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Sex - Overview | August 4, 2022, 6:00 CDT

Empty Nest Syndrome and Sex Can Happily Coexist

Your love life will be different, just like everything else in this new stage of life.
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Written by

Rachel Crowe
A couple cuddle in a bird's nest with fire and heart emojis floating around them.
Illustration by Tré Carden

Whatever the prospect of empty nest life evokes for you, whether a return to the feeling of pre-children ease or a sense of dread and loss, honesty is the best policy for you and your partner. If done successfully, the empty nest period, with kids out of the house and on their own, can represent a perfect opportunity to begin dating someone you already love: your spouse.

"You may think you know your long-term partner inside and out, but make time to connect and have new things to talk about so that your relationship—and life—doesn't get stale," said Emily Heard, M.F. T., a mind-body wellness coach at Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California. "Enjoy your second honeymoon!"

Remember, this is supposed to be fun

Ideally, communication and teamwork skills cultivated across decades can help you navigate an easily overlooked element of sex: awkwardness, especially when your bodies don't work quite like they did in the past.

It's alright to feel unsure about how to proceed sexually, even with someone you know well. Bethany Cook, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty in neuropsychological assessment based in Chicago, recommended patience and teamwork to overcome the initial stage of reacquainting yourselves.

"It's not uncommon for couples to go months or years without sex during parenthood for a variety of reasons," Cook explained. "You and your partner may need to start out slow and make sure to be gentle with each other during this transition, emotionally as well as physically. Give you and your partner some grace. Getting outside help—a sex therapist—may be more beneficial in the short term than a traditional talk therapist. Go to an adult sex store and spend time looking, exploring, asking questions, etcetera."

As long as you're honest and communicative with your partner, any approach to cultivating more physical time is probably right. However, Cook suggested a more structured approach to get started.

It's alright to feel unsure about how to proceed sexually, even with someone you know well.

"If increasing a couple's sex life is important to both people, keeping track of or setting a monthly, 'I'd like us to make efforts to have sex four times month' schedule is beneficial because it offers data that isn't emotional," she noted. "Were you successful as a team or not? What were the pitfalls? Can something be switched up? You also need to define effort. Is this a kiss, a make-out session with hands or one person climaxes but not both?"

During these discussions, it's beneficial to determine what both of you are seeking from your intimate relationship.

"Let go of 'shoulds,'" Cook added. "Some people have kids and are happy to never have sex again. Others may want to relive or fulfill sexual fantasies. Have a chat about expectations."

If your reality is not meeting those expectations, Cook recommended some key reevaluations.

"Whether it's mutual or one-sided, finding out you're no longer compatible brings all sorts of feelings to the surface," she explained. "Talking through and supporting one another is important if this has happened. Maybe you decide to try and spark it together again or try something new like an open relationship to see if that helps. Or a relationship without sex [is] totally fine, too."

Feel what you need to feel

With so many changes afoot, both in family and relationship dynamics, you're allowed to feel the entire gamut of emotions all at once.

"An empty nest can bring up feelings of grief and loneliness," Heard said. "Many parents are excited to have freedom, [but some] feel a palpable void. If one partner's primary role was as a caregiver, this offers an opportunity to rediscover themselves."

This isn't just a time to focus on your primary relationship, either, Heard noted. Take the time to reconnect with friends, too.

"Lean into your community of other empty-nesters," she said. "Share your experience. One person may feel relieved and ready to take on the world, while another doesn't quite know what to do with themselves."

Along with reconnecting with your partner and friends, Heard emphasized the importance of reconnecting with yourself; setting that foundation can have far-reaching effects, she said.

"Set personal goals for yourself so that you don't feel as though you have lost your sense of purpose," Heard advised. "By investing in yourself, you are also investing in your relationship."

If it appeals to you, apply Cook's analysis of a sex life to the time and effort you commit to your own interests. For instance, set a number of days a week you'd like to spend on hobbies, or strive toward benchmarks on personal projects. A visualization of progress—whether a tally of completed activities or something more elaborate—can be the antidote to disheartenment.

Leave your comfort zone, together

Heard proposed channeling all of the energy you used to direct at parenting—scheduling, preparing, research and vetting—into your most important adult relationships.

"Your weekends may have revolved around supporting [your] teenager's various activities or helping them to plan the next phase of their life," she said. "Take that organizational energy and put it back into yourself and your relationship."

If finances allow, follow Cook's advice: Travel is an aphrodisiac.

"It's much easier when reminders of the day to day are replaced by activities that increase your body's dopamine," she said. "Engaging in new or preferred activities increases all sorts of positive neurotransmitters that can transfer to feelings of romance and intimacy. Go to Paris, sleep next to a waterfall, go glamping or camping, do a road trip, etcetera."

Or stay closer to home to preserve finances. Dopamine can be increased and your comfort zone expanded by something as simple as trying a salsa class.

As you try new activities with your partner, remember not to overanalyze what you choose to do or how you do it. There's no bigger mood killer than comparing ourselves and our relationships to others.

"You and your partner are not in competition with another couple for anything when it comes to your personal sex life," Heard explained. "Don't get caught up in 'So-and-so told me they do Y.' Unless you're curious."

Keep this thought front of mind now that you're an empty-nester: If there's somewhere or something you've always wanted to do but haven't gotten around to it, now's the time to prioritize your dreams.

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Written by

Rachel Crowe