Empty Nest & Retirement


Empty Nest

Empty Nest is the stage of life for a couple when the last child leaves home and goes out on their own; often leaving home for college, sometimes into the world of work, or joining the military. While some children return to the nest again, many are gone for good. Either way this creates a shift in the marital relationship.

For 20 or more years the couple's priorities have been the children, finances, career goals, etc. Now Mom and Dad are home alone, once again as "just" a couple focusing on each other, retirement plans, personal medical needs, aging parents, and perhaps some personal-emotional exploration. For many people, this is a time of deep thought, and sometimes is considered a "mid-life" or existential crisis. This is a time, a crossroad in a couple's life, to seek professional guidance in making sense of their feelings of fear, loneliness, sadness, or confusion   

While some people joke that "you haven't lost your child... you've gained a man cave!" For some people who have been extra-close to their children, this stage of life may feel like a death experience and they may go through a grieving process. In many cases where a woman's sole fulfillment comes from her role as mother, this will be a very difficult time for her. She and her husband are probably in a sad and lonely marriage as well. We help these couples rekindle pleasure, meaning, and purpose through their bond with each other.  

Empty Nest is more challenging for couples whose marriage has revolved more around their children and their family than their marriage, themselves, and each other. In some situations, there are spouses who have thought in the back of their minds that they should stay together "for the sake of the children", rationalizing that their marriage was good enough, and therefore staying there even though they were not happy and "in love". For these couples, approaching the empty nest could be very scary, depressing, and/or anxiety provoking. During counseling we consider in a positive non-judgmental way the question of whether this marriage can be what you want it to be.  

The truth is that for all couple’s empty nest is a challenge and marks a significant rite-of-passage for a couple entering what should be their golden years. There are many good opportunities that come with the kids being out of the house and a couple getting older together. 

For most couples, it is more about the adjustment to being alone together. Exploring what comes next in life: retirement, hobbies, work, contributing to their community or the larger society. Occasionally our work with couples is more focused on the decision to stay together or not... now that the kids have grown and are gone from "the nest". 

We think it is useful to point out that couples in their 50's often report higher levels of sexual satisfaction at this phase of their lives than they felt when they were in their 30's and 40's. There is less demand from children and career building, less fear of pregnancy, and usually a better personal self-esteem and an improved relationship confidence. When appropriate, we teach sexuality education suited to the age and life-stage of the couples we work with.   


Regardless of the circumstances, retirement creates a substantial change in the home environment and big lifestyle change for the couple. Whether the retirement was anticipated and well planned or the result of a surprise layoff the change will affect the daily routines that have been in process for many years. After 30 or 40 years of marriage most couples are set in their ways.  

Each person has his or her own daily routine, patterns, and priorities. When a spouse retires, everything changes for both husband and wife. Not only does the retiree's daily life go through a major change, which would be expected, but there are also big changes for the spouse’s routine as well.  

Obviously how this change is handled will affect each person and the marital relationship. It is not uncommon for couples to have some long-standing issues go unaddressed while they are busy raising the family and working long hours. After retirement, these issues will often resurface or take on a more obvious presence.  

Most retired couples enjoy their new lifestyle together for a while. They have more time together and a newfound energy for travel, hobbies, and leisured sex. This can be very exciting and fun. But for many couples the glow wears off and dissatisfaction sets in. Couples often have issues with the retirement phase of life if they had spent little time together, had few common interests, and had little to no connection prior to retirement. 

Men are typically raised to be productive as workers making most of the family income, and making the major family decisions. Men retired from high-powered jobs often have big challenges being out of the limelight, off of the pedestal, and without the power of being in charge. Therefore, they often go through an identity crisis after retirement. Now retired they may feel lost without a purpose and direction. Low self-worth, grouchiness, anger, over-drinking, and depression are common.  

Many women, on the other hand, express a frustration when they believe their newly retired husband is trying to micromanage them and their household projects. These women did fine for many years and now "he thinks he knows how to do everything better. He knows how to run the washing machine more efficiently, organize the drawers better, and do the food shopping effortlessly. "  

Marital relationships are especially challenged at this time if there was an imbalance in household responsibilities or there was a sense of disconnection before the retirement phase began. Many marriages can be described as “divide and conquer” where the husband works and the wife takes care of the children, as opposed to being couple centered.  

If the "retirement" was not anticipated (as in a layoff or being fired) the trauma of the sudden change may cause the marital dissatisfaction to appear immediately. Neither party is relaxed enough to enjoy the amount of time that is suddenly available.   

All too often the dreams of retirement turn into a frustrating reality of differing goals and expectations, especially if prior to retirement there were unaddressed issues in the marriage. Sometimes the retiree wants to spend time home alone reading, relaxing, or doing projects that have piled up during the many years while at work. Some retirees want to go off with friends to play golf or tennis.  

Often a stay-at-home spouse will have been dreaming of traveling the world together only to find out that their newly retired spouse has very different ideas. The biggest problems appear if the couple is unable to talk about their individual goals and needs and negotiate those differences.  

Common Issues we strive to resolve in counseling for retired couples  

  • Household responsibilities 
  • Time together vs time apart
  • Specific shared activities/hobbies 
  • Immediate finances and long-term planning  
  • Diminished self-esteem for the new retiree  
  • Retiree “underfoot” for the spouse 
  • Differing sexual appetites