needs, and me knowing all his quirks. I worry about my own ability to stay emotionally invested day in and day out. Do you think that is related to fear of intimacy, or something else altogether? I haven’t been able to put my finger on it.

    I feel terrible in a way to write that, the ugly truth for all to see….but I feel compelled to share my honest journey at the same time.

    Thanks. 🙂

  • Ginger

    Hi Kasey, Im not Sheryl by any means but the first thought that came to mind was having too high of expectations knowing he cant or wont meet. My friend spoke with a couple that had been married 50+years and of coarse she asked what kept them together. The wife said that she kept her expectations to a minimum…that way when he didnt meet them she was not dissapointed(speaking minor things, not red flags). I can definatly relate to having high expectations knowing full well he probably wont go there and ultimatly you get mad and resentful. Im thinking to allow him to be him and be ok with who he is…I can only imagine how peaceful that would feel to JUST be OK with who he is! It may be a way to push him away so that you arent too vulnerable…thats my way of pushing people away, I pick on the people I love most I think to keep them at a distance…and unfortunatly it works (Im working on that)…thats my thoughts. hope it brings some fresh insight:)

  • Hi Kasey – It sounds like you’re having a hard time accepting his imperfections – as you said, his humanity. I like what Ginger said about tempering expectations; this is at the core of my work with clients on the threshold of marriage. We enter marriage with SO MANY unrealistic expectations and fantasies, at the center of which is that we expect our partner to be perfect. Rationally, we know better, but the fantasy-perfectionist mind tends to kick into overdrive when we’re contemplating marriage and that’s when we realize that we’re marrying a fallible human being (as opposed to Prince Charming). The fear of intimacy probably factors into the equation as well in the sense that focusing on his faults creates a barrier and keeps you separate.