BY JOHN S. GRABOWSKI
Exploring the Riches of the Empty Nest
At first glance, it may seem more than a bit of a stretch to apply the words of the head waiter at the Wedding Feast of Cana to the situation of Catholic couples who reach the “empty nest” stage of their marriage. After all, biblical scholars tell us that we can’t use this account in John 2:1-11 as some kind of “proof text” for Jesus’ institution of marriage as a sacrament. And social scientists tell us that this stage often is a crisis point for many marriages and a common time for divorce.
Yet it is clear that the text is about marriage and Jesus’ transformation of it.
The Wedding Feast at Cana
The first of his “signs” in the fourth Gospel takes place at a wedding. Signs for John are anticipations of the glory that Jesus will fully reveal in his Cross and Resurrection (see John 13:1); the same glory that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit from before the beginning of the world (cf. John 1:14).
This wedding’s prime place as the first of Jesus’ public miracles is in keeping with the importance of marriage in scripture as a whole. The Bible begins with a wedding after the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 (see especially 2:21-25) and ends with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (see Rev. 19:7-9). Old Testament prophets such as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as well as poetry such as the Song of Songs use the covenant of marriage as an image of God’s faithful and passionate love for His people. Saint Paul continues this same imagery in his description of the relationship of Christ and the Church (see Eph. 5:21-33). Marriage is part of the grammar by which God communicates His love to us.
John tells us that at the wedding feast there were six stone jars used “for Jewish ceremonial washing” (John 2:6). In scripture, six is a number associated with incompletion and imperfection. The ritual washings of the Old Testament, continued in the religious practice of Jesus’ day, have no power to spiritually cleanse those who engage in them. Included in this ritual practice is the covenant of marriage. Though made by God and itself good, natural marriage cannot overcome the wounds of human sin and the “hardness of heart” such sin causes (see Matt. 19:8).
At the intercession of his mother, Jesus reveals His glory at this wedding held at Cana. He cares for the needs of those present and saves the family from the embarrassment of running short on wine. But not only is the ordinary water used for ritual washing transformed into wine—it is “the good wine,” a wine of surpassing excellence. Christ’s presence in marriage transforms it and raises it above merely human capabilities. Couples united to Christ are capacitated to love, forgive, and serve as He did.
Catholic theology understands that this transformation of marriage is the effect of the sacrament that couples confer on each other when they wed in Christ. This sacrament creates a bond that gives them not just a “one time” injection of grace on their wedding day, but an ongoing source of divine life for the whole of their marriage–a wellspring that never runs dry even when human resources fail. This grace equips couples for everything they will face—sickness and health, good times and bad. This includes challenging moments of transition in a couple’s life—”the seven-year itch,” the birth of children with the new responsibilities they bring, and the “empty nest.”
Why is the empty nest stage a challenge for many couples?
One common reason is that couples who are focused on raising children and being parents sometimes stop working on their marriages. They invest their time and energy into caring for their children and being present to them. They may therefore no longer plan time together as a couple to relax or do fun activities (i.e., date) as they did earlier in their relationship. They may allow their children and parenting issues to so dominate their communication that their conversations are all about their children and the day-to-day tasks of running a household. Rather than working through conflict, the couple may run from it or allow it to fester as resentment. They may not take time to pray together as a couple outside of public liturgical prayer. In cases like this, it is not uncommon to hear a new empty nester say something like, “I woke up one day and felt like I was married to a stranger.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Christian couples, sustained by the grace of the sacrament which united them, can instead look on this period as a time of opportunity for their marriage, rather than one of crisis. If they have let their relationship slide in different ways, they can use this time to reconnect. If they have continued to work at their marriage even while raising children, they can use this period as an opportunity to go deeper.
What are some of the riches available to them in this new moment in their life as a couple?
Pope Francis frequently tells us that “time is greater than space” (see, for example, Evangeli guadium, no. 222). Couples who, like my wife and me, follow the pattern of downsizing their houses and possessions may well find themselves with less space. But this can be more than offset by a shorter commute to work (in my case, my commute dropped from two hours to twenty minutes one way) and less time devoted to managing and attending their children’s schedules and activities. At least some of this newfound availability can be invested in time spent together. Weekly date nights, occasional getaways together, and even more extended periods of travel become a possibility, even if they were infrequent in the preceding years.
Another newfound wealth within the empty nest can be found in silence. Walls that recently shook with adolescent musical tastes and rooms previously filled with media of every kind now fall still. The challenge for couples adjusting to this newfound silence is not to fill it with their own noisy distractions. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with watching occasional movies or a favorite television show—especially if these are done together (we recently worked our way through Downton Abbey series together). But to have television or radio on continuously just so there is sound in the house misses the opportunity provided by the quiet for the couple to deepen their prayer lives (both as individuals and together) and to prioritize their communication with each other. Regular prayer and communication form the bedrock for spiritual, verbal, and emotional intimacy in a marriage.
The fact that there is less “help” around the house to tackle regular chores like yard work, cooking, or cleaning, gives couples new opportunities for collaboration. We have enjoyed being able to work together many nights each week to prepare dinners, me serving as sous-chef to my wife’s oversight as chef. Working side by side on shared projects can build teamwork in couples and give them a new appreciation for their spouse and his or her gifts. And shared work, especially joined with shared play, is an important way for men in particular to bond with their wives.
Having adult children out of the house often means couples have a bit more resources and flexibility in their budgets. Beyond paying down debt, increasing charitable giving, and making sure they are prudently saving, couples can invest some of these resources in their relationship to fund dates, getaways, travel, or other shared activities. We recently finished a season of plays at a local theater—an investment we made to incentivize ourselves to go out for a date night once a month. They can also invest in healthier food choices and savor the fact that food doesn’t disappear from their pantry and refrigerators as quickly as when they had teenagers under their roof.
Finally, couples can also invest time and energy in shared ministry or service outside of the home. Many couples find doing ministry together strengthens their relationship with each other. It truly is in giving that we receive. One of the reasons that my wife and I have worked with couples before and after marriage for twenty-five years is that we have found it to invariably strengthen our own marriage. And now that we no longer have kids at home, when I’m invited to give a talk on marriage in another part of the country, my wife is often able to come and present with me.
Embracing the riches of this new stage
Couples who persevere through the ups and downs of parenthood don’t have to feel lost when the last child leaves home. They can embrace the riches offered to them by this new phase of their relationship. More time, a quieter house, more resources, and increased opportunities for collaboration and ministry give couples an opportunity to tap into the grace of the sacrament in new and exciting ways, enabling them to go deeper in their relationship with the Lord and with each other. In this new phase of their life, husband and wife can taste together “the good wine” that Christ makes possible in marriage.