Lately I have seen an increase in couples turning to therapy as a tool to navigate the empty nest chapter of their marriage, or an impending retirement of one or both of the partners. A new current of concern is vibrating through the Coupledom – the unknown is looming and the challenges in the relationship that were obscured or postponed by more pressing issues – children, jobs, commutes – are surfacing.
Baby Boomers are aging into an era of big choices that will mark the last decades of their lives. When they look across the dinner table at one face, not two, three or four, there is no avoiding the “it’s you and me kid… just the two of us.” But can we make it if we try?
This complex phase in marriage is layered with decades of shared history, decisions, accumulations both emotional, financial and physical, so much so that the sheer pondering of it all can trigger panic, flight or paralysis. Financial advisors in TV ads have this comforting approach to families… we can be your guardians, your guides, we can parent you throughout your lifetime. No mistakes will be made, we will make sure of that! Wow. Sign me on. Alas, every Coupledom has its own package of financial burdens and freedoms, location conflicts and generational responsibilities and, a fact that is often overlooked in those soothing ads, two separate personalities, distinct and different despite the shared bank accounts and babies. Two minds deep in their own skins and separate in their fears, wishes and histories as well.
The couples I speak of who come to my office are luckier than many. They have some assets. That has to help yet it can also create choices that highlight difference and unleash conflict. The Netflix reference serves a point here. These couples are blinking in the headlights of oncoming options – how to negotiate shared time which prior to “the empty nest,” was merely a dream. Now the dream is morphing into a pressure, an 8 P.M. to 10 P.M. anxiety hour. Mysteries or histories, violence or romance, sagas or soap? Who falls asleep? Who stays watching on the couch and never shows up in the bedroom? Weekends free of league competitions or recitals or the divide and conquer curriculum of shared parenting can become arenas for gladiatorial fighting. Someone wants to putter in the garden. Someone is ready for Times Square. Compromise is a skill not polished, not practiced. Separate tasks allowed for blissful parallel play…we are together yet apart. Now what?
How does a couple create a vision of a shared future? When you first marry, the future is a blank screen with dreams. Twenty, twenty-five years later, the future is built on a screen crowded with the realities of the shared past. A cluttered mosaic of unremitting joys – births and birthdays – new homes and friendships – holidays and graduations. And disappointments, losses and hurts. There is no starting from scratch here.
So the work of couples therapy at this point in a relationship or marriage is to unpack some of the old stuff that blocks “get on with it,” along with dipping into unspoken wishes and sometimes unrecognized dreams to be the positive guideposts for the future together. The couples therapist dons many hats for this next chapter – financial planner, travel agent, real estate agent, mediation expert – moving fluidly through facts and feelings, sorting what is realistic and what is fantasy, to aid the couple in filling the screen with their future mosaic.
Everything needs to be on the table. Where are the kids living? Grandkids? Aging/ailing parents? What’s the real estate challenge? Who likes warm, who likes cold? Who wants to continue working. Who has to? Any shared hobbies or can individual hobbies be gratified and accessible in the plan? Factor in physical and psychological challenges. And most pivotal of all, what are the triggers here? If the history includes personal betrayals, financial glitches, tubs of anger and wide swaths of alienation, then parsing through the emotional baggage has to be a piece of this journey. It isn’t old news… to be packed up and donated to Goodwill. (If only, right?) It’s not a rehash. It is “process” under new lights. Can we trust each other in this next journey? Or should we seek different roads?
If a couple reaches a roadblock and cannot create a vision of the future that works well for both parties, then seeking out a third party and committing to spending some time, relatively short in comparison to the expected longevity ahead, is a practical solution.
It is a strange and unexpected truth that we as humans never stop growing. Yes we grow “old”er but we also grow in wisdom. The surprise in the package of aging is that healthy emotional survival depends on greater acceptance of our imperfect selves and by extension, imperfections in others. When we are young adults, we think we can create the perfect twosome – you complete me! When we mature into the older us, we need to create something more complex, flaws and all – compatibility and respectfulness, maybe more space, maybe more closeness. The “mature” couple has baggage yes, but they also have experience. How to harness both to create the best future union? A pretty tall order but this is a creative and profound process, as rich and deep in human experience as any and when shared, can be the strongest foundation for the next chapters of the shared life – the Mature Coupledom safely housed on a solid foundation for the future journeys that lie ahead.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2019