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Empty Nesters: Taking Control of Expectations
What happens when a woman’s work is done? Dr. Lewis helps women fill the void and meet their expectations.

There's a liberty in taking control of your own expectations.

Empty nexters are allowed to be selfish and to think about themselves.”
Are you a woman that struggles with what comes next? Have you and your spouse recently been left with an "empty nest," approaching retirement or wanting a job change? These are just a few of the many areas of what I believe many women experience and a term I call an "empty nexter."

An empty nexter is a woman who has met (or not met) all the expectations society has for them—gotten married, raised children, taken care of their husband and the home. This is a woman who was expected to be polite, not hurt anyone's feelings and put herself second to others' needs.

As baby boomers reach a certain period in their lives, they are confronted with the result of life long expectations and social change. By now, a boomer has either met these expectations or not, but they knew what they were.

Now, with no more societal expectations, women can create their own future. Unfortunately for some women, this throws them into a depression without understanding why—a common scenario that plays out in therapy sessions all of the time. Here are a few examples:

"I’m tired of complaining about Bob," says Marlene. "When Suz left for college last August, the house was so quiet. Bob works late; nothing I say will bring him home for dinner. The house feels so empty. We hardly see each other any more. That keeps down the arguments," she laughs, "but I’m really depressed. I don’t know what’s wrong with me."

Bertie has a different story. "My mom and dad both died within the past two years. They were old, so it wasn’t a surprise, but I was totally unprepared for my reactions. It’s not that I long for them. It’s more about me; who am I now? My younger sister is all I have left of my family. I don’t know what it means, but it feels weird."

Alicia looks like she’s the one to have lost her parents. She mopes, "My boss just offered me early retirement and with good benefits too. So, why am I so miserable?"

With no more expectations for this next phase in life, what does this mean for women? They may be like Maureen, adrift in her life without her children to tend, now noticing how empty her marriage is. Or like Bertie, aware time is marching on. Or like Alicia, terrified about leaving a career? Terrified of the opportunities of starting a new one.

Empty nexters are allowed to be selfish and to think about themselves. Obviously, issues are unique to each individual, but here are some general ideas that might help you think about filling your Empty Next:

* Think back to childhood, young adulthood. What were some of your dreams back then that you lost along the way?

* Read magazines and even Want Ads. See what topics catch your interest. Don’t apply for anything, just see what draws you.

* Silence the inner voice that says, "I couldn’t," or, "I’d love to, but…"

* Finish this sentence, "I would love to…" Don’t think about it, just write it out and see what words come.

* Answer that voice is inside your head saying, "You can’t?"

Give yourself space to flush out old tears and lost opportunities and become the person you want to be.

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis is a marriage and family therapist (39 years). She’s also an author of numerous relationship books—on enhancing marriage, on being single, on improving adult sibling relationships, and on strengthening friendships. He most recent book is "Why Don’t You Understand? A Gender Relationship Dictionary" (GenderDictionary.com). She has offices in both Washington, DC and Cincinnati and is available for phone consultations. She can be contacted at DrKGL@DrKarenGailLewis.com.

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