The “empty nest” syndrome is something that many of us older parents are going through, or will be going through in due time (sooner than we might imagine). It’s the time when children leave home or no longer need their parents as much (except when they run out of money or need some favours or ferrying around!).
As a pastor and marriage counsellor, I’ve observed that when the nest becomes empty, the wife often enters a stage of grieving—without the husband noticing it. At the same time, she may also begin to feel the full weight of her resentment against her husband, after decades of being emotionally neglected and putting up with his neglect of his share of chores and childcaring.
The husband, meanwhile, begins to realise how shallow his relationship with his wife has become, and it dawns upon him that the marriage has been on auto-pilot for the past years.
For the past many years, the children might have served as the mediator or buffer between husband and wife. With this mediator gone, the couple is now forced to face each other directly—and what they see might not be likeable.
Now, in the absence of children, the marriage begins to falter and fail. Both husband and wife fail to stand on their own in their marriage, because they have failed—for several (or many) years—to love each other.
The Scorpion’s Sting in Marriage
At this point, many old wounds, conflicts, and grievances can surface or resurface. Unfulfilled needs and expectations are presented and demands made of each other. Accusations are exchanged over unmet expectations, leading to criticism, judgment, belittling, and even condemnation.
To make it worse, sin and old, carnal natures can reassert themselves in a new and ugly way. When combined with the unhappiness over unfulfilled expectations, its sting, like that of a scorpion, may be deadly for the long-time marriage.
This may surprise many of us. We might not expect mid-lifers and seniors to be as cruel and self-willed as we might imagine younger people to be. We might even be surprised to witness the sinfulness and ugly behaviours of older Christians. And we might be shocked to see marital sin occurring in the second, third, and even fourth decade of marriages.
Sadly, the disengagement of couples who have to face each other after years of relating through their children is very real—and all too common.
At this point, you might wonder if I am painting too dire a picture of empty-nest marriages, one that is too bleak and pessimistic. You might say that not every couple experiences empty nests in this manner. You might even add that many marriages do not contain the deep cracks that are revealed when children leave the home.
You may be right, and I hope I am wrong! I know many marriages are not like what is described—and I rejoice!
Sadly, however, the disengagement of couples who have to face each other after years of relating through their children is very real—and all too common.
Where God’s Grace Comes In
It is precisely at this point in a marriage, when the couple is grieving their now-empty nest, that they need to turn to God for His grace. Without God’s grace and forgiveness, the marriage may slide into increasing emotional distance, disengagement, despair, and even death.
We need to dwell on God’s own grace—His undeserved favour—towards us in Christ (Ephesians 2:8), and His enablement for us to live rightly in His sight (2 Corinthians 9:8), if we want to look at and relate to our spouse differently.
By drawing on God’s forbearing and forgiving love for us, we can learn to extend it to each other. Only when we surrender to the Spirit’s filling and leading, can we bear the fruit of the Spirit—the forbearance, kindness, and gentleness that we need to relate to one another rightly (Galatians 5:22–25).
Couples in this stage—as in other stages of their marriage—also need to acknowledge that . . .
- They are now in a new season of life that reveals any cracks in the foundation of their marriage;
- They are likely to feel forlorn—lonely, unhappy, and even a sense of abandonment—because of the improperly weighted love for their children, and their failure to respond lovingly to each other’s needs.
In the later stages of marriage, grace is also about accepting husbands and wives as they grow old.
Grace means allowing each other to mourn after the child’s departure, and comforting and showing understanding to each other. It means learning to accept each other for who we are, with all our limitations and weaknesses. It means continuing to show kindness, patience, and forbearance in the midst of coldness or apathy. It means learning to forgive each other’s follies and idiosyncrasies.
In the later stages of marriage, grace is also about accepting husbands and wives as they grow old. Husbands may find it hard to accept their wife’s ageing even as they themselves age. And wives may have to acknowledge that their husbands may die first, as a vast majority of women live longer than men.
No Marriage is Immune
Besides exercising grace and forgiveness, some couples may need the help of a marriage mentor or counsellor. It can be difficult to work through the many years of accumulated unhappiness, resentment, or emotional baggage, without the help of a caring and competent person.
Husbands and wives may need to relearn the lost art of talking and listening—in other words, how to talk so that the other will listen, and to listen so that the other will talk.
Fellow husbands and wives, as we enter this stage of marriage with an empty nest, may we see our need for God’s grace—and go on our knees to ask God to help us extend it to our spouse.
Without grace, we face the danger of being tempted and attacked, and facing a marital and personal crisis in our golden years. Even at this stage, no marriage is immune from crisis, tragedy, or spiritual attack.
May God’s grace abound in our marriages, to make them grow stronger even as we grow older!