Since the 1970s, relationship experts have popularized the notion of “empty nest syndrome,” a term used to characterize feelings of deep sadness, angst, and loneliness parents sometimes feel when the last child leaves home.
Several books and blogs have been written to help parents deal with the transition. Simon & Schuster even published a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” dedicated to empty nesters.
But a growing body of research suggests that the phenomenon has been misunderstood.
While you may clearly miss your kids when they leave home for good, the empty nest is not necessarily an unhappy place.
Improving Your Marriage Quality
New research shows that marriage quality and happiness actually go up when the kids finally leave home.
And it’s not that your life is worse off with kids. The study found parents were still happy with kids, but their marriage satisfaction improved substantially when the kids left.
While that may not surprise a lot of parents, especially if you’ve lived this transition firsthand, I have to admit I was a bit shocked by these findings.
Why do empty nesters have better relationships than parents with kids still living at home?
It’s a timely question, given that for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 are more likely to be living in their parents’ house than living with a spouse or partner in their own home.
Understanding why empty nesters have better relationships can offer important lessons on marital happiness for all parents, even ones still years away from having a child-free house.
How Kids Impact Your Relationship
One of the unsettling findings from the paper was the negative effect children can have on a previously happy relationship.
Although it’s a common belief that kids bring couples closer together, more research is finding that marital satisfaction and happiness drop after the arrival of the first baby.
The Journal of Advanced Nursing reported on a study from the University of Nebraska College of Nursing that examined marital happiness in 185 men and women.
Scores declined starting in pregnancy, and remained lower as the children reached 5 months and 24 months. Other studies found that couples with two children score even lower than couples with one child.
While having kids can obviously make parents happy, the financial burden and time constraints will add stress to a relationship. After your first kid, you’ll find you have only about one-third the time alone together as you had when you were childless, say researchers from Ohio State.
The arrival of children also puts a disproportionate burden of household work on women. After kids, housework increases three times as much for women as for men.
The thing about these studies is they mostly focus on the early years. To understand the effects over time, researchers at Berkeley tracked marital happiness among 72 women in the Mills Longitudinal Study, which followed a group of Mills College alumnae for 50 years.
This study was important because it tracked the first generation of women to juggle traditional family responsibilities with jobs in the workforce.
In the empty-nest study, researchers compared the women’s marital happiness in their 40s, when many still had children at home; in their early 50s, when some had older children who had left home; and in their 60s, when virtually all had empty nests.
Empty Nester = Happiness
At every point, the empty nesters scored higher on marital happiness than women with children still at home.
These findings mirror what we’re seeing today. The American Psychological Association ran a study where they followed a group of parents and interviewed them at the time of their last child’s high school graduation and 10 years later.
They found that the majority of parents scored higher on marital satisfaction after children had left home.
While the Berkeley researchers hypothesized the improvement in marital happiness came from couples’ spending more time together, the women in the same study reported spending just as much time with their partners whether the kids were living at home or had moved out. But they said the quality of that time was better.
Less interruptions and less stress means more quality time. It wasn’t that the couples spent more time with each other, but that the time spent together was better.
If you still have kids living at home, the lesson here is you need to carve out more stress-free time together.
In the sample studied, it was only relationship satisfaction that improved when children left home. Overall, parents were just as happy with kids at home as in the empty nest.
So your kids aren’t ruining your life, they’re just making it more difficult to have enjoyable interactions together.
To a richer life,
— Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap