Health and Medicare
The Empty Nest: How Couples Handle it Differently
This is podcast number two for Active seniors HQ. Now, one of the six focus areas at Active seniors HQ is health. Health of course takes on a lot of turns in our lives whether it’s the health of the body, or minds, or a healthy love life. Now, for seniors that’s often a big part of transition in life. Love – to talk about that most allusive of all subjects, we talk with the founder and the executive director of The Relationship Skills Center. It’s based in California. It’s an organization, a non profit. She is Carolyn Curtis. She is a Phd, a licensed marriage-family therapist, more than 30 years of clinical experience and a former adjunct professor specializing in marital therapy.
Andy: Carolyn thanks very much for joining us. Now, in the 30-35 years or so, you have been working with couples many of whom are over 50. What stands out for you?
Carolyn: One of the ones that was most interesting to me were the many times I have couples walk in and they would say, you know, “Our friends would be so surprised to see us here because they view us as the perfect couple because we always get along and we are here because we are thinking about getting a divorce.”
Andy: So, that must have caught everyone by surprise?
Carolyn: What we have found and this is what the research indicates, is that, you know, after your children leave home we have new transition to make in our relationship. Which is now our relationship is no longer kid-focused it is now back to the couple focus.
Andy: Well, that’s a big adjustment no matter how solid a relationship is. And I guess it is fair to say all couples relate differently. There are the volatile types and there are the silent types. I suppose the volatile ones – those may not last too long. But how about the others? How would you describe them?
Carolyn: And that style is that the couples does not discuss problems, they just shove them under the carpet. And then after the kids leave home all of these problems come roaring up. And then we have that great sentence which is: “We have just grown apart.”
Andy: So does that mean it is time for them to go their separate ways?
Carolyn: No it doesn’t mean that their relationship is over. It just means that they need to have a new way of operating. You know, one person in a relationship who may have said something like, you know, “ I’m just not always going to do it your way anymore.” Now, that may sound horrible, but from a developmental prospective in a relationship, that is a great growth step, because we have to be able to be ourselves in our relationship and not continue to sacrifice who we are and have our partner celebrate our differences.
Andy: So, I guess they call it “The empty nest syndrome” – nothing new about that. My parents, I suppose, every parent faces the reality. What is it that makes that such a difficult episode in life?
Carolyn: What we have found, and this is what the research indicates, is that, you know, after your children leave home that we have a new transition to making in our relationship. Which is now our relationship is no longer kid-focus it is now back to the couple focus about where they were may be 20 or 30 years before and when the children all leave then these particular problems start coming to the forefront.
Andy: So, how does a couple avoid hitting that wall when the couple faces the prospects of becoming an empty-nester?
Carolyn: I think that this is something that couples can prepare themselves for by regularly having dates with one another. You know, a place and a part of their life where their relationship is a priority and the kids are not always the priority. So, they actually have a time where they are continually getting to know each other, hearing how each other has changed and grown, because that is something that is ongoing in our lives.
Andy: Ok, Carolyn here is the big one – 30 years ago part of the attraction, lets face it, was sexual. Now some may now dismiss it, some couples may dismiss it and say that sex isn’t that big of a part of their relationship, but either way couples who have been together a long time – they just can’t entirely ignore it.
Carolyn: The sex is always changing. As we grow older our testosterone levels go down and therefore our sex drive changes and how our equipment works changes. And there for in our relationship we need to be flexible about what it means to be sexual. You know, you can see today that there is all of those advertisements of Viagra, Cialis and all of these things helping people to you know maintain their sexuality. And in a relationship you are going to have a conversation about what does that mean. What does you think these medication do to deal with your sexuality and is that something that you want to do? That is one question. The other is that you may need to redefine what sexual is in your relationship. That for you to enjoy what you have and so, you know, the experience may be very different because it may end up being more focus on pleasuring each other rather than assuming that your going to go for a climax, assuming that you are going for this big experience, that you may be going to a more sensual experience.
Andy: Now we are talking here a lot about couples and marriage and traditional roles, but lets face it – lots of people are just comfortable and they are happy just being by themselves.
Carolyn: I remember this one women who came to see me. I just really enjoyed her. She was 75 years old. And she came to see me and we were talking about her having dealt with her husband death form cancer. And I asked her if she ever thought of dating again or getting involved in another relationship. And she said: “Oh, Carolyn, you know, I just like how I’m leaving now.”
Andy: So, may be the message there is that we just learn to except ourselves and be happy the way we are.
Carolyn: And I think that that is one of the things that’s really wonderful as we grow older is that we become more authentic and more true to ourselves and hopefully you know, more accepting and of others and there are in that journey also. And I think that leads to much healthier and happier life – to love and accept yourself and love and accept other people for who they are and where they are. That’s what we want be doing in our primary relationship.
Andy: So, we’ve touched on how to maintain a relationship, how to make a longterm marriage survive, but lets face it, for any number of reasons, many of us by choice or circumstances, well we have to face dating again.
Carolyn: First of all, for many many people that have not been out in that world for very very long time. So it’s going to feel like all the rules have changed. You want to take your time and go out. First of all you want to just go out and start enjoying yourself. And see who you meet in that direction, in that way.
Andy: When we were back in out the college days, in our 20’s guys, at least, are always looking for that perfect pick up line. Any advise on what might work today?
Carolyn: The phrase that I found that is really helpful is a phrase of : “ Gee I’ looking for somebody to go to the movies with or go out to dinner with every now and then. Would you be interested in doing that with me? “ It’s a very non threatening kind of phrase it also is saying: “I’m in a position to take this relationship slow and I’m not in a hurry.” And that is, you know, it sounds very strange that to say that we need to remind people that in their relationship you need to take your time and find out who is there. I also find that relationships with people who you have known for a really long time, in fact that happens quite often, that they have known each other for years, you know, their wives or husbands who have passed away were, you know, they were all best friends and their relationship has sort of a natural rythem to it. So when you are meeting people who are new and different you know you need to take your time. And also this is one of those times as your relationship progresses that you have to have a conversation about money. And what money looks like and how you want to deal with all of those financial issues, because this is where it gets very complicated quickly.
Andy: But if you think you have discovered loving bliss with your new partner you might be aware you may face some stiff currents ahead.
Carolyn: You know that your children are not going to be happy with you dating. That they have in their minds of how life it’s supposed to be and it isn’t including another person even after you may have been divorced for years, or a widowed for years. Kids still knew you as being, you know, being their parent and your dating is usually not very welcomed by kids. Or they may welcome the dating because you are busy and and you are happy and having fun. But when you go to get married they object because their image isn’t including another person even after you may have been divorced for years, or a widowed for years. Kids still knew you as being, you know, being their parent and your dating is usually not very welcomed by kids.
Andy: 20 or 30 years of marriage you forget what it’s like to look for a partner when you go out in the dating world. How would someone begin? How do you approach the dating world again after so long being away from it?
Carolyn: Couples therapist say “Please go do things you love.” Now get out there and do things you love and you care about because that is where you are going to meet people who love and care about the same things you do. So, you know, and as they do that things will become clearer about who you are interested in or not interested in. So, that’s what is important. Just get out and live your life and you will probably meet someone at least expected time. And that’s what works best. People who are desperate for a relationship usually don’t get a relationship because that desperation turns people away. So, you want to make sure you are living a life that you are happy with and enjoying. And that there is safe for somebody to join.
Andy: And as times changed and the internet has taken over the world in so many ways, well Caroline, what about internet online dating?
Carolyn: You know, I have found many people have been very successful using internet dating and using the various sites that are out there in terms of meeting someone to form a relationship with. So I think you have to use precaution about meeting somebody you don’t know and one is that you certainly want to meet in a public place, a coffee shop or something like that. You need to get there ahead of time, so that you can see how that person looks before they ever walk into the place. I had a friend of mine who had done this and she saw one person who said “Oh, no this is really bad” and she just walked out from the back door. You want to have that option to leave immediately. You don’t want, you know, this is one of those times when you need to protect yourself and go with your gut.
Andy: Finally, Carolyn, you have some great advise. Active senior HQ includes a resource section on the website for people to get some additional information. Can you give us just one idea for an active senior who might want to begin rejuvenating their lives with a friend or partner.
Carolyn: One is I would recommend a book called “10 Great Dates For Empty-Nesters.” And it’s a great little book about how to date your partner. And it has in the back off the book discussion topics when you go out on your date.
Andy: Great information Carolyn! “10 Great Dates For Empty-Nesters” is available through the resource section on activeseniorshq.com. Again Carolyn thank you!
Carolyn is the founder and executive director of The Relationship Skills Center. The center promotes the development of strong, safe and stable families and teaches couples and single parents the skills to become happy, healthy families for life. You can get more information at their website skillscenter.org
Thanks again for listening. I’m Andy Asher.
We’ll talk to you next time.