For years, as a parent, your life revolved around your kids’ schedules, leaving little to no time to spend with your spouse. When the children finally leave home, you may find yourself living with a complete stranger. Without common obligations and experiences holding the marriage together, you may feel strong pressure to separate or at least to reevaluate the relationship on a fundamental level.
This “empty nest” challenge is a surprisingly common one in modern America. Today, people aged 50 and older have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a divorce. More than half of those marriages lasted over 20 years before the couple decided to split.
Research highlights simple, if poignant truths about these break ups. For most empty nest divorces, the marriage does not end due to any discord in the relationship. Instead, the couple simply grows apart. They no longer share the same interests or enjoy doing things together. They stayed together for the sake of the children but lacked enduring reasons to continue forward.
Cultural expectations of marriage have likely shifted as well. Per some (but not all) analyses of health trends in America, Baby Boomers are living longer, healthier lives than previous generations. “60” may be the new “50,” and many Boomers (and late Gen-Exers with grown children) recoil at the notion that they must “make due” with the status quo in any arena of life. Caught in a late-mid-life crisis, these people struggle to redefine who they are and what they desire for their remaining years. Imagining the next 20 years, a newly liberated parent might want to pursue new hobbies, careers, or interests out of step with what the other spouse has in mind.
There’s also the biological factor. As the body ages, hormone levels change, and these fundamental physiological shifts in turn affect how people feel and relate to one another. For instance, women’s levels of oxcytocin – a hormone that encourages nurturing – generally decrease during menopause, causing their interests and desires to shift accordingly. They may feel less drive to “nest” and more of an inclination to travel, check things off “bucket lists,” reconnect with friends and community, and otherwise shake up the routine. Men also experience hormonal shifts as they age, most notably with respect to changes in levels of androgens like testosterone.
Taken together, these cultural, logistical and biological changes that occur in empty nesters can force realignments in priorities and compel even relatively contented couples to reimagine their roles as they relate to the world and to one another.
In Minnesota, judges require couples to go through mediation before granting divorce. In some cases, couples find that an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process like mediation or collaborative divorce helps resolve conflicts, separate martial assets peacefully, and prevent costly, dispiriting litigation.