Andrea Collier, a 51-year-old writer in Lansing, Mich., was elated when her kids finally moved out of the house. She'd loved raising them, she says, but she was more than ready to start focusing on her relationship with her husband again: "It was wonderful to really get a chance to get to know each other again as a couple—not a couple with kids, but a couple." They went out together more, bought grown-up furniture and recharged the romance that'd tapered off a little in the hubbub of childrearing. But that ended abruptly when both adult children, now 19 and 23, came home to save money on rent. Now Collier and her husband have stains on their velvet couch and can't schedule as many dates. "I'm so over it, I can't even stand it," she says.
Rather than feeling bereft without kids, many couples like the Colliers find themselves swept up in what's commonly known as a second honeymoon after their kids leave. There's even scientific backing for the notion that a marriage gets a lift when the kids leave. A University of California study published in November in the journal Psychological Science followed 123 middle-aged women for 18 years and found a strong correlation between empty-nest status and an increase in how much the women enjoyed spending time with their partners.
But for an increasing number of empty-nesters, the honeymoon's over. The "boomeranging" phenomenon—adult children moving back home after college or a few years of work—is likely to increase as the economy continues to struggle. These extended stays can jolt the marital relationships of couples that have settled into happy new kid-free patterns. "It's hard to put their needs on the back burner and have the kids be the first priority again," says Phyllis Goldberg, a psychotherapist and counselor in California. But by not losing focus on themselves, parents can ease the transition and keep their re-lit flame burning.
Almost half (48 percent) of June 2008 college graduates planned to move back home after graduation; 43 percent of 2007 graduates were still at home nine months after graduation, according to a survey by the employment Web site Monster.com's MonsterTRAK. Those numbers—and the number of working young adults who move home—will continue to increase as the economy worsens, says Rosemary Lichtman, coauthor with Goldberg of an upcoming book about baby boomers who have to take care of both their parents and their children.
Difficulties arise not just because spouses have less time to devote to each other with a grown child at home. There's also the matter of parental worry about their children's future, especially if they're not financially secure enough to live on their own. That kind of stress can dampen romance. "Forget almost anything spontaneous," says Samuel Gladding, chair of counseling at Wake Forest University and the author of "Family Therapy."
How can couples ease the tension? Be a little selfish, advises Lichtman: stay somewhat emotionally detached so it's easier to reclaim your lifestyle. Letting your kids ease back into their pre-college roles as dependents will make you active parents again, rather than partners.
Spouses should set guidelines for their boomerang kids, Lichtman and Goldberg say. Hold family meetings to determine how they'll share the home's chores and responsibilities and how they're planning to eventually be independent again. Otherwise, parents run the risk of feeling betrayed and used, which could further strain their relationship with their kids and each other.
And if you can afford it, buy yourself some privacy. After her children left for college, Benita Staadecker, 61, and her husband gave up their five-acre property outside Seattle for a condo in the city. Being able to focus on each other instead of soccer games and football practice was "glorious," she says; she and her husband could schedule dates and spend money on themselves without worrying about whether the kids were going to be home for dinner, and "the whole sex thing is phenomenal."
When their son moved back to Seattle for a few months, Staadecker says, they opted to rent him an apartment instead of having him join them in the condo. It was expensive, but it was money well spent. "You give so much to your children for so many years," she says. "There has to be a time when you say, 'We've raised you, we've paid for your education. Now it's our turn.'"
Parents and professionals note that fundamentally unhappy marriages won't necessarily be improved by the children's absence: In many cases, once the distraction of childrearing disappears, spouses are forced to recognize that they have little in common. Sometimes, that means boomerang kids are actually a boon. "The move back may keep the marriage going, because one of the marriage partners allies with the adult child to do such activities as shop or go to games and thereby reduces the strain on the marriage," Gladdings says.
That wasn't the case for Collier. She recently approached her husband about going to Washington, D.C., for Barack Obama's inauguration in January. It's a trip they could've taken if the kids weren't home. Now, she says, he asked what was going to happen to their son and daughter while they were gone, even though both kids are now adults. "You want your kids to be happy and healthy—somewhere else," she says. "My husband and I had been married for 25 years. At that point, it was just nice to come home and talk about something that didn't involve them."