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Can your marriage survive the empty nest?

* EditorEs note: This column is the first of two parts.

In the last few decades, it has become popular to talk about young adults "leaving the nest." Similarly, we also talk about "the empty nest syndrome."

As many of us have discovered, a good part of parentsE time and energy gets taken up in child rearing. And, in the process of being parents, some of us begin to lose touch with each other as husbands and wives. We forget how to talk, or what to talk about. We develop separate interests, friends, etc. We no longer know how to be alone with each other.

Often, neither of us is aware of what is happening. And even if we do vaguely sense that something is wrong, we often donEt have the time (or, perhaps, the nerve) to figure out what it is.

That can all change rather abruptly, however, when the last of our children moves out on his or her own. The "nest" is empty except for Mom and Dad, and we suddenly may be confronted with the reality that weEve lost track of how to be wife and husband.

Though some couples work through the transition back to being intimate partners successfully, others get into a bit of trouble. We can find ourselves struggling vainly to rebuild our marriages on a foundation that has been so eroded by time and lack of attention it can no longer support the weight of our relational needs.

Many times this struggle ends in divorce. In fact, the "empty nest" period in the family life cycle is one of the most common times for divorce to occur.

Other couples, not wanting to end their marriage, will simply give up and settle for an uneasy truce. In such a situation we wind up living together more as roommates than husbands and wives. But at least we are together.

Sometimes such struggling couples seek professional help. Actually, if we have avoided doing extensive damage to our marriage in our struggle with the "empty nest," we have a fairly good chance of rebuilding what made our marriage special before we became parents.

Not all couples have such difficulties, though all of us do have to deal with some adjustment as our children leave home.

Some of us actually pass fairly smoothly into the next stage of family life. Such successful life cycle transition is due to a number of factors. LetEs look at four of them.

* A firm foundation. For a marriage to successfully adapt to change, it must first be built upon a solid base of mutual warmth, trust and respect; common interests; and good communication and conflict management skills.

* Awareness of normal family development. Forewarned is forearmed. If we understand and accept how our family and our marriage will develop over time, we can better adapt to these changes.

* Putting first things first. The greatest gift we can give our children is our healthy marriage. Despite the dirty diapers, PTA meetings, piano lessons, and all the other things that go along with being parents, we need to invest ourselves in our marriage as well. Regularly making quality time to talk, to play and to love while our children are with us assures that we will have such times when they have gone as well.

* Flexibility. The most enduring structures have a bit of "give" built into them. A tall tree bends with the wind. A "quake-proof" skyscraper sways as the earth moves beneath it. Even if we understand normal family development, we cannot predict or plan for every stress our marriage will endure as we raise our children. We want to give ourselves the freedom to adapt our relationship to cope with both the anticipated and the unanticipated situations we inevitably will face.

Though I could go on, these four factors are sufficient to help us understand how couples can prepare for the "empty nest," as well as for other changes in their lives.

Though seeing our last child leave home can be a time of sadness, it also should be a time of celebration in which we congratulate ourselves on a job well done and look forward to the next stage of our life together.

Next week: What happens when the nest doesnEt empty.

* Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix DonEt Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."
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Title Annotation:Neighbor
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Oct 24, 2017
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