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Dr. Terri Orbuch Headshot

How to Keep Your Marriage Happy After the Kids Are Gone

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Even though we love our kids, many studies have found that marital happiness actually increases after the kids leave home. For many couples, marriage happiness continues to rise steadily during the empty nest years and reaches an all-time high at 35 years of marriage.

Despite these hopeful findings, it's very common for spouses to express anxiety before their kids move out. The questions I typically hear from my therapy patients, TV and radio fans, and online readers who are about to enter the empty nest years are: Do we still have things to talk about? Do we have enough in common? Will we get sick of each other's company? Do I even still like him/her?

The big message I tell them is this: It doesn't take a lot of hard work to renew your marital bond and to rekindle the kind of lighthearted joy and excitement you felt early in your marriage. In fact, the "newness" of being alone together again helps to jump start these feelings. My research has shown that when partners make a few positive changes in their behaviors and habits, they can greatly increase their marital happiness over the next many years.

Here are five marriage-rekindling strategies that will absolutely help you and your spouse enjoy years of happiness together once your kid heads off to college:

Start chatting daily--for 10 minutes.
When was the last time you and your partner talked about something other than the kids, the house, money or your work? Practice talking to your partner for 10 minutes a day, every day, about anything other than those four topics. Meals are good opportunities to practice the 10-Minute Rule. So is right before bed. My research found that couples who practice the 10-Minute Rule daily feel closer and happier over time.

Psyche yourselves up.
As in any new endeavor, going in with a positive attitude and some concrete goals leads to success. Sit down with your spouse and discuss all the benefits of having the house to yourselves and what you are each looking forward to. More free time? Freedom to travel? Eating out more? Eating differently? Less mess? Skinny dipping in your pool? Doing this simple activity will get the two of you in alignment and jazzed up about your new life.

Share a new activity.
Engaging in a new experience benefits your marriage by helping to rekindle the same feeling of newness you experienced as dating singles, when every activity was a freshly shared experience. Doing something novel together--such as taking tennis lessons, eating at a new restaurant, or visiting a local tourist attraction--is also a way to inject fun into the marriage. My research has found that when couples characterize their relationship as frequently fun, they are likely to be happy over the long term.

Knock your partner off balance.
One of the best ways to bring more passion into your marriage and get out of a relationship rut is to shake up your normal routine. For example, if the wife goes grocery shopping at the end of the day, maybe the husband offers to go with her. Or if he typically falls asleep in front of the TV at night, maybe the wife challenges him to a game of Scrabble instead. Even small changes and surprises keep relationships feeling fresh and exciting.

Talk about sex.
It's important for long-married couples to talk about their sex lives together. This can be helpful as well as physiologically arousing to both partners. Discuss what makes your sex life exciting, your sexual fantasies, or what you desire from each other. A good way to start this conversation is to remember back when you first had sex and remember what turned you on then. Focus on the positive and what would be erotic to each of you.

As you can see, these are not complicated, difficult, or major activities. Nevertheless, each one addresses a different aspect of your relationship in a positive way. Bringing these new behaviors into your mature marriage will guarantee that you and your long-time spouse will enjoy many more years of marital happiness through the empty nest years. Don't be surprised if you begin to feel more content and connected to your spouse than you've ever felt before--it happens all the time.

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