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My Nest is Empty, So is My Marriage

QUESTION: My children are grown -- 26, 23 and 20. But I have a huge problem. I married someone opposite to myself -- certainly not a soul mate. After 28 years of marriage I am lonely and devastated at the personal loss resulting from staying together for the kids and the religious belief that marriage is once and for all. I am so lonely and sad -- and to top it off, my dad died two months ago. I am really grappling with values and concerns about how to survive within myself. My children have come first, although my husband took more effort than the kids. Now I'm having difficulty with loneliness and a sense of personal need that won't go away. My marriage is a mess, my behavior is bad, and I can't make a decision to leave. I'm not certain if it's the religion or the compulsive connection with my partner. It's all so destructive. Please help.

ANSWER: Your father's death has triggered grief about your own sacrifices in your marriage. You are also just emerging from the family lifecycle stage of raising children which precipitates a major realignment of the couples' relationship. The combination of adjusting to an empty nest with a beleaguered marriage and losing your father must feel altogether overwhelming, if not truly devastating.

The emotional toll of your father's death compounded the loss you were already experiencing of your children, around whom you have structured your life. It is natural to feel lonely and bereft, even if your marriage was healthy. The disappointment in your marriage further complicates your bereavement. Please don't castigate yourself for "bad" behavior. I fervently recommend you consult a counselor for help sorting through the cascade of feelings you are experiencing. Without understanding your own feelings, you may make decisions that destroy your marriage as an expression of overriding grief. Such reaction may be highly untimely and precipitous. You are in danger of projecting all of the pain you are presently feeling onto the marriage.

Your choice to stay in your marriage "for the children" and despite the fact that your husband has not been your "soul mate" suggests that you may have been more "married" to the children than to your husband. But there is no reason that you cannot change this. No doubt there is much to be worked through, and you are the one who has lost your involvement in the children so it is you who is feeling the "yearning" for something more. Your loneliness is real. But this does not mean that your marriage is necessarily hopeless.

It may be that your relationship with your husband is lacking the deep connection you associate with someone of more kindred spirit. Still, you have shared much of your life together. Perhaps you were not ready or emotionally available for intimacy previously, nor was your husband. You may have had a love affair with the kids, and perhaps he with his work. (You don't say whether you had a job outside the home.) It is now possible to develop more connection since the children have left the nest. Your needs are important fuel for this relationship! Finally, one of you is addressing the lack of intimacy between you. What is the meaning of your "compulsive" attachment to your spouse? Though it may be true that you fell out of love, surely you feel some sense of fondness for this man who has shared your life.

You certainly have every right to leave the marriage if you feel it is truly in your best interests. But start by finding out who you are at this crossroads, first. What about your father's death might have created a resurgence of yearning for a "soul mate"? How might this have been compounded by no longer having your children at home to care for? Was it the closeness you shared with your Dad that you miss? Or the love you did not have with him that you so yearned for as a young girl? Did his passing mean that you no longer had to live up to his standards? Or that you, too are mortal and must live your life now before it is too late?

Fathers are important figures around whom we as daughters forge our romantic ideals. Your ability to yearn for the closeness of a "soul mate" is a sign that there is a passion inside of you that does need expression. Discover what that is, beginning with yourself, your motherhood, the choices not taken and the path you did travel. Take the time and space to mourn your father, explore past regrets and develop new interests and activities in your life. After 26 years of motherhood, it will take a bit of time to restructure your life so that it makes sense again! If you're not working, find a job you'd enjoy, and or do volunteer work. Become engaged with life. After you have recovered your bearings, strongly suggest to your husband that you enter couples' therapy to address the changes you need in the marriage.

Take your needs seriously and do not settle for less than what you need to make the marriage work for you. Do, however, honor yourself and your husband by taking the time to thoroughly assess what you are going through at this time in your life. You owe yourself a period of deep self-exploration to ensure that you do not jump prematurely out of the frying pan and into the fire!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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