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What Is the Empty-Nest Syndrome?

June 9, 2023
Empty Nest

What To Expect if We’re Experiencing the Empty-Nest Syndrome

It often starts in a surprisingly happy way. Your child successfully graduates high school, and they’re gearing up to launch into their next chapter. They could be moving into a college dorm, starting a job in a new city, or going on a long awaited travel adventure. How exciting!

Once they leave the nest, however, it likely doesn’t take long for you and your spouse to realize the house is a little too quiet. The bathroom is always clean. The laundry basket is empty. Your child’s room is uncomfortably tidy and barren. What’s more, you find yourself with time. Your color-blocked schedule now has several open afternoon and evening slots. This should all be thrilling, but somehow, you’re feeling blue. Actually, you’re outright sad and lonely.

Welcome to the empty-nest syndrome.

What is the empty-nest syndrome?

Shouldn’t we feel excited about the empty nest?

What if my spouse and I don’t feel the same way?

Now what? 

How long will the empty-nest syndrome last? 

What is the empty-nest syndrome?

The empty-nest syndrome is a common and often challenging midlife transition. As young adults move into the first portion of their adult lives, parents are suddenly faced with grief due to a loss of purpose and the task of creating a new vision and reality for their own lives. The National Institute of Health defines the empty-nest syndrome as:

“A psychological condition that affects both parents, who experience feelings of grief, loss, fear, inability, difficulty in adjusting roles, and change of parental relationships, when children leave the parental home.”

It’s important to note that though the empty-nest syndrome is often associated with feelings of grief and depression, it is not a clinical diagnosis. Instead, it’s a way to characterize the complicated range of emotions parents may experience during this transition.

Shouldn’t we feel excited about these changes?

Not necessarily. As parents, overseeing the education, social activities, spiritual needs, and overall well-being of your children often becomes the primary responsibility of your day-to-day life. While you understand (in most cases) the act of child-rearing is an 18 year endeavor, the reality that the need for full-time parenting has ended may still come as a shock. When that’s taken away, the sense of loss can be devastating. But take heart—you’re not alone, and you will find a way through this season.

What if my spouse and I don’t feel the same way?

Here’s an empty-nest syndrome twist you might not have been expecting—no two parents are alike, even married ones. It’s possible that rather than disappointment, your spouse may enter this new season with a strong feeling of excitement.

New research shows an increasingly large segment of parents are embracing the empty nest as a time of freedom and opportunity. Neither reaction is right or wrong, but if you and your spouse view this season differently, compassion and honest communication are imperative.

If you’re not sure how to get started, check out our seven tips for better communication with your spouse. These ideas will help you listen, talk, and connect even when having difficult conversations.

Older married couple working through figuring out what is the empty-nest syndrome together and how to navigate it; they're going on a jog

So now what?  

Now that you know the empty-nest syndrome is real, it’s time to pay attention to your symptoms and assess your needs. No matter where you fall on the happiness to despair spectrum, here are some ideas that might help. 

  • Give yourself time. You just spent 18+ years pouring into your children. Take time to care for yourself—not a day or two. Take the time you really need.  
  • Acknowledge the feelings of loss, fear, or anxiety. Recognize your emotions are real, but they’re also a side effect of change and transition that will not last forever. Don’t suppress your feelings. Instead, give yourself space to work through the sense of loss, so you can open the door to “what’s next” when you’re ready. 
  • Be honest with your spouse. It’s important the lines of communication stay open. Take time to share how you’re feeling and ask for support. If you’re the spouse who’s feeling excited, extend grace to your better half, and check in with them as needed. It might not change exactly how they’re feeling but to know you care will be impactful. 
  • Be aware of the mind/body connection. Making an effort to exercise, eat healthfully, and stay engaged will go a long way toward easing some of the symptoms of grief and depression.  
  • Phone a friend. They called it a lifeline for a reason. This is a great time to connect with friends or family members who have already walked down this path and likely understand how you’re feeling. In due time, you may be the one walking the road with someone else. Know it’s OK to ask for help. 
  • Refocus your attention. It works with toddlers, and it can work for you, too. What are some activities you used to enjoy you could start doing again? Turn your attention to a new hobby, or get back to an old one. Pray—for yourself, your spouse, your children. Start a gratitude journal—write down one thing each day you’re grateful for. Sit down with your spouse, and make a list of things you’d like to do together. Though it sounds simplistic, just the action of shifting your focus can help you feel stronger and more hopeful. 

How long will the empty-nest syndrome last? 

It may sound cliché, but remember the empty-nest syndrome is just a season.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” —Ecclesiastes 3:1

For a moment, reflect on what likely felt like never-ending diaper changes, playdates, and car pools. In hindsight, they were just a short season in the adventure of child-rearing.   

From a Christian perspective, choosing to see the empty nest as a new, God-given time period can help dispel fear and encourage hope. Given time, space, patience, and kindness, this transition will become your new normal and possibly open a gateway to a new type of relationship with your adult children and spouse filled with exciting adventures and memories to be made. 

Practically, you can anticipate the empty-nest syndrome to last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Keep an eye on your symptoms, and if you find yourself unable to shake the strong feelings, malaise, or grief, please talk with your doctor or a trained counselor 

In the end, the empty nest is an invitation to open your heart to new beginnings. You have loved and nurtured your child with the hope they will become a kind, independent adult. And while it may have happened faster than you anticipated, it’s still worthy of celebration!

Get To Know Your Spouse in a New Way

In this new season of marriage, consider attending a WinShape Marriage experience with your spouse. You’ll participate in experiences that will help you grow closer to one another and to God.

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