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No matter how you feel about your kids and/or your spouse, the empty nest takes a little more getting used to than you might think. Without forethought and planning, the life stage you have been told is wonderful could become extremely stressful instead, as you will continue to parent in all the challenging ways, like giving money and advice and solving unforeseen problems, while no longer enjoying the perks of parenting, like face time, casual conversation, and daily affection.

This being true, Todd and I led a breakout at the annual marriage retreat put on by Oklahoma Baptists last week and shared some tips with couples who are quickly approaching this life stage.

Here they are:

Anticipate. Looking forward to something is almost as much fun as living it and often improves the actual experience when it comes. Just as you looked forward to marrying your spouse, daydreamed about what life with them would be like, and groomed yourself for the experience, do so for the empty nest. Yes, there will be sadness in the goodbyes to your children, but anticipating joy on the other side of those goodbyes will soften that hurt, making the transition easier for the two of you and your children. It doesn’t help homesick children to know that their parents aren’t happy without them.

Plan. The first day. The first week. The first month. The first year and beyond. Big things. Small things. As you anticipate the empty nest, fill your imagination and your calendar with new things that will help you celebrate your freedom as a couple. Fill any potentially awkward or melancholy spaces with happy details tailored just for the two of you: food you didn’t eat when the kids were home, shows you didn’t watch, places you didn’t go, fellowship with people you weren’t free to visit, staying out late on a school night. If college doesn’t have you pinching pennies, you could plan a trip, but camping out in the living room in pj’s the kids never got to see can be just as much, if not more, fun!

Prioritize your spouse. The older your kids get, the crazier their schedules become, requiring the whole family to flex and sacrifice at times. If we aren’t careful, we can get in the habit of expecting our spouse to give instead of asking, assigning their needs a backseat to our kids’. Stop, take stock, and make sure you haven’t done this.Remember, you married your spouse to become one with them. Together, you welcomed your children into the family you had already formed, but their presence shouldn’t alter the balance of what existed before they arrived.

If you’ve gotten out of the habit, get into the habit of considering your spouse’s needs before your children’s, asking them to flex and sacrifice when necessary instead of expecting, giving them a voice in all family planning even if it’s logistically inconvenient to include them, and voicing the importance of your spouse’s identity as an equal member with you of the family core to your children, so they will grow up with a healthy understanding of God’s design for marriage and family. It’s not a bad thing to ask the kids to flex for Mom or Dad either. Asking your spouse to flex and sacrifice won’t mean much if the person being asked can’t say “no.”

Set or reestablish boundaries for your children. Your children don’t call the shots. They live in your house with the people who own it and are in charge of them in the eyes of God and the law. They need to do what you say. If you haven’t established time, space, and property boundaries with your children, do so now. If you wait until they move out, the sudden change will make them feel pushed out instead of sent off, making the separation process more complicated and painful than it needs to be. 

As a couple, set aside space in your house that is just for the two of you unless your children ask permission to enter and require them to knock before entering. Carve out regular time that’s just for the two of you. It doesn’t hurt the kids to be sent to their room early in the evenings so you can have alone time or stay in their rooms longer on weekend mornings so the two of you can have a date at home. Require your children to check with you before making any plans that will require you to alter yours and require their friends to call before coming over to make sure it’s okay. Require your kids to ask permission to use anything that isn’t theirs or doesn’t clearly belong to the entire family. 

Once the kids leave, set rules for coming home, like calling first and letting you know by midweek whether or not they plan to come home for the weekend so you can anticipate and plan couple time, even if your plans are to have no plans—which is its own kind of wonderful after years of living on the go—and don’t let them come home last minute if they said they weren’t going to.

Maintain, kindle, or rekindle romance. If the fire is burning, keep it stoked. If it never was, find out where you can get yourself some flint and a rock—seriously, help is out there if you look for it. If it was burning, but isn’t now, do what you did before. If that doesn’t work, educate yourself.

The problem in many marriages is that kids come along before couples have a chance to fully explore and enjoy each other as people, friends, and lovers. Wherever they happen to be at the time is where they freeze, thinking, saying, and doing things that may or may not have worked once, but definitely don’t hold up over time. Fire needs fuel to burn, and romance needs continued intentional investment from both partners to flourish.

If you don’t know it already, find out your spouse’s love language and speak it. Flirt, focus, and learn how to loosen up and have fun with your forever date. Consider your bedroom a playground and enjoy recess to the full. God wants you to (Song of Solomon 5:1)!

Bottom line, your empty nest is going to be whatever you put in the time and effort to make it.  Get to feathering now, and you’ll enjoy one of the most gratifying rewards you’ve ever earned.