She Said He Said: Empty nest; now where does our marriage go? |

She Said He Said: Empty nest; now where does our marriage go?

Lori Kret and Jeff Cole
She Said He said

Dear Lori and Jeff,

My husband and I have been married for 22 years and we’ve recently become empty nesters. We still seem to get along well and are respectful and appreciative of each other, but over the years we’ve developed two separate lives: he’s a cyclist and I’m a runner; he stays up late and I go to bed early. We prefer very different movies, music and TV shows. We are intimate infrequently, but neither of us seems to mind even though we both enjoy it when we do connect. With the glue of our kids no longer holding us together, I’m worried that we will simply drift apart and head in separate directions. What can we do to course-correct and get back on the same path?


Two Ships

Dear TS,

Lori and Jeff: If your kids have been holding your marriage together for years, then the attachment in your relationship has been undernourished for as long. We understand that kids, careers and life responsibilities leave little time and energy for feeding a marriage. But we have to stop viewing the long-term connection between spouses as a byproduct of good co-parenting. Marriage needs to be treated as a living, breathing entity that deserves nurturing. Otherwise, it will develop disease and wither. 

Lori: You are not the same people who fell in love 22 years ago. You can either settle into the mentality of “this is just who I am” or you can use the divide between you as inspiration to grow. “I’m a runner, and this is what I like” is a narrowed view of your identity, and a common lens for empty nesters to possess. After decades of attending to children’s needs, many parents experience a prolonged pause on their own personal evolution. The hobbies and interests that exist when the kids move out are often those that were able to neatly fit with the family’s resources, schedules and energy availability. But with newly found freedom comes an opportunity to ask, “What else is there?” and more importantly, “Who else am I?” 

It’s normal to want to be a little selfish once the kids fly the coop. You’ve had to manage your life around the needs of others for so long that it’s refreshing and rejuvenating to make decisions for yourself. But overindulging in independence will come at a cost to connection. Commit to spending the next three months dating yourselves. Sample new hobbies, re-engage in lost pastimes from your youth, bolster relationships with friends and community. But do so with the intention of sharing with each other what you’re learning about yourselves. Create nightly quality time or weekly dates to allow these growing facets of each of you to connect, and be curious about where bridges of new interests can be built.

Jeff: It’s always telling when we hear couples talk about the intimacy in their relationships. You’ve said that you are “intimate infrequently.” The assumption here is that you’re referring to your sexual intimacy and, like with many couples, it seems to be the default barometer being used to assess the state of the relationship. The true gauge of the health of a relationship is (sorry guys) the quality of emotional intimacy. But even that can be an elusive and challenging connection that requires work. In our sessions, men will often say: If we just had sex more often, I would feel more connected. On the flip side, women will say: If he would just open up and share his feelings, we could have a deeper bond. 

We’ve determined there are actually five types of intimacy and all are crucial in maintaining a healthy, sustainable relationship. The first two are the aforementioned sexual and emotional intimacy. The remaining three are playful intimacy (a lighter, sillier, more cuddly connection), intellectual intimacy (sharing of ideas, values and beliefs) and spiritual intimacy (a shared exploration of existentialism, religion or higher consciousness). These last three are where you will need to focus in order to rebuild your connection. The practice is to foster intimacy in small steps in these areas and not force the first two — either jumping back into bed or having long, drawn-out emotional conversations about the relationship.

Lori and Jeff: Instead of avoiding the reality of your disconnection, it’s time to turn back toward each other and find common threads in places where you might not have known they existed. Don’t prioritize sexual or emotional intimacy at first — build your connection back up slowly by getting to know each other again. Learn to expand your perceptions of what true intimacy is really made of.

Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit ​​ for all previous She Said, He Said columns.