Intimacy in the Empty Nest.
What being together, alone again, really means.
When kids are out of the picture—moved into their own homes, living their own lives—couples find themselves, at the end of a significant life stage, starting a new beginning: The empty nest. And that means alone time (a lot of it) for the first time in potentially decades.
The shift is a dramatic one, and it has an expectedly dramatic effect on a couple’s intimacy. With no toddlers to wrangle, no teenagers to manage, and no children to interrupt a rare private moment, the tables are completely turned. So what happens next?
The immediate aftermath
The concept of “empty nest syndrome” was first introduced by writer Dorothy Canfield in 1914, but it wasn’t popularized until the ’70s when it was used to describe depression and loneliness, felt most often by mothers when their youngest child moved away from home. Though the concept resonated with plenty of people anecdotally, as a psychological phenomenon, it was later debunked.
After all, while parents might feel a sense of loss when facing their empty nest at first, the feeling is not permanent—and the movement (gradual or immediate) past those feelings can leave room for fulfillment in other areas of their lives: Hence, the jokes about some empty nesters rushing to revive their sex lives as soon as they move their last kid out.
For some empty-nesters, the sudden prospect of long-awaited alone time is enough motivation to turbocharge their sex lives, or become more in touch with and in charge of their own sexuality—as it the case for Kathryn Hahn’s character in the HBO series Mrs. Fletcher, a woman suddenly (passionately!) indulging in her sexual fantasies after dropping her son off at college.
For others, it’s more about the gradual build of intimacy that results from the major life change. One 2019 survey showed that about two-thirds of couples report feeling closer with their spouse when faced with the empty nest. It makes sense—there’s a rightful feeling of pride that comes with kids pursuing their own, independent lives, and along with that, a likely reduction of stress, with fewer financial demands, fewer household demands (which traditionally fall more heavily on women) and less teen drama to mediate.
The everlasting honeymoon
More recent research has pushed even harder against the idea of empty nest syndrome—a 2008 survey showed that marital satisfaction increased for women as they got older, whether they remarried or stayed with their same partner. Women whose children had moved out felt more satisfied with their partners than those who still had kids at home—and better emotional intimacy means better physical intimacy. Two might just be perfect company.