Re-inventing My Empty Nest Marriage

In January 2019, I decided to try two new experiments:

1. Plant a window box garden, though I’ve never had a green thumb.

2. Live separately from my spouse, without ending a marriage I valued.

Obviously the second experiment was a little more high stakes than the first, but I was equally unsure of either plan. My biggest fear was that by the summer I’d have empty window boxes and a marriage headed for divorce.

What made me want to switch up my marriage?

2018 was a health year from hell.

The first half of 2018 I was unintentionally poisoning myself with a doctor-recommended digestive supplement that included licorice. (Be very careful if your medical provider suggests a supplement with licorice! Too much licorice can raise your cortisol levels and mess with your thyroid.) The second half of the year my thyroid shut down when I stopped the supplement. Restarting my thyroid turned into a hyperthyroid nightmare.

 No one wants to be around me when I’m hyperthyroid — including me. I perseverated on the negative and fought with my spouse over everything.  I had to figure out a way to calm my thyroid down without using medications.

I moved into my writing studio up the street. * My plan was to stay at my studio for a couple weeks, do yoga, meditate, and hope my thyroid calmed down. It worked! Within a few weeks of living by myself I went from hyperthyroid hellscape to precious paradise.

Along the way though I also discovered I LOVE living alone.

My Previous Life of Sharing

I have been living with people and sharing for my entire life. As a kid, I shared bedrooms, parents, friends, and our car with my three siblings. We were a road-trip family, and so much of my life was spent fighting for space in the back seat. When I was a teen, we moved to Europe, and stayed in temporary hotels and apartments for months before we found a house, often staying in tight quarters and sharing beds.

In college, my boyfriend and I liked each other so much we’d take showers together and shared a single bed. We got married, had kids, and brought them into our full size bed. As the kids grew they slept on mats next to us for years until finally sleeping in their own room. We all shared one bathroom. When they were teens we had weekly family meetings to negotiate 15-minute morning shower slots.

When our kids moved went college, I looked forward to finally having time alone to write. But I was still sharing our small house with my spouse—I dreamed of a room of my own.

My spouse suggested I rent a studio apartment for writing, since we didn’t want to spend the time and money adding onto the house. We have several apartment buildings a few blocks away and I found a fantastic studio with a kitchen, balcony, bathroom, and even my own washer and dryer. I am incredibly fortunate to have this writing studio and am thankful for it every day. I’d walk up there in the morning and come home by evening. For several years this worked well.

When I lived alone to heal my thyroid, I learned how much I like sleeping alone, cooking alone, being alone for days at a time. After years of sharing, I longed for things that were just mine, including solitude.

Oil and Vinegar Make A Great Dressing But Like To Be Stored Separately

My spouse is one of my favorite people. We’ve known each other since high school and started dating when we were in college. Just like oil and vinegar, we make a great team but at this point we’re best stored separately.

He’s a doer who pays attention to details and lives in the present. I’m a big picture person who thinks outside the system and loves to imagine a better future.

 He goes to bed at 9 pm like clockwork. I’m a night owl whose bedtime varies widely. He likes things neat and feels doing dishes immediately is a good use of his time. Ideally, I like things neat, but prioritize taking in new information over routine cleaning. I’m in my head so much I often don’t notice the mess.

When buying something new he likes to see what’s available, quickly make a decision, and buy the new item immediately. He’d rather buy something that needs to be replaced again than go without.

I’m reluctant to buy new things, want whatever I buy to last forever, and care that the company I buy from shares my values. It takes me a long time to research future purchases. I’d often rather go without than buy something that breaks easily, is from a company that I don’t agree with, or isn’t exactly what I want.

Like many women raised in the 70s and 80s, I was taught to prioritize other people’s wants over my own needs. Like many men raised in that time, my spouse was taught to think of himself first, then consider others’ needs. When I lived with my spouse I worked hard to take my needs seriously and he worked hard to think more about others, but it was a constant battle to fight decades of programming. When one of us gave in to that programming it created resentment. This strained our relationship.

But then I moved into my studio and…

“Are We Allowed To Do This?”

I was a bit worried how my spouse would react to my desire to live separately, but I also knew that he had grown a lot over our long relationship, and trusted my weird new ideas.

At first, he only reluctantly agreed. This was the first time he’d ever lived alone. After a month of living apart, I told him I could move back if this experiment didn’t work for him. By then he loved living alone, too.

“Are we allowed to do this?” he asked.

“It’s our marriage,” I said, “we get to make the rules.”

Better Lives For Both Of Us

In the past two years my spouse has had fun turning our former cluttered living room into a sleek VR gaming room. He got the downstairs repainted and redecorated the dining room and kitchen to his liking. He has one of those voice-activated systems so everything from the lights to his coffee is programed to his schedule.

Meanwhile, I’ve fixed up my studio to my tastes. My spouse bought me window boxes and soil for my balcony and I successfully planted my first zinnia garden. Like with my marriage experiment I was unsure if these tiny seeds – hidden in the dark soil – would turn into a garden, but by July I had an explosion of greenery and color.

How This Arrangement Works

Unlike my spouse’s quick decisions, living alone allowed me to be careful and thoughtful about what I bought. For over a year I lit my place with one overhead hall light or the glow of my laptop until I found the perfect stained-glass lamps on sale at a local shop. I didn’t hang anything on my walls for almost 2 years until I’d collected a series of individual pieces of art, mostly created by people I knew.

My official address is still our house. It’s my house, too. He consults with me before making any big changes and I’m easy-going about what he wants to do. We still share money and bank accounts. I still get all my mail at the house and he texts me if I receive a package. I see my studio more as an extension of the house than my own separate residence.

We text nightly to ask about each other’s day. When one of us gets sick, we help the other out. Twice a week we have “dates” – which mostly consists of hanging together at the house since I can’t eat at restaurants. Last summer we camped together at the beach. Last winter break, we took a family vacation with our kids in Vermont and began monthly family video chats (even before Covid). This summer he got a new puppy and I stayed with the little one in the afternoons for a few days before his vacation started. Now I’m one of the pup’s afternoon walkers four days a week.

Living apart has made our relationship stronger and let both of us figure out who we are—separate from each other—making our time together even better. We no longer fight over shared resources and have more time to discuss politics, music, books, TV, computer games – all the important stuff we loved to discuss in college.

Coming Out

At first, I didn’t tell anyone I was sleeping in my writing studio, afraid what others would think. In our society there’s a lot of pressure to do things the way other people do them.

When I told a friend about our new living arrangement, she understood and said, “You don’t need to be in each other’s pockets.”

Yes! I was surprised how many older women confided in me that they wished they could live separately from their spouse. The more women friends I told, and the more good reactions I received, and the more I realized women are often asked to give up more than they want in marriage.

The reaction from my spouse’s male friends was interesting, too. They were sure I was divorcing him and this was my way of easing him into my leaving. It wasn’t. But I found the different reactions from women and men interesting.

What The Future Holds

After two happy years we have no idea what we’ll be doing in the future. We’ve casually discussed renovating our house to create two separate apartments inside it, but are unsure about spending so much money during uncertain political times. For now, we’re happy with our arrangement and live in the moment – enjoying our time together and our time apart.

* Privilege

We are extremely fortunate to afford two residences and have a several apartment building blocks from our house. Many couples don’t have these options. I want to work to create a world where everyone has the financial means to create a relationship that works for them.

Finally decorated!

10 thoughts on “Re-inventing My Empty Nest Marriage

  1. Hi Robin!

    WOW! I LOVE that you and Martin have worked out your relationship to what meets both of your needs instead of following some kind of stereotype because that is how we were “taught”. I Love that you have dates and time to talk about important things that matter to each of you and have time to follow your individual hearts. I am impressed that you took a huge risk to make your marriage work….and that its working!! I feel honored that you have shared this with others and that I read your blog and have gotten to know you better. Take care, Barbara

  2. I really enjoyed reading this Robin. There is much I can relate to and I suspect my husband might say the same. Ha! Sometimes I wonder if I like my alone time a little too much!

  3. This was a great read and I am so envious of you in a good way if there is any such thing. It is important for a person (any person) not to let their voice, needs and wants to be drawn by societal/cultural expectations. I am particularly happy that this arrangement works for you both and glad to know your health is improving for it too.

  4. I enjoyed reading this Robin. I think it’s awesome that you and Martin figured this out before having to head to divorce court. I’ve been married and divorced twice and now I don’t think I can live with anyone again. I applaud you guys and wish you many more happy years together – apart. 😊

  5. I have often wondered exactly how you came to this arrangement and how it has been working, Robin. I appreciate very much your sharing of this pretty personal story and the connections you make to the larger questions about women’s and men’s enculturation and about the privilege that allows you to have the two-home option. Enjoying catching up with your blog!

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