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From Full House to Empty Nest – Now What?

By Kurt Smith December 10, 2023 Family

Recently, a family friend, Wendy, remarked on what excellent sleep she’d gotten. Mildly curious and trying to be funny, I responded, “Melatonin, wine, or did you kick Jerry out?”

Rather than any of my suggestions, however, she said, “No, I slept in Kendra’s bed last night. It’s amazingly comfortable! No wonder she never wanted to get up in the morning!”

Kendra is her daughter, and my raised eyebrow prompted her to further explain:

“We moved her into the dorms last week. We’re officially empty nesters! So, I was missing her a bit and thought I’d sleep there last night. And besides, Jerry was snoring like an apneic buffalo, so it worked out for both of us.”

I said, “Wow, that’s exciting for all of you. New chapters for everyone!” Which compelled Wendy to admit that after 5 days of crying on and off, she was finally starting to think about their new reality and what to do next. 

In my experience counseling couples in this stage, I can tell Wendy’s handling things pretty well. Many couples struggle to find their new groove after the kids leave.

The empty nesting phase can be as jarring a change for couples as the newborn stage was once upon a time. But just as the arrival of your children brought joy, pain, fun, and frustration, so will their exit. 

Pain and Frustration in the Empty Nest

It’s like “watching your heart live outside your body.” That’s how one woman described the feeling of her 18-year-old leaving home and starting life on his own. 

Change is often difficult or, at minimum, uncomfortable. Empty nesting, however, is in its own category of change, just as parenting is in its own category for relationships. 

You may logically know that the objective is to give your child the skills and confidence they need to become a self-sufficient, resourceful adult who contributes positively to society. However, achieving that goal is bittersweet. 

For each parent, it can mean,

Grief and Emotional Adjustment

It may seem inappropriate to use the term grief when it comes to your child moving out, but for parents that’s precisely what it can feel like. Grief refers to the emotions associated with loss, and for many parents, “empty nesting” can feel like just another way to say, “coping with loss.” 

The grief you feel isn’t just about your child being gone. It’s also associated with the closing of a monumental chapter of life. Even if they move back at some point for a while, the chapter on parenting through childhood has closed. Accepting that and coming to terms with it requires an emotional adjustment that can be extremely difficult for some parents.

Identity shift

Remember the change you made from an autonomous individual, living your life and making decisions just for you, to a parent in charge of the life and well-being of another human being?

Yep, you’re making that same kind of shift all over again. 

Becoming a parent of a child and then becoming a parent of an adult can be the two most significant identity shifts a person makes in their lifetime. Give yourself some grace – neither is easy, and both can take time.

A New Kind of Stress and Worry

Becoming a parent means getting cozy with worry. But when your child moves out, there’s a whole new level. 

Without being able to see them each day, you regularly worry:

  • Are they okay?
  • Are they happy?
  • Are they safe?
  • Do they need you?
  • Are they making good choices?
  • Are depressed, scared, focused, feeling successful, lonely, etc., etc.

While these worries never really go away, they settle down and eventually fade into a low background hum.

There’s no right or wrong about these emotions. Some may feel certain aspects more strongly or for a longer time than others. And there’s no clear split between what mothers and fathers feel – both parents are affected. 

Note: For some parents, empty nesting can result in empty nest syndrome. This is a condition characterized by feelings of emptiness, loss of purpose, and even mild depression. It’s crucial for individuals to recognize these feelings and seek support from friends, family, or professionals.

A New Type of Couple

Then there’s the change in the relationship between parents. For couples, empty nesting can mean:

Ripping the Band-Aid Off Marital Problems

Children in the home often provide both purpose and distraction for a couple. Once they move out, marital problems no longer have anywhere to hide. 

Relearning How to Communicate

Even if the marriage is strong, working as a family requires a certain kind of communication that often takes over and replaces healthy communication as a couple. Most empty nesters need to relearn how to communicate with each other. 

Redefining Your Relationship

The need to redefine your relationship isn’t necessarily a negative. In fact, it really should be looked at as an exciting opportunity. That said, going through that process can be difficult and have associated growing pains.

It’s important to note that experiences within marriages during the empty nest phase can vary significantly. Factors such as the relationship quality before the children leave, communication skills, and the ability to adapt to change all shape how couples navigate this life stage. Seeking support through counseling or support groups can be beneficial for couples facing challenges during this transition.

The Joy and Fun of the Empty Nest

Empty nesting isn’t all pain and problems, however. There can be many exciting and fun aspects to your new chapter. An empty household presents unique opportunities for personal growth, rediscovery, and a positively redefined relationship with your partner.

Among the bright spots in empty nesting are:

Personal Freedoms

With the children out of the house, you may have newfound freedom to explore personal interests or take up activities you’ve put on hold. This is a prime opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth.

Rekindling Romance

Empty nesters can use this time to focus on their relationship. Date nights, spontaneous getaways, and shared hobbies can reignite the romantic spark and strengthen the bond between partners.

More Sex

Some people mistakenly think that by the empty nesting age, libido is gone forever. Not true. The biggest libido killer is parenting. Once the kids are gone, the freedom to do what you want, where you want, and when you want without being walked in on or interrupted can mean a sexual revolution in your home. 

Professional and Educational Pursuits

Many find that the empty nest phase allows them to invest more time in their careers or pursue further education. Without parenting responsibilities at home, focusing on professional and personal development can be much easier.


For some, empty nesting means time for travel. Whether backpacking across Europe, on a cruise, or relaxing on a beach, empty nesters frequently embrace the opportunity to experience the world.

Focus on Fitness

Health and wellness are essential at all stages, but with the kids gone, you may have more time to focus on your personal health. This might involve joining a gym, taking up a new sport, or simply dedicating more time to exercise routines. This is also a healthy way to deal with the more distressing emotions you may be feeling. 

Becoming an empty nest adult is undoubtedly a challenging and emotionally charged period in life. Acknowledging the difficulties while embracing the bright spots can help individuals navigate this transition with resilience and optimism. 

Finding a way to embrace the changes accompanying empty nesting is crucial. Recognize that change is a natural part of life. Use this time and opportunity to re-evaluate your identity and purpose. By actively engaging in personal growth, rekindling relationships, and exploring new opportunities, it’s possible to enjoy a fulfilling new chapter of life.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you an empty nester? Have you found ways to cope or struggled with the change in identity? What’s helped? What’s made things worse? Please share your experience with other readers and join the conversation.

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The Author

Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director at Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching and works with men and the women who love them. He is an expert in understanding the unique relationship challenges facing couples today. Check out his weekly tips on Facebook or Twitter.

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