Kids are often the glue that holds a marriage together. And that’s not a good thing. I’m not a big fan of TV personality Dr. Phil, but one day as I was flipping through TV channels, I caught him saying, “Children should not have a job. It’s not up to them to save your marriage.”

When couples have kids, their lives and their marriages are often defined by their kids. They coalesce around the kids, and every decision is made “in the child’s best interest.” There’s nothing wrong with that philosophy, as long as you also consider that it’s in the child’s best interest to have parents who love each other.

Marriages take work. A lot of work. Regular, ongoing work. Couples who choose to put the nurturing of their marriage on hold until the kids leave home may find that their relationship is now on shaky ground.

However, if both couples are committed to the marriage, they can still make the marriage work, even though they’re now empty-nesters.

Here’s what you need to know.

Your spouse doesn’t need a mother

Wives who have spent the past 18 or more years mothering kids have become experts in this area. And it’s hard to just turn off the switch when the last kid leaves home. However, your spouse doesn’t need you to mother them, so avoid the temptation to treat them like one of your kids.

This includes telling them what to do, and also making plans for them without their input. When you were herding the kids from one place to another, it was perfectly acceptable to say, “Hey, you need to show up at 7pm for Bobby’s game,” or “Don’t forget the school picnic on Saturday at 2pm and I signed you up to work.”

But now that the kids are gone, you need to ask before you schedule dinner with the Smiths, or invite the neighbors over on a Friday night because your spouse may prefer to spend a quiet evening at home instead of entertaining other people.

Mothering can also take the form of nagging. You may have needed to tell your distracted teenager to take the trash out four or five times. Your spouse will not appreciate these pesky reminders.

Your spouse does need a partner

On the other hand, since wives have spent the past 18 years in mothering mode, fathers may be accustomed to working on their hobbies alone. Going to the gym or golf course, or going to a bar or game with the guys may have been a way to blow off some steam. However, now that your wife is at home with no kids to tend to, husbands may need to find ways that they can incorporate their wives in their activates – or find new activities that the two of you can enjoy together.

This is the time in your life – and marriage – where you need to focus on a future for the two of you.

You need to fight for your marriage       

If your commitment to each other was based on making sure that your kids didn’t grow up in a “broken” home, you’re in a potentially dangerous place, because you’ve reached that goal. And without another, new goal, it may be hard to hold your marriage together.

It’s possible that you put up with a lot of things – or let a lot of things slide – for the sake of the kids. But these “things” have been simmering in the background, ready to bubble up to the top.

It’s like being on a team preparing for a championship game or match. There may have been times when you wanted to quit the team due to the actions of the coach or other teammates. However, you kept thinking, “I can’t quit now because we could win the championship and I don’t want to do anything to lose out of that victory!” But after the final game of the season, when there’s nothing else on the line, have you ever noticed that players and coaches are fired, some players are traded, and some coaches decide to accept employment with other teams?

That’s because they (or perhaps someone else in the chain of command) decided, “Yeah, this isn’t working, and we need to end this relationship.”

If you don’t address any lingering or simmering marital issues, that could happen to you.

Burnout can be a problem

This may not be as much of a problem if chores have always been equally divided. However, if one spouse had primary responsibility for kids, they may feel burned out and not want to do anything. This includes, cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, etc. Their rationale may be that they’ve been responsible for all of the household chores for 18 years but they’re not going to shoulder the load anymore.

There’s also a flip side to this issue. The other spouse may say, “Well, now that you’re not running around with the kids you don’t have anything to do, so there’s no reason for you not to keep the house clean, do laundry in a timely manner, or prepare meals.” In other words, this spouse may feel resentful because they think the caregiver spouse is on easy street and not doing anything, while they’re still working a 40-hour a week job.  

Something old, something new

Perhaps you’ve been nurturing your marriage all along, and if so, congratulations! If you haven’t, you may need a full-blown reset. This may include courting your spouse as you once did almost two decades ago. Find out what they like (over 20 years, their “favorite” activities and items may have changed), and commit yourself to doing what they like and surprising them with objects that they might enjoy.

It’s also important to spend time together just talking to each other and showing each other affection. When you first got married, you could barely keep your hands off of each other – and that’s how you ended up with kids! However, now, you need to rekindle that spark.

At the same time, you don’t have to spend every waking moment together. This can also be an opportunity for each spouse to develop new hobbies and take up activities that they’ve always wanted to pursue but didn’t have time for. However, make sure that these activities don’t take you away from each other for too long or become more important than your marriage.

Charting the path forward

If you haven’t already had this conversation, you may need to agree on new financial goals. For example, do you plan to keep the same house or downsize? Are there trips that you’ve always dreamed of taking? Now that your kids aren’t your first priority, you can start adjusting your financial plans to include new goals and adventures.

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About Terri Williams

Terri Williams is a freelance writer, covering business, finance, real estate, and lifestyle topics.

View all posts by Terri Williams