Archive for January 19th, 2012
The empty nest may not be such an unhappy place after all.
Since the 1970s, relationship experts have popularized the notion of “empty nest syndrome,” a time of depression and loss of purpose that plagues parents, especially mothers, when their children leave home. Dozens of Web sites and books have been created to help parents weather the transition. Simon & Schuster has even introduced a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” dedicated to empty nesters.
But a growing body of research suggests that the phenomenon has been misunderstood. While most parents clearly miss children who have left home for college, jobs or marriage, they also enjoy the greater freedom and relaxed responsibility.
And despite the common worry that long-married couples will find themselves with nothing in common, the new research, published in November in the journal Psychological Science, shows that marital satisfaction actually improves when the children finally take their exits.
“It’s not like their lives were miserable,” said Sara Melissa Gorchoff, a specialist in adult relationships at the University of California, Berkeley. “Parents were happy with their kids. It’s just that their marriages got better when they left home.”
While that may not be surprising to many parents, understanding why empty nesters have better relationships can offer important lessons on marital happiness for parents who are still years away from having a child-free house.
Indeed, one of the more uncomfortable findings of the scientific study of marriage is the negative effect children can have on previously happy relationships. Despite the popular notion that children bring couples closer, several studies have shown that marital satisfaction and happiness typically plummet with the arrival of the first baby.
In June, The Journal of Advanced Nursing reported on a study from the University of Nebraska College of Nursing that looked at marital happiness in 185 men and women. Scores declined starting in pregnancy, and remained lower as the children reached 5 months and 24 months. Other studies show that couples with two children score even lower than couples with one child.
While having a child clearly makes parents happy, the financial and time constraints can add stress to a relationship. After the birth of a child, couples have only about one-third the time alone together as they had when they were childless, according to researchers from Ohio State.
The arrival of children also puts a disproportionate burden of household duties on women, a common source of marital conflict. After children, housework increases three times as much for women as for men, according to studies from the Center on Population, Gender and Social Equality at the University of Maryland.
But much of the research on children and marital happiness focuses on the early years. To understand the effects over time, researchers at Berkeley tracked marital happiness among 72 women in the Mills Longitudinal Study, which has followed a group of Mills College alumnae for 50 years.
The study is important because it tracks the first generation of women to juggle traditional family responsibilities with jobs in the work force. In the empty-nest study, researchers compared the women’s marital happiness in their 40s, when many still had children at home; in their early 50s, when some had older children who had left home; and in their 60s, when virtually all had empty nests. At every point, the empty nesters scored higher on marital happiness than women with children still at home. The finding mirrors that of a report presented last year at the American Psychological Association, tracking a dozen parents who were interviewed at the time of a child’s high school graduation and 10 years later. That small study also showed that a majority of parents scored higher on marital satisfaction after children had left home.
While the Berkeley researchers had hypothesized that the improvement in marital happiness came from couples’ spending more time together, the women in the same study reported spending just as much time with their partners whether the children were living at home or had moved out. But they said the quality of that time was better.
“There are fewer interruptions and less stress when kids are out of the house,” said Dr. Gorchoff, at Berkeley. “It wasn’t that they spent more time with each other after the children moved out. It’s the quality of time they spent with each other that improved.”
She notes that the lesson from the empty nest may be that parents need to work to carve out more stress-free time together. In the sample studied, it was only relationship satisfaction that improved when children left home. Over all, parents were just as happy with children at home as in the empty nest. (What happens when adult children move back home, their job prospects having evaporated in a brutal economy, has not been extensively studied.)
“Kids aren’t ruining parents’ lives,” Dr. Gorchoff said. “It’s just that they’re making it more difficult to have enjoyable interactions together.”