By Jon Beaty
When their three children were young, Lisa and Roger dreamed about what it would be like when their kids left home. They’d do the things they enjoyed together before they became parents. But by the time the last child moved out, their relationship wasn’t what it used to be. Their marriage was suffering from empty nest syndrome.
Lisa and Roger worked hard to put their kids through college. As a labor and delivery nurse, Lisa took extra shifts. She also became an independent beauty consultant for Mary Kay. As a general contractor, Roger took every home remodeling job he could.
Outside of work, shuttling the kids to various activities sent Lisa and Roger in different directions. When they did have time together, they talked about the kids. Sex was infrequent and for Lisa it was unsatisfying.
By the time Lisa and Roger moved their son into his dorm room for his freshman year at college, their oldest daughter had graduated and moved to another state to be near her boyfriend. Their middle-child, also a daughter, was a college junior.
With the kids out of the house, Lisa and Roger stayed busy, but not with each other. Roger left home early each day to beat traffic and get to his latest remodeling job on the other side of the city. Lisa would leave earlier for her 12-hour shift, or sleep late on days off.
Lisa was first to realize something was wrong. She felt lonely with the kids gone. When she and Roger were home together, he’d collapse on the couch to watch TV. She’d talk on the phone to one of the kids, shedding tears every time she said goodbye. When not on the phone, she sat with her laptop filling orders for her Mary Kay clients, or browsing Facebook.
This wasn’t the life after kids they had dreamed about.
Lisa missed the emotional connection they had when they married 23 years earlier. One evening, she sat across from Roger in their living room while he ate his dinner in front of the TV. She waited for a commercial, then said, “You know, we don’t do stuff together anymore.”
“I didn’t think you cared,” Roger said between bites. “You could be in here with me, watching TV. Instead, you’re on the phone, or doing whatever you do on your laptop.”
Lisa said she didn’t think of watching the news and Pawn Stars as spending time together. Roger said he was tired after work and needed to unwind. The commercial ended, and Roger’s attention went back to the TV.
Lisa made further unsuccessful attempts to try to reconnect with Roger. One day at work, she shared her frustration with an older co-worker who recommended marriage counseling. Counseling had helped her and her husband get through the rough spot they hit with their empty nest syndrome.
Lisa’s co-worker explained that empty nest syndrome is common among middle-age parents. It’s characterized by feelings of sadness and loss. Parents become vulnerable to depression, identity crisis, and marital dissatisfaction. Lisa wondered if that’s what was happening to her and Roger.
Lisa and Roger had received counseling early in their marriage. They had trouble working through conflicts and both found it helpful. But now, it wasn’t easy for Lisa to convince Roger they needed counseling again. He finally agreed after she threatened to move out.
Building Love Maps
Lisa and Roger learned how to build “Love Maps.” In the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman identifies a Love Map as the place in the brain where one stores details about their spouse’s history, interests, fears, hopes, and goals.