Staying in love in an empty nest

Staying in love in an empty nest
Madam Rosmini Sulong, 53, and Mr Mustapah Hamid, 59, have been married for more than 40 years.

A recent report shows more women in their 50s and 60s are getting divorced, but marriage experts say couples can keep the flame going

He was a filial son and a good father who provided for the family. He took them places and connected with their two children.

However, all that was not good enough for her. When their children were about to leave for postgraduate studies, the 55-year-old decided she had enough of her 60-year-old husband's emotional absence and asked to end their marriage of 30 years.

Ms Monica Christine Fernando, a counsellor from Reach Counselling who recounted the example above to SundayLife!, says: "The couple communicated only on matters pertaining to the children and home. There was no couple time and no intimacy.

"Communication in the couple's relationship had deteriorated. The flame was extinguished. They didn't have anything to talk about with each other."

Although she does not have the figures,

Ms Fernando says Reach has seen a rise in the number of couples coming forward for counselling during the empty nest phase of their marriage, when their children have flown the coop.

Indeed, a report in April citing latest data from the Department of Statistics says more women in their 50s and 60s here are getting divorced after decades of marriage.

Slightly more than 1,000 women aged 50 and older got divorced in 2013 - almost six times more than in 1993.

Most say they are done putting up with years of a bad marriage or their husbands' infidelity, according to divorce lawyers and marriage counsellors quoted in the report. So, once the children are grown up and working, the women break free.

However, it is possible for long-married couples to find new ways to connect and keep the flame in their marriage burning in the empty nest years, say counsellors here.

The woman in the example above, for instance, eventually agreed to her husband's request to go for counselling together.

After a number of sessions, they became aware of each other's unmet needs and expectations. They managed to reconnect and the marriage was not called off, says Ms Fernando, who counselled them.

Mr Arthur Ling, a member of the Family Life Education expert panel, says couples who have been more child-focused in their marriage will find it harder to adjust to the new dynamics in their relationship after their children leave.

He says: "They need to find new meaning individually and collectively as a couple."

He gave an example of a couple he encountered during a marriage workshop he facilitated. After their son went overseas for studies, the wife felt lonely at home and asked her husband to come home earlier. However, he was not willing to as he enjoyed his work a lot. During weekends, they found that their time together was less fun now that their son was not around.

To break the tension at home, the wife decided to find new ways of spending her time by catching up with friends and volunteering in church.

With fewer "demands" on him, her husband felt "more relaxed" and he started to initiate activities they could do together, including travelling and having dinner outside.

Another couple, Mr Dennis Ong, 74, and his wife, Madam Lisa Lai, 76, who have been married for more than 50 years, also found it difficult initially to make the transition to the empty nest phase of their marriage.

The earlier years of their marriage were focused on work and raising their children. After their younger child married and left home about 20 years ago, they found themselves bickering more often. They have a son, 48, and a daughter, 50.

Madam Lai recalls with a laugh: "It's always over some small thing. For instance, he would complain that the food I cooked was too salty, too sweet or too oily."

They learnt to give in to each other. Says Mr Ong: "If she got upset, I'd just keep quiet and let her talk."

Even though they do not share common interests, they have worked out an amicable living arrangement.

Mr Ong works as a newspaper distributor and does gardening in his free time, while Madam Lai, who is retired, often goes over to her son's place to help out or hangs out with her friends. He cleans the house while she cooks and washes the clothes. Every Sunday, they go to church and then have a meal together.

Says Madam Lai: "Now that our children are grown up, we are free to do what we like, but it's still better to have a companion than not to have one."

Other couples, however, say they manage to avoid any tension in their relationship in the empty nest years because they have always made it a point to spend time alone together, even when their children were around.

Mrs Judy Chong-Lee, 62, a former accountant and administrative manager, says her husband, Mr Jimmy Lee, 68, used to drive her to and from work and she would accompany him for almost all his business and entertainment engagements. Her three children, aged 33, 27 and 25, were left in the care of their helper, who has been with them for 22 years.

In fact, Mrs Chong-Lee says the couple have grown closer since she retired seven years ago. Mr Lee freelances as a business consultant.

She says: "We have more time with each other. We go for movies, meals and travel together."

Last year, the couple, who have been married for about 30 years and love singing, started Jimmy Preslee Productions to bring Elvis Presley's songs to a live audience. Mr Lee performs as an Elvis tribute artist at various venues and his wife accompanies him for all his shows.

Madam Rosmini Sulong, 53, an administrative officer at non-profit organisation Jamiyah Singapore, and her husband, Mr Mustapah Hamid, 59, a marine engineer, have also grown closer after the younger of their two children moved out three years ago. The couple, who have been married for more than 40 years, have a 36-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter.

She says: "We would often go out to eat or travel together. When I need to work long hours for a company event, he would offer to volunteer at the event so that he could be with me."

Even though they have been focused on work most of their married life, they always made it a point to spend time with each other, leaving their children in the care of their helper and Madam Rosmini's parents, who lived next door.

She recalls: "I used to travel a lot in my previous job. I could be away for up to a month and he would often fly over to join me for a few days."

She adds with a laugh: "He has always been supportive and understanding. We still hold hands when we go out."

leawee@sph.com.sg

Couples who need counselling on marriage matters can call Reach Counselling on 6801-0730 or Touch Counselling on 6709-8400.


This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
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