We’ve drifted apart now the kids are gone

unhappy-marriage10.02.14Q: I have been married for 26 years and have drifted apart from my husband to the point that we almost live separate lives. Our three children are all grown up and the youngest left to work in England last September. I also started back to work full-time a year ago and I love this – it has given me a new lease in life. I have met some really great people who I get on with and socialise with.

My husband is very critical at what he calls “my new life” and is always giving me digs about my new friends. He, on the other hand, tends to stay in all the time watching the TV and seems to have no drive to do anything apart from his work. I am keen to enjoy this new phase of life and to travel and start new things. However, he just pours cold water on all my ideas. I find myself increasingly resentful of him and have started imagining myself leaving him.

But am also torn because he is a great father and our children all adore him. I don’t want to throw away 25 years of a marriage but I feel increasingly alone in the house even though he is there all the time.

A: Your letter highlights a common experience for couples who spend many years parenting and raising their children together only to find themselves alone again when the children leave home. Frequently, relationship conflicts and stresses come to the fore at this point that may have been dormant for many years as the demands of parenting were met.

The challenge can be that individual partners cope very differently with these changes. Some greet the new-found freedom as a great liberation and look forward to new projects and opportunities; others might be more stuck in the grind or be trying to recover what they feel they might have lost.

It is perfectly normal to question your relationship at this point and to wonder about the future. Indeed, many couples decide to go their separate ways when their children leave home and some drift into living separate lives without making a clear decision either way.

However, other couples use this period as an opportunity to renegotiate and re-imagine their relationship with each other and to plan a new phase of life together.

It is of course your decision (as well as your husband’s) which path you go down, but it strikes me that there may be an opportunity to restart and reinvigorate your relationship together. The challenge is encouraging your husband to join with you to positively embrace this new stage in life.

Understanding where your husband is at
The first step in moving forward is to try to understand what your husband might be thinking and feeling about what is going on.

He may feel quite insecure at the fact you have started a new career that has created a new social life in which he is not involved. He could indeed feel threatened by the new friends you have made and might sense that you are pulling away from him.

This could be at the basis of him making “digs” at you or “pouring cold water on your ideas” which ironically is only making things worse and is driving you further way.

In addition, he may not be coping well or adjusting to the children leaving home and it sounds like he is planning a new life accordingly.

Many people get caught into a treadmill of working and having minimal leisure and personal time (often necessary when you have to deal with the demands of parenting) and find it hard to step off this treadmill even when it is no longer necessary.

Alternatively, he may be quite comfortable with the way life is at the moment and does not yet see any need to change. He might not yet appreciate how unhappy you are and your wish for change.

Negotiating with your husband
The question is how can you engage your husband into changing and joining you in negotiating a new phase as a couple. Ideally, it would be great if you could sit down and talk to him about how you’re feeling and what you are hoping to happen next.

Setting up such conversations can be very difficult, especially if you already feel distant from one another or if either of you feels blamed or criticised.

If an initial face-to-face conversation is difficult, another approach is to write him a letter or email and then follow up in a discussion or to ask him to go marriage counselling.

If he is open to counselling, this could provide you with a great forum to review your marriage, to listen to one another and to plan together.

Start doing things together again
To improve things with your husband, you need to restart doing things together again as a couple. What things did you enjoy doing together in the past? When have you had the best chats or spent the best time together in the last while?Perhaps you could suggest a trip or activity that you could do together.

Sometimes returning to simple things you enjoyed in the past can make a difference, for example, cooking for one another, going out for a walk or making an overnight trip somewhere. Pick an activity that you think your husband might immediately go for. Once you are doing things together then it can become easier to talk.

Also, getting out of a stuck routine adds novelty and newness to a relationship that can help you see things differently. Simple and small changes make a difference.|

Seek your own support

Finally, seek your own support and counselling. Taking time to think and talk through what you are thinking and feeling might help you clarify what you can reasonably hope for from the relationship with your husband and what you might have to accept. From this position, you can make your best decision about going forward.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.