How to get reacquainted with your partner and yourself

The kids have gone to college and are moving into adulthood. The nest is officially—and finally!—empty. It’s a time for rediscovering yourself and finally being able to do the things you and your partner have put off for all those years of child-rearing and career-pursuing and more. 

There’s just one potential glitch: Who is that person staring at you across the kitchen table? Do you still have anything in common? And if you don’t, what can you do about it? It may be time to refresh your relationship.

While you may feel alone in your discovery, the statistics suggest otherwise. According to Pew Research, the divorce rate for people in their 50s has nearly doubled over the past 25 years. Globally, the rates of so-called “gray divorce” are right now at their highest, according to Forbes.

Dr. Nicole Bromley, a psychologist at Albany Medical College, says routines are partially to blame for couples navigating lives side-by-side but not entirely engaged with each other. Couples often fall into domestic routines, splitting duties and designating responsibilities around work and money management as they raise a family together. Once the kids aren’t there anymore, incongruence or general fatigue comes to the surface. 

“Some people honestly adjust very well,” says Bromley “because they have a lot of other things going on in their lives. They might have a good social network or other family they spend time with, or maybe a lot of hobbies and interests, and for them it’s not that much of a loss to have those kinds of changes. For people that don’t have those systems already in place, it’s a lot more of a challenge.” 

Couples often find that they’ve leaned on each other for support—that they are their primary sources of social, emotional and intellectual connection. Or they’ve fallen into a routine that doesn’t make sense anymore. 

“We can have gender roles that stay in place and it’s possible the woman in the couple was primarily taking care of the home and kids,” says Bromley. “Maybe both people in the couple are working and now things may feel more equal in terms of time, and therefore there may be a change in expectation when it comes to those kinds of at-home things. Even with same-sex couples, there’s still those things that get negotiated through a relationship. Someone’s going to be a primary caretaker, maybe not all the time, but when the caretaking goes away, there’s a gap.” 

Physical changes can also impact relationships at this life phase. Menopause, medical disruptions, deaths of parents and other traumas can all throw lives into major transition. Bromley says sometimes physical impairments can literally get in the way of couples listening to each other. 

“People with hearing loss can have really bad problems,” she says. “They start bickering because one can’t hear the other. That creates a huge barrier. So even things like physical changes that people might go through can lead to having to renegotiate and the realization that things aren’t going to stay the way they’ve always been. So you really need to evaluate where everybody is.” 

Refresh Your Relationship for Success

Bromley emphasizes that all couples of all makeups and orientations experience turbulence in these transitional days. So communication—and establishing your vision for yourselves as a couple—is more crucial now than ever. 

The key to keeping your relationship fresh in this life phase is by getting reacquainted and adjusting your expectations. You’re not who you were 20 or 30 years ago. Your partner likely isn’t, either. Recognizing that you and your partner have each evolved over the years, Bromley says, is important to learning the ways in which you can each support your independence now and your opportunities as a couple. 

Couple looking at cellphone together

As we get older, our attitudes, ideals, tastes, sensitivities, and libido evolve, sometimes beyond recognition to ourselves or our partners. So it’s important to get on the same page about who you are now, in this moment. Asking questions—of ourselves and with our partner—can help provide guidance about next steps to take. Questions like: 

  • How do I want to spend my time? 
  • Are we on the same page about our future vision and goals?
  • Are we compatible about our needs for affection and sex?
  • Are we happy with the way we divide household roles and responsibilities?
  • If we could rewrite our lives, would we still write them together?
  • Who am I, who do I want to be?

These questions can be hard to answer and harder still to confront. But without tackling them, the two of you can be left guessing, judging, and misunderstanding each other. 

“Whether it’s a lot of assumptions people have been making over the years or just the lifestyle changes that are happening, it’s a really good time to come together and reestablish the individual self and the couple and see where they want to go from there,” Bromley says. “And sometimes it doesn’t fit. For some people it’s not fixable and you realize you had a partner that was really good for a period of time in your life and may not be a good partner for another period of your life. And that realization can be a gift.”

Photos: Main couple, Ridofranz; inset couple, Inside Creative House.

Other Articles You Might Enjoy: