Empty Nest Syndrome Had an Unexpected Impact on My Marriage
Through the weeks before our youngest son left for college, I began quietly considering what the next phase of my life would be like.
My husband and I had been married for a long time. We'd spent more than a decade together before we had kids. So, as I helped our son sort through years of clutter, dividing what would go into his suitcase—to Goodwill, or the dump—I began silently answering a list of inevitable questions:
Did I still enjoy being with my husband? Yes.
Did we still have things in common? Yes.
Did he drive me crazy? Yes, but only sometimes.
I was generally satisfied with my answers. We'd be OK. I figured that we'd just go back to the way it once was.
After a chaotic move-in weekend at our son's college, we planned a few days in Key West. It would be our first childless vacation in forever. I knew we needed a moment of pause, and imagined us sitting at a romantic restaurant toasting our accomplishment.
With two sons successfully out of the house, this was our time to rediscover ourselves.
Over the years, I knew my husband had become a creature of habit. I'd give in when he chose the same restaurant over someplace new, or when we'd return to a favorite vacation spot again and again.
When the kids were little, it made sense. Everyone was happy knowing that they had something safe and familiar. But now I was excited to break out of the family-friendly mold.
That first night, we headed to a restaurant overlooking the harbor. It was open-air and casual, which both of us liked. We planted ourselves at a table near the water and didn't leave until the place closed.
There was great food, live music, even a little dancing, plus a terrific waitress who told us all the best places to see and things to do. By the end of the night, I had a full agenda of art exhibits and outdoor adventures planned, including a trip to the nearby coral reefs for snorkeling and kayaking.
The next day, my husband humored me as we set out on the town. But I sensed pretty quickly that my itinerary was too much for him. He got tired. The heat bothered him. We'd explore one quick spot and he'd be done.
When I suggested we try a new restaurant that night, he said: "Why not just go back to that place on the pier?"
It was strange. Back in the day, he was the one who pushed me out of my comfort zone. He introduced me to hiking and camping. He taught me to watch birds, "stalk" animals, and forage for wild edibles.
He'd grown up in the country and loved to talk about his backwoods escapades as a child. I remember him leaping from pinnacle to pinnacle like a mountain goat on the cliffs of the Grand Canyon—a cautionary tale that I still use to tell our sons how not to behave.
But here in this beautiful beach town, at every turn, he got cranky and needed to rest. At one point, we turned around halfway to our destination. I could tell he was miserable, but I was feeling oppressed. Where was the husband I had known back in the days before kids?
We returned to our hotel and took a dip in the pool. Instead of relaxing, I could feel his tension rising. Finally, he got out and sat on the lounge chair.
"I don't want to go snorkeling tomorrow."
"I can't. I'm having panic attacks just thinking about being on the water."
My husband—panic attacks? Who was this man—the former adventurer who had taught me to be bolder than I'd ever believed or even wanted to be? Panic attacks were my realm.
Our pre-child marriage was plagued by my anxiety and emotional fragility. But somehow, during those decades of parenting, our roles and personalities had reversed.
I had found strength and stability in being responsible for children. I had found boldness by starting my own business and being in charge. I had learned to say
"Why not?" even when I was afraid.
"OK," I told him. "I'll go alone."
For the next few hours I felt myself mourning the husband I'd left behind. How was this going to work? Where was my companion? Was I going to be stuck traveling alone, recruiting friends to accompany me when he wouldn't come along?
Adjusting to a new life as empty-nesters is also adjusting to someone you don't really know. Though you've spent nearly every day of the past years together, you're not the same people. You've evolved.
It was unfair for me to expect him to be who he was any more than I could go back to being the insecure young woman I'd been. I felt bereft and lonely without the man who had been—and was still—my best friend, but I wasn't going to let his newfound reluctance stop me.
The next afternoon, he sweetly walked me to the harbor. He'd filled a backpack with a water bottle, snacks, suntan lotion, and everything else I'd need. He waited until I boarded and waved when we set off. The boat was filled mostly with young couples. And there I was, a graying middle-aged woman alone.
But, thanks to my husband, I've done a few things over the years besides the one true adventure of raising children.
I've climbed mountains and kayaked. I've scaled glaciers, scouted for petroglyphs, ridden horses, and traveled a lot. Even though he wasn't at my side that day as I'd hoped, I was empowered with the accumulated knowledge that we'd gained together.
It was dusk when the boat pulled back into the harbor. I was windswept and salt-sprayed and happy—more "myself" than I had been in years. I'd snorkeled and even impressed a thirty-something who thought he'd gotten stuck with the old lady in the two-person kayak.
I'd shared a glass of wine with strangers, but I was happy to get back. As soon as my phone got a signal, I texted him: "Meet me at our usual place."
And there he was at the harbor café, a glass of wine ready and hors d'oeuvres ordered, waiting for me.
Judith Lindbergh's new novel, Akmaral is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in May 2024. She is the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing community based in New Jersey. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Substack.
All views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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