Empty nesting: not as empty as it sounds?
Photo by Muffet
My sister Liz has two incredible boys. They’re both men, actually, which even I have a hard time facing. (How could they be grown up when I remember changing their diapers? Sunrise, sunset! Swiftly fly the years! Etc.!) One of her sons is in college and the other is in law school. After years together as a family, she and her husband have found themselves all alone. And they couldn’t be happier. She loves it when her kids visit, of course— but it turns out that she loves it when they leave.
I don’t know of a more devoted mom than my sister, so what gives? Shouldn’t she be pining for her babies? Isn’t that what mothers do?
Turns out, not so much. As recently reported in the New York Times, a new study published in the journal “Psychological Science” shows that marital satisfaction increases after the kids have taken their leave.
In the past few years, several studies have shown that marital happiness is adversely affected by children. Which, when you think about it, is really not all that surprising. (Sorry, kids.) Children may be limitless sources of joy for parents, but they don’t do much for quality time between a husband and wife. The increased financial stress of supporting a family can be a cause of great unhappiness and conflict. The struggle over sharing household duties can put strain on even the strongest marriage. And there’s nothing like fighting over money and/or who’s going to do the dishes over the din of a screaming toddler or bickering teens to make you think get me out of here.
But instead of running to a divorce lawyer, maybe all you have to do is wait a few years, or twenty! Because according to this latest study, once the kids are out of the house, the quality of spousal interactions improves, and both partners—but wives, especially—feel happier in their marriages.
I didn’t think this was the first time I’d read about a study like this, so I went searching through my bookshelves, and lo and behold: in the book “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert addresses the myth of the empty nest syndrome. According to the four separate studies Gilbert references, marital satisfaction takes a huge dip when the first child arrives and increases only after the last child has left. “Despite what we read in the popular press,” Gilbert writes, “the only known symptom of ’empty nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.”
According to the Times, we may not have to wait until our kids have vamoosed to feel better in our marriages. “The lesson from the empty nest may be that parents need to work to carve out more stress-free time together.” After all, empty nesters say that they don’t spend more time with their spouses, just better time. So making date night more of a priority might cure the all-kids-all-the-time blues.
So: any empty nesters out there? Anyone dreading or looking forward to their kids leaving home? Tell us your story, below.
Published January 29, 2009.
Last updated May 10, 2010.