Sam and Karen Elliott found themselves home alone for the first time in 21 years.
"It was definitely quieter around the house," says Sam. "We didn't have someone coming and going, it was just us. We missed our daughter, but it was time for her to move on to the next phase of life."
In the next few weeks, thousands of parents will be dropping their youngest off at college. On the drive home, they will take a walk down memory lane and pray that the lessons taught over the last 18 years stick. Then it hits them -- no more homework drama, sports seasons, keeping one eye open waiting to hear them come in at night or endless laundry.
Experts say that couples who find themselves in this position often have difficulty adjusting. There has been a 32 percent increase in the number of "alone again" couples choosing to divorce after 20-plus years of marriage, according to research by the National Marriage Project and Bowling Green State University.
Some of this is attributed to the fact that so many couples let their marriage become child-centered. Schedules, meals and activities all revolve around the kids.
When the kids leave home, spouses look at each other and wonder why they married in the first place. For years, their identity has been wrapped up in being a parent. Now that role is changing, and they find themselves in the midst of an identity crisis.
When their youngest went off to college, the Elliotts felt they had the opportunity to open up a new phase of their relationship.
"Both of us were confident we had done all we could to set our girls on the right path," Sam says. "Now that the kids were gone, we could turn our focus to doing things we were interested in. It was nice getting reacquainted with each other. We were able to do more things together, including traveling, without having to worry about the home front."
The empty nest stage is a time to make changes in your relationship that can improve your future together. To get started, here's some advice from the book "Fighting for Your Empty Nest Marriage":
Get some rest: Give yourself permission to go to bed at 8 p.m. Take time to slow down, settle in and renew your stamina.
Resist filling up your time: When kids fly the coop, there is a void. Enjoy your newfound freedom before taking on new commitments.
Avoid immediate changes: People who reach the empty nest and are dissatisfied with their marriage often begin looking for other options. Before making a decision you may regret, give yourself time to gain perspective.
Don't be afraid to grieve: It is not uncommon to feel a sense of loss or sadness. The empty nest hits men just as hard as it hits women. Seek counseling if you need it.
Enjoy each other's company: Make plans to go on romantic dates, schedule get-togethers with friends or learn something new together.
Keep your sense of humor: It will help you get through the tough times.
Celebrate: Parenting takes a lot of time and energy. Your goal for the past 18 years has been to get your child to this place, so celebrate.
Contact Julie Baumgardner at email@example.com.