Empty-nesters need a gap year, too
Parents who take a gap year may come back to their marriage energized, with a new perspective and even a new appreciation
We’re approaching the time of year when high school seniors start getting acceptance letters from colleges and universities, a nerve-wracking time for sure.
But increasingly, seniors are taking a year off before starting high school, known as a gap year — most famously of late Malia Obama. Research has shown that teens who take a gap year benefit from having a fresh perspective and an energized focus on their education when they start college.
But which should kids have all the fun? Which is why I suggest that as the kids leave the nest, whether for college or a gap year, their parents should take a marital gap year, too.
Challenges of the ‘second half of marriage’
While some couples enjoy their empty nest as a time to travel and reconnect as a couple without the distraction of raising children, the reality is many long-married couples fall apart, finding themselves strangers with nothing to say to each other and years of built-up resentments.
It’s hard for some to navigate what authors David and Claudia Arp call “the second half of marriage” — the years that come post-kids — as evidenced by the divorce rate among baby boomers, which has jumped by more than 50 percent over the past 20 years. They’ve raised their kids, their job is done. They’re still “Mom” or “Dad,” but that role is no longer the dominant one. Who are they now?
“People think that when spouses grow apart, it’s because there is some big conflict or major divide. That’s not necessarily true,” according to Eli Karam, assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s marriage and family therapy program. They withdraw, he says.
So, couples can either divorce … or they can take a gap year off from their marriage to have a fresh perspective and new energy that they can put toward their union. But you can’t wait until the kids leave to talk about this and plan for it.
Karam suggests that couples create a long-term strategic plan, what we call in The New I Do a marital plan, one that couples would tweak as their life changes — like when the last kid moves out. They should ask themselves what they want their marriage to be like once the kids are gone, would they move or downsize, what types of experiences would they want to share — or not, he says.
Tweaking the marital model
And perhaps how much they’d like to shake up things — like Lise and Emil Stoessel. By the time their youngest went off to college, after 20-plus years of marriage, the couple were barely talking to each other. They could have divorced, but instead they decided to become a live apart together couple, or apartners. It saved their marriage, they say, and Lise wrote a book, Living Happily Ever After, Separately, to help other couples consider LAT as an option.
Becoming a LAT is just one of many options. Some might want to open up their marriage, others may want to travel separately or study or work abroad, or — well, the possibilities are endless.
Of course, the Stoessels made their arrangement permanent — they didn’t just take a year off. If they had planned for their life post-kids, perhaps a gap year would have been enough.
In The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home, author Cheryl Jarvis details the stories of 55 women who took time off their marriage — about three months — including herself. The empty nest often hits women hardest because they’re typically the main caretaker. It’s not just a gal thing, though — men need a break, too.
But, you may be asking, won’t that just make couples feel even more disconnected? Shouldn’t couples be taking that time to work on their marriage and do things together? Sure, maybe, if that’s what they both want. Except one person might be ready to retire and the other isn’t, or both are ready to retire but want different things from retirement, or — as is often the case — by that time, the marriage is beyond the point of re-creating, and they’ll either stay together, miserably, or divorce.
Sometimes, it takes doing something bold and perhaps scary to get out of the marital rut.
A gap year is actually a great way to work on a marriage because each person would have time to do some critical self care and growth and, just like gap-year kids, might be re-energized, and have a new perspective and perhaps even a new appreciation for their marriage. After 15, 20, 25 years of marriage, that just might be what helps a couple make it “until death” — happily.
Want to learn how to re-create your marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.