Emily is a gifted interior design artist. After the birth of her third child and her decision to homeschool her children, she decided to sell off all her design books, close the business bank account, and focus on her family.
When Chip and Joanna Gaines became household names, Emily and her husband Doran watched Fixer Upper religiously. Emily began missing the life she had left behind. She told Doran one evening, “I have this dream: when the kids are older and I can get back into interior design, I want to start a company called Woods Design House” (Woods is their last name).
Doran listened attentively but soon redirected the conversation. He’s tech savvy, so following the date he went online, found that the website for that name was open, bought it, and even designed a rudimentary site. He also went on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest) to find “handles” compatible with Woods Design House.
“I captured Woods Design House everywhere I could,” Doran told me.
On their next anniversary, Doran brought up Emily’s dream. He wondered aloud whether the website would even be available, so he said, “Why don’t I check?”
After opening the search engine on his phone he said, “Oh, I guess somebody already owns it…”—pregnant pause—“we do” and he showed her his phone.
There wasn’t a better gift Doran could have given to his wife that year.
The plan was that they could sit on the website and social media handles for years until the kids were fully grown or at least done with homeschooling, but when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017 and thousands of homes flooded and needed to be rebuilt, Emily agreed to do one house as a favor for a friend at church. Word got out and the demand became so intense the business started before they became empty nesters, but I like the principle: a husband appreciates the sacrifice his wife is making while the kids are young and plans for the day when he can help make her original dreams come true.
We need to think seriously about how to prepare for and enjoy the “second half of marriage” because life is much different for us than it was for our great-great-grandparents. In 1900, life expectancy at birth in the United States was just forty-seven years old. Most people felt blessed to live long enough to even become empty nesters, much less enjoy several decades as empty nesters. Today (2020), a child born in the United States can be expected to live about seventy-eight years.
This exploding lifespan gives married couples a chance at two lives, one of which their ancestors could only have dreamed of: a life spent raising children, and a life spent after the children are raised. How do we prepare for this second half of marriage?
Expanding lifespans means many of us not only will see our children become parents, but we can watch our grandchildren become parents. We get to live through parenting twice. Grandparents can play a significant role in a child’s life; because we don’t have to (and shouldn’t try to) do the discipline and training, we can be the encouragers, the cheerleaders, even the fun oasis in a life of disappointment and expectations.
Doug and Julie have been retired for some years and moved to Florida to be near Doug’s aging parents. After both his parents passed, they found out their son and daughter-in-law (and just as importantly, their first grandchild) were moving to Boston. Guess where Doug and Julie packed up to move during the quarantine?
Young families often feel like they are under assault today; supportive grandparents can be a lifeline. While it may take some relocating and life organizing to stay close to our grandchildren, some of the happiest empty nesters I know are the ones who have doubled down on this role. Laura and Curt have made Valentine’s Day an annual ritual where each one of their children get to go out on a romantic date while Laura and Curt set up a special Valentine’s Day evening for all the cousins. Skip passes on his love of reading by taking two of his grandchildren to Barnes and Noble every Sunday afternoon. He pays for the books, a small price for a lifetime memory of sharing a passion with your grandchildren.
Just about every parent, in retrospect, wishes he or she could have spent more unfettered time with their children. We can get a second chance with grandchildren.
Resurrect Stalled Dreams
As Doran and Emily discovered, some dreams need to be paused as we parent, particularly when the kids are very young. Most young parents I know would pay for more sleep if they could. But when you get to that point where there’s a little more free time, pause to reconsider if it’s time for a “big change.” A few years ago I told Lisa, “You’ve sacrificed so much for this family. Now, whatever you think God is calling you to do, let’s do it. If you want to go back to school; if you want to start a business; if you want to vacation more or get more involved at church, I’ll support whatever you want.”
In our case, Lisa decided she wanted to work more with me. When the kids were young, she travelled with me about ten percent of the time. Now, she’s with me about eighty percent of the time. If it’s a trip to New York or Florida, she’s with me. If it’s a short stop in Winnipeg during the Winter, she’s probably not. But it’s her choice.
Did your husband give up regular rounds of golf? Did your wife put off that trip to Europe? Did the two of you spend your remodel money on college tuition? Now is your chance to take what was paused and move it forward.
Perhaps even more important than what you do with your new time is what you become in your new time. The empty nest years give us an opportunity to reconnect as a couple. I’ve watched a lot of couples go through this and I urge you to make this a top priority. If you don’t choose to move toward each other right away, you may fill up the free time with independent pursuits instead of each other.
Instead of asking, “what can I do with all this free time,” ask “What can we do with the extra time?”
Admittedly, I’m able to work longer hours now but still spend more time with my wife. With just one person to focus on, I’m more aware of how crucial it is for Lisa and me to connect meaningfully at the end of the day. When the kids were young, I’d come home and think, “Okay how’s Graham doing? What’s Kelsey’s up to? Is Allison all right? Amber (our dog) needs to be walked, and Lisa looks a little tired. Better try to help out more.”
Now that it’s just Lisa, I can come home an hour or two later and give her four times the attention. I’ve got to be honest—as a guy with a strong work ethic, it feels great to have more guilt-free hours to work and still have more quality time with my wife.
What Lisa and I have found is that moving toward each other instead of filling up the time with other things has made this time one of the sweetest seasons of our marriage. We loved being active parents and wish we could have raised more (we had three). But we are enjoying the renewed friendship and the renewed freedom to reconnect.
I’d encourage every empty nest couple to discover one or two of your spouse’s natural passions and start joining in. Just try a shared activity, without making a lifelong commitment. If it doesn’t fit, try doing something else you both enjoy together. But make that initial investment—think, “What can we do together?”
We read a lot about “gray divorce” (divorce after 50) but much of the cause behind gray divorce stems from the fact that couples have lived as strangers for years. They think they’ve become estranged because there’s something wrong with each other rather than the simple fact that the relationship is starving. It’s often a “software” problem, not a “hardware” problem. Instead of getting a new marriage we can invest the same time and energy into feeding the old one. In the end, that’s the truest road to happiness.
A New Challenge
One of the things Lisa and I have become fond of as empty nesters is international travel. It does something to your marriage when you’re in a completely foreign place you’ve never seen before and you’re dependent on each other. Lisa and I will never forget trying to figure out how to pay for and thus get out of a parking garage in the Netherlands. In the United States, there are red buttons (cancel) and green buttons (enter). Imagine finding yellow and blue buttons surrounded by a foreign language. We eventually got out, obviously, and then lived through my enjoyment of some of the best stew I had ever tasted. It was sold as the town’s signature dish so I thought I’d give it a try. It was so delicious I wondered aloud what was in it and the person sitting next to us (in pre-COVID-19 days the restaurant put you right next to fellow patrons) overheard us talking and asked me, “Do you really want to know?”
Yes, I did.
“Horsemeat,” she replied.
I couldn’t take another bite.
When the kids were young, Lisa and I couldn’t have imagined getting away to other countries. We didn’t have the time or the money. Part of your joint journey might be finding ways to slowly save up for a trip together. If you can afford it, we highly recommend it.
More than we think about old dreams or new experiences, however, empty nesters should consider our Lord’s call who tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). Here’s the marriage miracle I’ve seen when couples embrace joint ministry in the second half of marriage: new respect and appreciation for someone you’ve known your entire life.
You think you know all about a person. You’ve been together for three or four decades and it’s easy to assume you’ve got everything figured out; there’s nothing more to share, nothing more to discover, nothing more to talk about. Ministry of any significant kind raises a whole host of other issues; you see a side of yourself and each other that you never knew existed.
The other factor is that the Holy Spirit equips those he calls. If you want to impress your spouse, tell the Lord you’re available to serve him.
Lisa now sometimes joins me when I counsel a premarital couple. After one session, two very serious issues arose. I helped them think through them, and urged them to talk and think about these issues in light of their faith.
As we walked away, Lisa hugged my arm and said, “Huh. You’re pretty good at this!”
Anyone who offers herself or himself to God will find out that when you step out in faith, God gives you words, insight, and caring abilities that you don’t possess on your own. That’s why serving the Lord together can bring new respect, appreciation, and admiration.
My friend Sheila is a Canadian blogger, speaker, and book author. Her husband Keith is a pediatrician who got his dream job at a teaching hospital just three years before they became official empty nesters. As Sheila’s platform grew, they found it difficult to connect relationally. Keith believes Sheila has a vital and unique ministry, so he quit his “dream job” to go part-time in their hometown, freeing up his schedule to travel with and support Sheila. They came to the conclusion that “we don’t need the money, but we do need the marriage.”
Kevin and Karen Miller write these powerful words about rediscovering joint ministry: “We hunger for this today: cooperating together, meshing, working like a mountain climbing team, ascending the peak of our dream, and then holding each other at the end of the day. God has planted this hunger deep within every married couple. It’s more than a hunger for companionship. It’s more than a hunger to create new life. It’s a third hunger, a hunger to do something significant together. According to God’s Word, we were joined to make a difference. We were married for a mission.”
Being “married for a mission” can revitalize a lot of marriages in which the partners think they suffer from a lack of compatibility; my suspicion is that many of these couples actually suffer from a lack of purpose. Jesus’ words given to individuals is perhaps even truer in marriage: when we give away our life, we find it. When we focus outside our marriage, we end up strengthening our marriage.
The second half of marriage provides a wonderful opportunity to “recalibrate” and rebuild your marriage on the back of shared mission. Whether you seek to become the sports/coaching couple, the Bible study leading couple, the local school mentors couple, or the hiking club couple, using extra time for a divine purpose refuels marriage, passion, appreciation, and fulfillment. It can revolutionize a marriage. You know you can’t “re-create” the initial infatuation you felt thirty-five years ago, but you can create and re-create the even more powerful bond of purpose and spiritual mission.
A woman once told me, “I have found that when my husband and I focus on our own needs, and whether they’re being met, our marriage begins to self-destruct. But when we are ministering together, we experience, to the greatest extent we’ve known, that ‘the two shall become one.’”
None of these callings are necessarily exclusive. You can resurrect paused dreams, carve out time for grandkids, double down on your work for God’s Kingdom, and still take an occasional trip overseas. But if, while you were reading the above, you felt your heart “spike” at the mention of one of them, go with that first and reach out from there. Read this article together and talk about which point made you spontaneously respond, “We need to do that…”
Because I think God’s work on this planet is paramount, I do hope that every empty nest couple will eventually find their way to the last point, investing their time in a new or more focused mutual ministry. As empty nesters, we can step in where younger parents can’t and end up renewing our own mature marriages even while serving younger marriages.
The danger of using the “empty nest” moniker is that it defines this season of our lives as devoid of something (i.e., “empty”); once our kids are grown, our marriage isn’t just empty of kids; it’s full of promise for a new future. Let’s take advantage of that.