How Does An 'Empty Nest Divorce' Play Out?

Why do couples start questioning their bond when the kids leave?

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | September 20, 2023

Many parents find themselves questioning their marriage when their children leave home. They may say things like:

  • "We've always wondered whether we'd stay together once our kids left the house. Now, the time is here and we're not sure what to do."
  • It's never been a perfect marriage; why not just find what makes us most happy now that we're not raising children anymore?"
  • We've had a lot of discussions about whether we should separate after our kids go to college, but I still worry it will negatively impact my children, even though they are all grown up."

These are critical questions, especially as you begin redefining your life priorities in your post-child-rearing phase. Here are three insights from psychological research to help you navigate this new life stage effectively.

1. Non-Traditional Arrangements Are Okay And Should Not Be Stigmatized.

Even if your relationship wasn't always sunshine and rainbows (and, remember, no relationship is), making a good-faith effort to stay together with your partner through the ups and downs of child-rearing was probably a good idea. There are strong financial incentives for couples with children to stay together and there's plenty of research showing that kids benefit immensely when both parents live under the same roof (except in situations where there is abuse).

But now that the kids are out of the house, is your marriage — with all its baggage and red flags — still worth the effort? That's a question only you and your partner can answer, and it's often advisable to seek help from a couples' counselor or marriage and family therapist when weighing your options. But here are a few general points.

For one, it's okay to redefine your marriage at any point in your relationship. Marriages and partnerships are dynamic entities. When circumstances change, such as when kids leave the house, relationships can change too. This might mean considering a living-apart marriage. It might mean downsizing your house or choosing a new location to spend half or all of the year. Or, it might mean continuing to live exactly the way you have always lived. It's up to you and your partner (not societal expectations) to work out what this new life chapter might look like. That, in itself, is a freeing idea.

Second, it's never a good idea to ascribe value judgments (i.e., "x is good," "y is bad") to any of the options on the table. If separation or divorce makes the most sense, don't view it, or you, as a failure. Sometimes, it's simply the next stage of evolution in a relationship, and that's okay.

As long as you and your partner are communicating and are respectful of each other's positions, you're bound to identify the right course of action, even if it takes you a few tries to get there.

2. Financial Considerations Shouldn't Be Ignored.

While financial incentives to stay together generally weigh more heavily when kids are young, that doesn't mean they cease to exist in cases of empty nest separations or divorces.

You may have one or multiple college tuition bills to pay. Retirement might be approaching and you may be saving more aggressively than when you were a new parent. You might have aging parents or family members that need support.

Separation or divorce at any age comes at a financial cost. Be sure to plan accordingly and know what you are getting into before making any final decisions. Again, this requires good-faith communication with your partner, regardless of the extenuating circumstances. 

3. Whatever Road You Take, There's Reason For Optimism

Research holds some valuable, and optimistic, insights for couples who are considering making a late-stage change in their relationship. For one, a study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science found that people's sense of optimism rises gradually through their twenties, thirties and forties, and peaks at about age 55. Other research shows that problematic personality traits such as neuroticism improve at a similar trajectory across the lifespan. 

In other words, even when you are facing relationship challenges later in life, know that the winds of happiness are likely blowing in your favor and that you're better equipped to deal with these challenges than you were at age 20 or 30. 

As long as you keep your support systems intact — whether that means maintaining strong ties with your children and other family members, sticking with a career that gives your life meaning, or doing the things that bring you personal happiness — you'll find what love after raising children is supposed to look like for you.