The “empty nest” syndrome is something that many of us are going through or will be going through in due time (sooner than you imagine!). It is that time when the child leaves home or no longer needs the parents as much (except when they run out of money and/or need some favors or ferrying around!). At such times mother often goes into “mourning” (without father realizing it!) and father realizes how shallow his relationship with his wife has become. He realizes the marriage has been on “automatic pilot,” and she begins to feel some negative effects from the one-sided emotional investment she has placed on the children.
Looking at each other now, in the absence of their children, the husband and the wife start to falter or fail. They fail to stand on their own, in their horizontal relationship, because they have failed, for several (many?) years, to love one another face to face. The children become the “mediator” between the man and wife. When the mediator is removed, they have to look at each other directly. What they see now is not very likeable. What they see now is no longer buffered by the children.
At this point, many issues and unhappiness, old wounds and conflicts get surfaced or resurfaced. Unfulfilled needs and expectations are presented and “demands” are made of each other. In other words, the “law” comes massively into play. By “law” I mean legalistic expectations of roles and rules that need to be accomplished, without which there is criticism, judgment, belittling, and even condemnation.
To make it worse, from a Christian or theological point of view, the issue of original sin and of our old, carnal nature also reasserts itself in a new and ugly way. When combined with being legalistic and demanding, its sting (like that of a scorpion!) may be deadly for the marriage. It can leave a long-time marriage with a surprising lash. No one expects it – just as you do not expect that mid-lifers and elderly people can be as cruel and self-willed as younger people can be. And just as you are taken by surprise when you see radical sinfulness and ugly behaviors among older Christians, you do not expect marital sin in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th decade of their marriage.
At this point you could criticize me by saying that this diagnosis is too dire, too bleak and pessimistic. You could say that by no means every couple experiences the absence of their children to this dark degree. You could add that many marriages do not contain the deep cracks that are revealed when the mediating factor of the children is pulled away. You could say my perception or theology and psychology is too negative.
You may be right, and I hope I am wrong! I know many of your marriages are not like what is described – and I rejoice with that!
But, and however, the disengagement and distance of couples who have to face one another across the table after years of relating through the third parties is, sadly and actually, very real and common.
It is precisely at this point, in such a time like this, that God’s grace must be present. Unless grace and forgiveness are present, the marriage may well slide into a phase of increasing emotional disengagement and distance, despair, and even death.
The word of grace to this period in marriage is as needed as in other points of need in the various phases and stages of marriage. The word has two parts: (1) Admission from the man and the woman that they are now in a new kind of glare that reveals the cracks in the foundation or in their marriage; and (2) admission of the forlornness (feelings of loneliness, unhappiness and abandonment) they may be experiencing because of the improperly weighted love for the children, of their failure to respond lovingly to each other’s needs and the “grief” of losing their children.
Grace at this stage means learning to accept each other for who we are, with all our limitations and weaknesses. It includes a lot of tolerance, patience and forbearing, and the ability to continue to show kindness in the midst of coldness or apathy. Grace is learning to forgive each other’s follies and idiosyncrasies.
Grace allows the completion of maternal (or paternal) mourning of the child’s leaving, and with a good measure of understanding and tangible comfort on the part of the spouse. Grace in this later or final period of marriage is letting your wife or your husband grow old. Men may resent their wife’s aging, even as they themselves age. And women may have to watch their men die, as it is a fact that the vast majority of women live longer than their men.
I must add that besides exercising grace and forgiveness, the couple may still need the help of a marriage mentor or counsellor. It can be very difficult and delicate to work through all the years of accumulated unhappiness, baggage or resentment/bitterness. without the help of a caring and competent person. They may need to relearn the lost art of talking and listening or “how to talk so spouse will listen and listen so spouse will talk.”
I hope you see the importance and need of grace – and go on your knees to ask for it. Without it we stand in the danger of being tempted and attacked, and in the danger a marital and personal crisis. Empirically speaking, every relationship carries the possibility of dissolution. This is no surprise from a Christian point of view. No marriage is immune. No marriage is magically protected from danger, crisis or tragedy.
A song in the musical, A Little Night Music (1973), gives a portrait of marriage that is bleak. It portrays the slow, cumulative end to a superficial marriage. “Every day a little sting/In the heart and in the head./Every move and every breath,/And you hardly feel a thing,/Brings a perfect little death.”
God forbid that this should be so. May His grace abound in our marriages, to make it grow stronger even as we grow older! May God have mercy on us!