We pick our kids up from summer camp this weekend. They have been gone for a month.

At ages 16 and 14 the empty nest years are visible on the horizon. I have little doubt our kids will be ready to fly the nest. The question is, “What will life look like for my wife and I once they are gone?”

There are a lot of ingredients that make for a strong relationship including effective communication skills, emotional maturity, an understanding of the influence of your family system on your relationship, and more. Yet one simple thing everyone can do is create time for the two of you to be together.

Before we had kids, my wife Tricia and I swore we would not be one of those couples who, after having kids, never went on dates or vacations apart from the kids. We swore we would not let our marriage or family revolve around kids’ sports calendars either. Well, along came those cute, well-above-average little ones and we stuck together as a family unit like a herd of elephants.

Only in the last couple of years have we been good about going on trips with other couples and taking (short) vacations, just the two of us. Yet the rewards have been big. We realize just how much physical and emotional energy we direct toward the kids (and away from each other) and, no surprise, the kids don’t miss us when we are gone.

During our couple time over the past month we worked on being more direct and vulnerable with our communication. We also picked topics to talk about in order to help one another with our personal goals. The conversations were rich because we set intentions for what we wanted to talk about. One of us (usually it was Tricia) would pose a question like, “If there is one thing you could change about our marriage, what would it be?” and we’d be off on that topic for a while.

Here are some best practices for couple time that help prep for or enhance the empty-nest years:

  1. Take a trip or ship the kids off (even if it’s for one night) at least twice a year, four times is ideal. Get these trips on the calendar. Yes you may miss a hockey game or choir concert-your kids will get over it.
  2. Set the kids up with a person you are comfortable with while you’re gone. Use the sitter, friends or family member you know and trust.
  3. Pick a few topics you want to talk about or a theme or intention for your time together. Share this before you go away and you will have something to talk about during walks, car rides or dinners.
  4. Disconnect from work. Work for the working spouse is like kids to the non-working spouse. Both will keep you from being present from your beloved. Tell the office to call if there is an emergency. Co-workers and employees are like kids-they won’t miss you like you think they will.
  5. Keep the trip simple. You don’t have to eat at 5-star restaurants or hop from museums to the theater. The goal is to connect and simulate what it will be like when you guys are home alone.

How do you keep your relationship fresh, intimate and alive?