Empty-nester couples face their own ‘Us’ moment as university begins

·5-min read

‘I want change!” So says Connie Petersen in the new BBC series Us, as she and husband Douglas imagine a future without their son Albie. How many of us have had her words ringing in our ears this week as we’ve dropped our teenagers off at university and headed home as the child-free couple we’ve not been for many years?

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Albie is an only child, and his impending departure for university throws Connie and Douglas into a tumultuous reassessment of their marriage, bringing into sharp focus the impact of the end of what are sometimes called the “heavy lifting” years of parenting. With the child or children gone, parents no longer have them to hide behind: the marriage, with its fault lines, weaknesses and strengths, is exposed in ways it hasn’t been for decades.

My husband and I are certainly in that ballpark: we’ve been married for 32 years, and last week we dropped the youngest of our four daughters off at university. It’s the end of what has probably been the most eventful and demanding chapter of our lives; and alongside adjusting to no longer having to take children into consideration at every turn, there’s the stark reality of just “us”: every morning at breakfast, every evening at supper – and in these coronavirus days of working from home, lunchtime as well.

“For almost every couple, it’s crunch time,” says Celia Dodd, whose book The Empty Nest: Your Changing Family, Your New Direction has just been published in a new edition by Piatkus. “Even if they’re not thinking, ‘will we split up?’ they’re almost always thinking, ‘is this all there is?’ and ‘what will we do now?’” In Us, based on the novel by David Nicholls, Connie says all she and Douglas talk about these days is when to put the bins out – and her big fear is of a future filled with box sets. “I think many couples will relate to that,” says Dodd.

For almost every couple, keeping their relationship intimate and alive alongside raising children is a huge ask

Joanna Rosenthall

Stereotypes aside, Dodd believes Us presents attitudes to marriage that often play out: Douglas has taken Connie and their continued future for granted, while she has spent years silently frustrated by the limitations child rearing has put on their life. “It feels like her chance to do something for herself – maybe her last chance,” says Dodd.

Dodd and her partner made it through their Us moment – their youngest is 28 – but, she says, it was a tough time. “Looking back, the time when the last child left was as emotionally difficult for my partner as for me, but it was harder for him to express, and that made communication tricky for a while.”

Psychoanalyst Joanna Rosenthall, head of the couples unit at the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust, describes the Us moment as a major stocktaking. “Some people will say they only stayed together for the children – but for almost every couple, keeping their relationship intimate and alive alongside raising a child or children is a huge ask.” The single most important key to whether or not you can stay together, she believes, is the answer to the question: are you each able to bear the disappointments of who your partner has become? “You start off in love and it’s a very idealised situation, and our culture fuels a powerful fantasy of a perfect someone and an idyllic future. But that’s never how it is in real life – and I think many people give up on the hard work of a relationship and focus instead on being parents.”

Another element of a long-term marriage highlighted in Us, says Rosenthall, is the tendency for each individual in a couple to become boxed into “types”. “People get stuck into a role – Douglas is the practical one, Connie is the emotionally intelligent one – and it becomes a kind of straitjacket. That makes the marriage rigid and lifeless, which is why going to therapy at this point can really help change the dynamic.”

For some couples, of course, splitting up is the way forward, but, cautions Dodd, even parents with grown-up children shouldn’t underestimate the effect of a break-up on their offsprings’ lives. “There’s an assumption that it’s easier, but whatever age they are, there are repercussions,” she says. “In that sense, we are never entirely free to do exactly what we want.”

George (not his real name), whose youngest daughter went to university a year ago, says he’s been struck in the TV series by the flashbacks that give viewers an insight into how Connie and Douglas got together in the first place. “My partner and I found it was really helpful to think back to who we were as a couple back then, and to rediscover the things we used to like to do together,” he says. “So we’ve had trips away, and we’ve been on holidays with friends – things we’ve not been able to do for many years.”

Rosenthall notes, too, that a child’s exciting new independent life will often serve as a contrast to their parents’ dull midlife. “It’s easy to feel left behind. I think sometimes parents even feel a bit jealous of life opening up for their children as it feels to be closing down to them, but the truth is there’s so much time left, there’s lots of potential for feeling lively and making plans.”

Dodd agrees: her advice is to make a list of the things you want to do – together as a couple, and separately as individuals – over the next 10 years. “You assume the person is the same as they were before you had children, but of course they’re different now,” she says. “You haven’t noticed the change, but this is the moment to do that. It can help you move forward, and it can help give you new ideas for the rest of your life together.”

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