Facing an Empty Nest Divorce? Watch Out for These 3 Tricky Issues

By Joe Dillon, Divorce Mediator

Founder & Divorce Negotiation Expert

Equitable Mediation Verified

Original Publish Date: September 27, 2021

Last updated: June 12, 2024

  • There’s a lot at stake in an empty nest divorce, and there are a number of significant challenges you need to know about if you're facing one.
  • If you want to protect your children and safeguard your financial future, here’s what to do.

As parents, you worked hard, both inside and outside the home, to raise smart and well-rounded kids.

And in what seems like the blink of an eye, they’re all grown up and headed off to college!

Sadly, now that you no longer have the kiddos to focus all your attention on, the underlying problems in your marriage can’t be ignored. Whether it came on recently, or you've been unhappy for a long time, you still care for and respect your spouse - appreciating the contributions and sacrifices made during your decades together.

But you know the marriage is over, and the time finally feels right to go your separate ways.

Divorce isn’t easy, no matter how long you've been married or how old you are. But if you're facing an empty nesters divorce, there are some significant issues you need to know about and resolve!

In this post you'll learn:

  • What an empty nest divorce is;
  • The 10 top reasons a married couple gets divorced when they become empty nesters;
  • 3 critical challenges you need to be aware of and make a plan for;
  • Why you’ll get the best outcome using mediation;


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What is an Empty Nest Divorce?

According to the Mayo Clinic, empty nest syndrome is a phenomenon in which parents experience feelings of grief, loneliness, sadness, and loss when the last child leaves home.

And unfortunately, with empty nest syndrome, divorce can result.

Note: Gray divorce is a term commonly used to refer to the rising divorce rate for baby boomers in long-term marriages. So technically, gray divorce can also be an empty nest divorce, but in this post, we're focusing on empty nesters a bit younger.


Why Do Couples Divorce When They Are Empty Nesters?

Wouldn’t it appear now that since the pressures of raising children have been lifted, there’d be more time to connect with your partner, and enjoy life together instead of calling it quits?

While that may certainly seem to be the case, when it comes to empty nesters and divorce, there is often far more going on in the relationship, or with the individual person, than meets the eye.

The answers to the question “why do couples divorce when they are empty nesters?” vary, but they typically fall into one of two camps:

  • Sometimes the reason has to do with the collective actions of or dynamic between spouses that can cause empty nesters to divorce. In these cases, both parties actively or passively played a role in the failed marriage.
  • While other times it’s the behavior or experience of an individual that impacts the relationship and drives the decision to divorce once the nest is empty.


In our experience, we see 10 distinct reasons a couple pursues divorce when they have an empty nest:

1. An unstable marital foundation:

While we think an empty nest divorce is triggered by the last minor child heading off to college and leaving the marital home, the reality is the marriage may have been in trouble long before that.

Think back to the conversation you had regarding children. Were you both on the same page about having kids? Or did one of you desperately want children while the other felt your marriage was great as-is?

And if you had children early in your marriage, did you have time to get to know each other before the chaos of parenting kicked in?

Conflicts in the marriage regarding the decision to have children, and the timing of the birth of those children, can create cracks early in the marital foundation.

These cracks may go undetected for many years until the youngest leaves home - leading to an empty nest and divorce.


2. Too many years of marital neglect:

For many couples, it’s hard to stay connected in today’s busy world.

Life is definitely more hectic than it was for those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, and all that running around can take a toll on a marriage.

Throughout your marriage, did you regularly spend time together without the kids? Going on dates, couples vacations, and doing activities - just the two of you? Or was it all kids, all the time, with each of you passing like two ships in the night?

Spending time scurrying from place to place can cause a slow and consistent decline in a marriage - the kind which goes unnoticed until the nest is empty.

Leading couples to drift apart and ultimately make the decision to divorce.


3. Staying together for the kids:

Regardless of being in an unhappy marriage, some couples stay together for the sake of the kids.

Kids are often what tethers a couple together. Even if they have underlying issues with each other, the parents may go to marriage counseling to try to make things work. Or worse, ignore their problems to not disrupt their younger children's life with their parents' divorce.

Unfortunately, those problems never go away. And giving up on a marriage without ending it can compound the marital friction that already exists.

So after setting the youngest up in their dorm room, and pulling away from their college campus with tears in their eyes, starting divorce proceedings becomes the next logical step.


4. Differing attitudes about the empty nest:

Some empty nesters can’t wait to turn the bedroom of their grown children into an office or hobby room.

While others want to keep it preserved in perpetuity, sports posters or dance trophies and all.

These differences aren’t necessarily about the room per se, but they say a lot about how each views the fact their last baby bird has flown the coop.

Do you both view your newfound independence with a sense of joy - excited for what’s next? Or is one of you planning that exotic vacation you always talked about, while the other sits on your child’s bed, sulking until they come home for winter break, and spring break, and…

Differing attitudes about the empty nest and prospects for the couple’s next chapter in life, combined with the bereaved spouse feeling like there is a lack of emotional support from their husband and/or wife, can contribute to marital dissatisfaction and subsequently, divorce.


5. Not letting go:

When it comes to raising children, parents have a lot of responsibilities.

But beyond the homework, brushing of teeth, and shuttling them to school and activities on time, a parent’s number one job is to ensure their child's welfare and keep them safe.

Did you both stay awake all night until you heard a key in the door and knew your kid got home safely? Or was one of you sound asleep, while the other anxiously stared out the window, waiting for a car to arrive or, heaven forbid, to get a call from the police?

It’s a fact of life that children grow up, and letting them go can be hard – especially when they’re so far from home.

But if one of you feels at ease, knowing you raised your kids to be responsible and independent young adults, while the other still feels the need to check up on their every move, this conflict of values can become a divorce culprit.


6. Loss of identity:

When some couples decide to have children, they agree that one will continue their career, while the other will stay home and raise the kids.

Each spouse plays an important role in the growth and success of the family unit. And oftentimes, each individual’s identity and sense of purpose is tied directly to their “job.” One as the primary breadwinner and the other as the primary caregiver.

But when the day comes that the youngest goes off to college, things change significantly for the parent whose primary role it was to raise the children.

For the breadwinner, the meetings, conference calls, and work trips continue, with no major changes to their routine. But for the stay-at-home mom or dad, life as they know it has come to an end. Leaving them with a loss of identity, and a tremendous void in their life.

This can subsequently lead to divorce.


7. Biological and physiological aging-related changes:

Many young married couples spend their days in a constant state of motion. Running from their jobs to the kids' activities, helping with homework, and cooking dinner, among many other things.

Youth is the fuel that keeps their engines running, and the tank is always full! But in mid-life, age-related changes may make the needle feel like it’s on empty.

For men, a drop in testosterone can impact everything from energy level to sex drive, and for women, menopause and related hormonal changes can do the same.

For some couples, one partner may suffer the impacts of age-related changes to a larger degree than the other.

And that can contribute to friction in the marriage, and put the couple on a path to separate or divorce.


8. Loss of employment:

There’s a saying that goes, “A life well-lived is a life lived with purpose,” and for some, that purpose is their work.

Having a rewarding job or career can be a significant contributor to happiness in a marriage.

But if that sense of purpose is taken away involuntarily through a lay-off or forced retirement, it can alter an individual’s sense of self, and irreparably alter the relationship dynamic in a negative way.

Since these types of “downsizing” events typically affect workers in their mid to late-50s, chances are that individual has (or is about to have) an empty nest.

With no job to go to, and no children at home to attend to, a spouse can lose their sense of purpose in the marriage, which can lead to depression, and/or divorce.


9. Conflict over continuing caregiving responsibilities:

You and your spouse knew that by having children, you would be spending 18 years of your marriage raising your kids.

You also believed that once the kids were grown, you could finally have the freedom to travel and do all the things you dreamt about doing as a couple.

But many children are boomeranging back for financial reasons - or are unable to fully leave the nest in the first place.

Humans are also living longer these days. In fact, since 1950, there has been a significant uptick in life expectancy – increasing from an average of around 65 years to nearly 80 years today.

As a result, more and more middle-aged couples are finding themselves in the sandwich generation – financially and emotionally supporting elderly parents, and their adult children – indefinitely.

When this happens, one spouse may be bitter that this situation is preventing them from living their dreams, and project that resentment onto their partner (especially if the elderly parents in question are their in-laws). 


10. Too much time on their/my hands:

There are many reasons an individual can be unhappy in their marriage as it relates to empty nesters and divorce.

But the answer to the question, “Why do couples divorce when they are empty nesters,” outlined in this section may surprise you as it’s the opposite of what most people think.

And that reason is having too much time on your hands.

While many of the parents we talk to enjoy the track meets, parent-teacher conferences, and friendships they’ve developed with the parents of their children’s friends – at their core they know something is missing in their marital relationship, but they’re just too busy to do anything about it.

Once the kids are grown and their parenting work is completed, the level of parental activity subsides, those social ties are broken, and they find they have a lot of extra time on their hands.

Time to come to the realization they haven’t truly been happily married for many years.


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3 Critical Empty Nest Divorce Challenges:

Here are 3 issues (among others) that if not addressed properly, can become problematic in this type of divorce:


Challenge #1: The nest may not remain empty

You might think your divorce will be easier because your kids are in college vs. grade school.

But that’s not always the case.

Let’s say your child’s university offers classes in two, 15-week semesters. Since there are 52 weeks in a year, and kids are only in school for 30 of them, your college scholar(s) are going to need a home to return to.

Add to the mix that these days kids tend to boomerang back home - even after graduation, and suddenly the decision to keep or sell the house can take on an outsized significance.

But how will you know if keeping or selling the house is the right way to go?

If you decide to keep it, who will live there?

And how can the two of you afford to make that happen since two houses are more expensive to run than one and the other person also needs a fair amount of money to secure their own place to live?


Challenge #2: With great reward comes great risk

As an empty nester, chances are you’re in your mid-50s and have been married for at least 20 years.

If you worked outside the home throughout the marriage, you’re most likely in your peak earning years as an employee or business owner.

And while your earnings are perhaps the highest they’ve ever been, your risk of being replaced by someone younger and cheaper is also at an all-time high! Not to mention, you’re closer to retiring than you were in your 20s, 30s, or 40s…

On the other hand, if you worked inside the home throughout the marriage, it’s most likely too late to catch up to your soon-to-be ex-husband's or wife's earnings. And since you’ll be extremely reliant on alimony, you also have a lot at stake if your ex loses their job due to ageism.

So you’re both in a precarious position!

But you’re getting a divorce now, and need to make decisions based on your current financial situation. How do you account for the future should something change?

And given the duration of your marriage, if alimony is applicable, chances are the duration will be more than a year or two and may even stretch past normal retirement age. How do you handle that?


Challenge #3: You’re Wealthy “On Paper”

If you’re an empty nester who owns a home and/or has been investing in your 401k for the past 30 years, chances are your financial picture is looking pretty solid.

On paper.

Rising stock markets and housing markets have a way of making us feel wealthy. But since a house isn’t liquid until you sell it, and you’re not yet 59 and the all-important “half,” you don’t have assets you can tap into right away.

Leaving each of you with a substantial need for cash.

But what if you don’t want to sell the house right away in case the kids want to come back home on break or after they graduate?

What are you going to do then?

Sure, there may be some form of financial support paid from one party to the other, but the pool of income will remain the same - even though two houses are more expensive to run than one.

What do you both do to make sure you can each live within your means, while not making any financial moves that will result in unintended tax consequences or penalties?


Why Mediation is The Best Option for an Empty Nest Divorce

These subjects only scratch the surface. Because there are many other critical issues surrounding a divorce after 20 years of marriage as well as gray divorce.

But hopefully, you can see how issues facing older couples in longer-term marriages are a lot more complex than those of younger couples married for a shorter duration.

That's why you must work with an expert divorce mediator.

Between paying for your kids' college education and retirement being closer than you'd like to admit, you want to work together to ensure you each have the support and resources you need to move on with the next chapter in your soon-to-be separate lives.

Does this sound like you?

If so, don't leave your future in the hands of family law attorneys and waste up to $200,000 and 3 years of your life arguing as enemies, only to be forced to accept an agreement imposed on you by a family law judge and that neither of you finds fair.

Instead, choose to mediate and preserve your time and money while working cooperatively as adults to reach an agreement that's fair, thorough, and resolves both current and known/potential future issues as circumstances change.


Don't Let Your Empty Nest Divorce Become a Disaster!

Mediate with us instead.


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Joe Dillon, Divorce Mediator

Written by Joe Dillon, Divorce Mediator

Joe Dillon is a divorce mediator and founder of Equitable Mediation. He holds a master’s degree in finance, and has completed formal training in negotiation and mediation from Harvard University, MIT, Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois campus), the NJ Association of Professional Mediators, the Institute for Continuing Legal Education, the Academy of Professional Family Mediators and the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysis. As a child, Joe witnessed first-hand the damage of attorney-driven litigation during his parents' divorce. And in 2008, he set out to offer divorcing couples a more peaceful and dignified alternative. Throughout his professional career, Joe has helped over a thousand couples reach a fair and equitable divorce agreement - out of court.