Research: Empty nesters see improved quality of marriage

BY CHRIS CLARK | MARCH 6, 2009 7:22 AM

Everyone knows what happens when mom and dad drop off their baby in the dorm room: Mom is crying, holding on to every moment of that last hug, while dad nostalgically looks out the window remembering his college years and wondering why he ever decided to graduate.

“The hardest part was setting one fewer place at the dinner table,” said Lynda Wiebers, mother of UI senior Neal Wiebers.

But there may be hope for parents who suffer from depression after their children leave, also known as “empty-nest syndrome.” Growing research suggests the quality of marriage actually improves when parents become empty nesters.

Greg Gullickson, a psychologist at Anderson, Arnold and Partners, 209 E. Washington St., said when children move away, parents can enjoy their companionship and, without worrying about their children, take spontaneous vacations and spend nights out on the town.

“The parents can really enjoy the time they have,” he said. “They can get reacquainted with each other, enjoy some of the things that originally brought them together.”

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Neal Wiebers said that although he thinks he and his two older sisters didn’t cause their parents too much grief, leaving the house definitely improved the couple’s relationship.

“They get to go out and do more things together,” he said. “They go on trips every year now, and I know they enjoy that a lot.”

But for some empty nesters, life in the tree can be pretty lonely.

Wiebers’ have been married for 30 years, and Lynda Wiebers said that although her marriage is “really good,” having the kids out of the house was hard to get used to.

“I dreaded it,” she said. “[Neal] was such a fun person to be around, and I missed his group of friends hanging out in our basement on the weekends.”

UI freshman Colleen Quaid said she thought it might be easier for her parents to let her go because they had experienced it with her older siblings.

“But there were tears,” she said. “The baby’s gone.”

Children leaving home is a transition time, which local counselor Bruce Williams said can leave relationships vulnerable.

“When the children leave, parents sometimes discover they don’t know each other as well as they thought they did,” said Williams, a pastoral counselor at Community Pastoral Counseling Services, 30 N. Clinton St.

He noted, however, there is “no one-size-fits-all” answer.

“Several factors go into how a child leaving will affect a relationship,” he said. “It depends on the people and their particular circumstances.”

Lynda Wiebers said when her children left, she and her husband found each other again. Before they left, everything in her life revolved around her children’s activities, she said.

“You kind of forget that you’re a couple, and now that they’re gone, we take a lot of time for ourselves.”

For Quaid’s parents, things at home aren’t the same since she went away to school. She said she thinks her parents’ relationship has changed.

“They’ve gotten way more open,” she said. “More open with us and with each other.”

Williams said children are not all a blessing or all a burden. He noted different ways empty nesters can improve their marriages.

“Children can definitely bring parents closer together,” he said. “Fascination of watching the child grow can not only bond them as parents, but bond them as spouses.”

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