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"The Kids Are Gone and We're Strangers"

Kate and Phil's children left for college and Kate is suffering from a bad case of empty nest syndrome. Phil is also sad but struggles to communicate his emotions. Can this marriage be saved?


She Says

"I've been unhappy for a long time, but never allowed myself to acknowledge it," said a wistful Kate, 45. "But now that it's just the two of us, this emptiness won't go away."

"Phil and I have been together for 23 years. Our son, Ben, is a junior in college, and Meg graduated from high school in June. She's less independent than Ben, and I'm worried about how she'll manage at college. I'm upset enough about having them both gone; the fact that I feel as if I'm living with a stranger makes it worse. My husband and I occupy the same house, but we're emotionally alienated. We used to have such rich conversations — about plays, books, current events — but there are days now when we barely speak to each other."

"Frankly, I'm scared. Everyone keeps telling me how free I should feel, but I don't see it that way. I was very good at being a mom. Now, a period in my life that I loved is over. I'm just so sad: I'll be someplace like the supermarket, and the tears will start.

"Being a great wife and mother was my lifelong dream. Even as a girl I vowed never to get divorced because I knew the pain of a broken home. My parents split up when I was 3, and I moved with my father from Delaware to North Carolina. I gathered that Mom had had an affair, but Dad refused to talk about it. I didn't see her until I was 12, when she stopped briefly on her way to Miami. Over the years, I tried to have a relationship with her, but it was hopeless. I've finally given up. It all happened long ago, but I still feel this intense anger — at my dad for taking me away from my mother and at her for letting him do it.

"I met Phil the summer after I graduated from college. I was working at the local library. Phil came in — he was from Boston and visiting his grandmother in North Carolina — and I felt an instant spark. He was charming, funny, and cute in an all-American way. He invited me to dinner and, a week later, asked me to marry him. I accepted, but knew my dad and stepmother would flip out. So we had a long-distance romance for six months before breaking the news. When we did, my folks were delighted. Phil had just completed his engineering degree and had a job in New York. I moved up north, and we found a small house in the suburbs. Ben was born the following year, and we agreed I'd stay home. Meg was born three years later.

"I threw myself into motherhood. I sewed the kids' Halloween costumes myself — no store-bought masks for my children — baked cookies, decorated the house for every holiday. But it was hard to be both Mom and Wife. Phil is a great dad, but we'd quarrel because he'd want us to go away together for a weekend, and I felt uncomfortable leaving the kids with someone. On weekends, he wanted peace and quiet, but I loved the hubbub of having our kids' friends running in and out.  

"But as the kids got older and wanted to spend more time with their friends and less with us, I sensed that Phil and I were drifting apart. Our lovemaking was less passionate, and we rarely had the deep conversations we once thrived on. When I tried to discuss this, Phil brushed me off. 

"Everyone thinks Phil is the nicest guy, and with other people, he is. But with me, he'll rant for hours. The night I forgot to turn off the car headlights and drained the battery, he was so furious I thought he'd have a coronary. And talk about road rage! God help the driver who cuts off Phil; he'll tailgate him for miles just to teach him a lesson. 

"He never cares about what I want. Just the other day, I said I wanted a coffee ice cream cone, but he came back with a different flavor he thought I should try instead. Okay, that's petty, but I hate his presuming he knows me better than I do. And I wish I had a nickel for every time he's said he'd be someplace at a certain time but showed up late. Last week, after I had a root canal, I waited 45 minutes for him to pick me up. 

"I've tried everything to improve our marriage. I've gone to other therapists; Phil came once, then refused to return. I've read self-help books. I've cajoled him to talk. But Phil will deny, deny, deny until a problem hits him over the head — even now, when he's clearly sad about Meg's leaving, too.  

"He's just so unemotional, and I'm so lonely. I don't want to separate, but I don't want to live like this, either."

He Says

"Kate's right. I am sad. I never thought the kids' leaving would affect me this way," said Phil. "I look at their baby pictures and want to turn back time.

"I'm not comfortable with counseling. The one time we went, I was constantly on the hot seat. But I want to be happy as much as Kate does. She has always brought out the best in me. She digs deep, tries to get me to communicate. I'm not good at that.

"But I do resent the way she blames me for everything wrong in our marriage. She's always been controlling — whether it's what movie to see or whether to go away for a weekend, the decision is in her hands. Just once, it would be nice do what I want.

"Kate also holds grudges. I mean, she's still talking about that ice cream cone! Was that a federal offense? I genuinely thought she'd like to try a new flavor. And I know I messed up with the dentist. But it's not as if she was standing in the pouring rain; she was in a comfortable waiting room with a book. There should be a statute of limitations on the amount of time I'm condemned for these things.

"I know I get angry too easily, especially when I'm driving, but Kate's anxieties make me crazy. I'm worried about Meg, too, but I can't spend every waking minute discussing every possible thing that could go wrong. Kate starts her day anxious!

"I was raised outside of Boston. My family — Dad, Mom, my older sister, and I — lived in a three-bedroom apartment above the drugstore Dad owned. My mom was a school secretary. I got interested in computers in the early 1980s, switched from industrial engineering to software programming, and was hired by a large New York firm. I worked there for 15 years, but in the early 1990s, the company was forced to make layoffs, and I was one of them. I was out of work for seven months before I got my current job. It was a very tough time. I felt I was letting my family down. 

"Kate is the finest woman I've ever known. My meeting her was pure good luck. I was visiting my grandmother, and she asked me to return a book to the library where Kate was working. It was love at first sight for me. She thought I was kidding when I asked her to marry me so soon, but I couldn't have been more serious. I wanted kids right away, too. And she's wrong about the peace and quiet: I liked having kids hang out at our place; it's just that I also wanted private time with my wife. We're the only couple I know who've never once been away for a weekend alone.

"For a long time, I was so caught up with work I didn't realize we had drifted apart. Kate may have vowed to be a good mother, but I vowed to be a good provider so that my family wouldn't have to worry about every cent the way my folks did. When Kate complained, I didn't pay attention. I figured she was overreacting because of her lonely childhood. 

"I'd love to get back to the way we were. But I'll be honest: There's a lot about Kate I don't like anymore. She's always nagging me or the kids about something. But I swear, I am totally committed to our marriage."

The Counselor Says

"Kate and Phil's situation is not uncommon," said the counselor. "For years, they focused their energies on raising a family, and their busy days shielded them from the full impact of their marital troubles. But as their lives began to change, the ties that held them together began to unravel. The pileup of daily irritations and arguments created deep resentments, leaving them sad and unmoored.

"At several sessions, we discussed the 'separation anxiety' parents feel when a child departs for college. Whether it's their first child or their fourth, couples are often surprised by the intensity of their feelings. But everyone reacts differently.

"For Kate, the child of a bitter divorce who prided herself on being a good wife and mother, the empty nest meant the loss of her very identity. It may also have unearthed unresolved feelings of childhood abandonment. When Phil minimized or discounted Kate's worries, her anxieties mushroomed, increasing the need to control her husband and children through nagging.

"After only one session, Kate and Phil began to relax, as it dawned on them that there was nothing specifically 'wrong' with their marriage; the relationship simply needed to change to fit this new life stage.

"One key step for this couple was to learn to voice their opinions without blaming or accusing. I also explained that anger builds slowly. The first time Phil was late, Kate might have felt resentful but swallowed her frustration and said nothing. Yet each subsequent episode added more fuel until she was left with a profound sense that her husband didn't care about her. I told Kate, 'You're making too big a leap,' and advised her to try hard not to make cosmic generalizations from small incidents. 'Tolerate the wrong-flavor ice cream, and focus on the fact that Phil loves you and tries to do the right thing, even though he sometimes slips up,' I said.

"Raised in a family that never discussed personal feelings, Phil found it hard to share even minor aspects of his day, let alone engage in the kind of heartfelt conversations Kate rightly expected. He even had trouble being casually intimate — holding her hand, putting an arm around her shoulder. 'Such gestures are the glue that holds couples together,' I said. 'Phil needs to find a way to feel comfortable while reaching out so bottled-up feelings don't come out in angry explosions.'

"Realizing that this tendency was destroying their intimacy, Phil worked with me on anger management. The first step was to identify physical sensations — a tightening in his neck or clenching in his jaw — that signaled anger. Then we targeted the specific issues that provoked him, with him jotting down in a notebook the moments he felt irritated. Time and again, Kate's obsessing about the kids triggered negative reactions, in part because it tapped into his own fears. One solution was for them to set aside time every night to discuss 'kid worries.' That way, Kate felt her concerns were addressed, and Phil knew there were limits.

"To improve communication, Phil had to get in the habit of expressing his views. He resented the way Kate orchestrated their life yet acquiesced to her suggestions. So now, before making plans, Kate asks Phil which restaurant or play he'd like to go to. I also noted that they always socialized with other people. 'You two need to have fun by yourselves,' I said. 'By doing so, you'll have a reason to continue the hard work of counseling.' They've spent recent weekends hiking or antiquing around New England and staying in bed-and-breakfasts. As they began to enjoy each other's company again, their intimacy was restored.  

"And Kate has rediscovered some of her pre-motherhood interests. Just before they drove Meg to college, she started taking courses in decorative design at a local college. She's not sure where it will lead, she told me, but design is a longtime passion she now has the time and money to pursue. Both of them miss the kids and are counting the days to parents' weekend, but there's a positive twist: 'A year ago, I would have been sobbing in my room and Phil would be ignoring me, watching the football game. Now we're able to comfort each other.' They also gained strength from seeing their daughter on campus confidently making her way through the maze of class registration, dormitory move-in and meal-plan sign-ups. 'It's clear she'll be okay,' said Kate. 

"'And we will, too,' said Phil."

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Susan Healy, RCSW, a family therapist in Merrick, New York. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, September 2004.

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