For many years the received wisdom has popularised the notion of the “empty nest syndrome”.
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, research, published in November in the journal Psychological Science, shows that marital satisfaction actually improves when the children finally take their exits.
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.