Mormon Therapist on Empty Nesting

John Dehlin Mormon 6 Comments

Natasha Helfer Parker is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and a member of the Church with 13 years of experience working with LDS members. Here she shares with us representative cases from her practice and insights she has gained from her work as a therapist.  She blogs at mormontherapist.blogspot.com.

Is it common for one to feel resentful of the other spouse when empty-nesting?  All I see in my spouse now are all the wrongs I’ve ever felt.  I’m having a really hard time getting over it.

The “empty nest” stage of family development can be both a challenging and rewarding time of life.  So much of what our lives consist of before hitting this stage revolves around creating a family, raising children, and trying to get them successfully launched.  Parenting is exhausting, exhilarating, rewarding, painful and incredibly time-consuming.  All parents make concessions as a couple to pull off this incredible feat.  There just isn’t the time and energy left for parents to function as a couple in the same way they did through their courting and pre-children years.  LDS couples face the added cultural and doctrinal pressure to marry early and not put off having children.  Their pre-children relationship is relatively short.  They don’t have much experience being alone in their relationship.  Because children take up so much of our time and energy  it can be easy to ignore or deny marital problems along the way.  Then as children leave, it is inevitable that the focus turns back to the couplehood – with the resulting negative or positive implications.  Many couples find this to be an enjoyable time, when they can refocus on their sweetheart, enjoy more time and activities together and explore new things that there previously was no time for.  However, if there have been problems brewing for the last 20 to 30 years, this can be an incredibly difficult time when you are now facing them head on.  So, yes, it is normal to face resentments and struggles during this stage of life- especially if there are unresolved issues.  Divorce is not an uncommon occurrence at this particular stage.  Some have actually been waiting intentionally for the children to leave in order to follow through with a planned divorce. Here are some thoughts:
  • Hopefully all along the family cycle, a couple will make the time and effort to continue to date and court one another.  This includes romance, flirting, outings, and the ability to keep their sexual lives satisfying to both partners.
  • Whether you have done this up until now or not, this should be a time to restart the courting process.  It is an opportunity to start anew the romantic journey that started long ago and rekindle those original feelings you more than likely felt for one another. The added maturity you both now have and the success of staying together for these many years, can make this process of reconnecting a redefining time for both.
  • It is important to remember that when there are unresolved issues, it is a natural human tendency to stay focused and even fixated on the negatives of the situation- to the point that a person in unable to see the positives that are also part of the equation.  The best way to stop feeling resentful is to be able to get validation for the reasons the resentments exist.  Starting marital therapy can be a highly beneficial way to process through the many successes and failures a couple has been through by this time.  It is important to identify the many strengths and resources you have developed together over the years, as well as the things you feel you were never able to master.  If there are past hurts or problems that have never been resolved, it is important for a couple to face them together in a way that will increase the honesty within the relationship, offer validation and hopefully end in forgiveness and moving on to new possibilities.  This takes work and effort but has worthwhile results.
  • Even though children have left the home, the example you continue to provide as a married couple continues to have far-reaching effects on your kids and their upcoming relationships.  Understanding this can be part of the motivation a couple needs to seek help.
  • It is also important at this stage to focus on self.  With the added time available it can be highly beneficial to develop hobbies, go back to school, begin or revisit a career, develop new friendships, etc.  When we are well-balanced as an individual, we have more energy, strength and ability to function in a healthier fashion within the marriage.

I hope you and your spouse can find the energy and motivation to refocus on the very important relationship of your marriage and couplehood.

Comments

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Comments 6

  1. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that venting makes things worse, not better. Recognition and empowerment, on the other hand, make things better. Which is why therapists are better, to guide you away from the one and to the other. Some really fascinating work has been done.

  2. A good therapist will allow for a few stories to be shared to get an idea of couple dynamics and themes but will then move forward to more process oriented work instead of allowing a couple to tell story after negative story. I believe the research referred to shows that “venting” allows anger to resurface and be refelt which furthers hurt, disapointment and resentment.
    There is also a difference between “venting” and telling a story. Many stories need to be told to reach resolution, healing and forgiveness. It’s more the how and why they are told that can make a difference.

  3. A great book on anger and venting is Carol Tavris – “Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion.”

    In his talks, John Gottman (the marriage/relationship researcher) always jokes about a therapist named George Bach, who used to give couples foam bats, used to hit each other while venting all the negative feelings. Needless to say, they would leave more angry than when they came in.

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