The Peril of the Empty Nest Years

 

I received from a missionary family a newsletter where they were saying that their marriage was at the point where they needed intensive counseling (and, of course, raising money for the cost).  Hopefully my reply is helpful.

 

Dear L,

I read your newsletter on how you and B are seeking help in your marriage and I think that is a good thing.  The willingness to look beyond ourselves for help and the willingness to take the advice given (albeit imperfectly at times) almost always assures success.  I heard a counselor say one time that the only time they could not help a couple is if one despises the other.

I would resist the urge to think that you are somehow unique or special in this regard due to the fact that you are missionaries.  The truth is, you are right on time.  I was taken by surprise when we entered the very same life stage and realized how vulnerable marriages are at that point.  We survived better than others as I look back on our church that prided itself on its doctrinally correct teaching only to find multitudes of marriages that ended in shipwreck – from work-a-day Christians to a couple who owned a local Christian camp and ran marriage seminars.

There is a reason why this stage is so vulnerable.

  • Our kids leave the nest and we suddenly realize we are left with someone we had inadvertently ignored or taken for granted while we focused on our kids and ministry.
  • Intimacy (whether it includes sex or not) is based upon vulnerability, trust, and the ability and willingness to communicate.  Yet, we have developed hurtful habits and wounds that sabotage vulnerability, trust, and the ability to communicate.
  • We begin to realize that our life and ministry goals may not pan out with the idealist triumph we imagined in our youth.  Life is not a Christian movie where all is resolved and we win the big game.
  • We discover some of the simplistic Christian bromides we gave in our youthful zeal don’t stand up to the complexities of life and we are faced with the prospect of going deeper and more empathetic or giving up.
  • We realize that our spouse has character defects that hurt us and we don’t have control over whether they change or not.
  • We realize that we have character defects that hurt our spouse and we find a reluctance to ask God to remove them because we think they comfort us and make us feel safe and in control.
  • We realize that our kids are independent beings beyond our control which make them free to make life decisions we may or may not like; we respond to this hurt by wanting to blame somebody.

But these things do not have to spell disaster.  They may be the threshold to maturity, humility, and empathy.  The first step is acceptance – living life on life’s terms.  The reason is that reality always triumphs fantasy.  Somehow we have to tear down the fantasy of who we are, what our spouse and children should be, and what our ministry is without abandoning our actual calling.

Likely we find that our calling is not the flashy stuff of blogs and missionary letters but an unsung faithfulness in the ordinary-ness of life as Eugene Peterson says, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” 

Over the years, I’ve moved away from the “Come to Jesus and all will be well living in a new dimension” theology so rampant in the church as if when I come to Jesus (or fully repent or get filled with the Holy Spirit or master Romans 6 or whatever method you want to put here) then everything after that is fresh and new and vibrant.

Rather, I’ve embraced a more day-by-day-ness of the Christian walk.  Am I in good spiritual condition today?  Right now?  Am I holding resentments?  Am I holding fears?  Am I fantasying about the way things ought to be?  Or am I present, willing to listen, willing to be patient, willing to accept.  “Taking as Jesus did, this world as it is, not as I would have it.”  Am I willing, when triggered, to talk with a trusted friend who will bring me back to the solution and not just affirm the drama conjured up in my head?   (They might say things like, “Is it really that important?” or “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” or “Be gentle with yourself.”)

Putting it another way, am I walking as if I am filled with the Holy Spirit right now for I have no control over tomorrow and I can only make amends for my behavior yesterday.  Am I trusting that God is good and good towards me and in this moment I can only control my behavior and attitudes to honor Him?

Good luck in the counseling intensives. I pray it works out well.

-David B. Sable

 

Published in Marriage
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  1. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    David B. Sable:

    • We begin to realize that our life and ministry goals may not pan out with the idealist triumph we imagined in our youth.  Life is not a Christian movie where all is resolved and we win the big game.
    •  

    Not particularly involving ministry, the empty nest for many people often coincides with other major life events, including for example 1) elderly parents entering their final years, 2) retirement that causes rethinking life purposes and reasons for getting up in the morning, 3) if not retirement at least the realization that I have already hit my professional peak and so my professional career will henceforth be in decline.  [People having kids in their 30s means they’re in their late 50s and early 60s when the empty nest comes, and their parents are likely in their 80s.]

    • #1
  2. David B. Sable Coolidge
    David B. Sable
    @DavidSable

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    David B. Sable:

    • We begin to realize that our life and ministry goals may not pan out with the idealist triumph we imagined in our youth. Life is not a Christian movie where all is resolved and we win the big game.
    •  

    Not particularly involving ministry, the empty nest for many people often coincides with other major life events, including for example 1) elderly parents entering their final years, 2) retirement that causes rethinking life purposes and reasons for getting up in the morning, 3) if not retirement at least the realization that I have already hit my professional peak and so my professional career will henceforth be in decline. [People having kids in their 30s means they’re in their late 50s and early 60s when the empty nest comes, and their parents are likely in their 80s.]

    Thanks.  I didn’t think of those.

    • #2
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