Can marriage improve with an empty nest?

Is there romance in your future?
Is there romance in your future?

Tradition holds that when a man wants to marry a woman, he drops to one knee in front of her and presents a diamond ring as the sign of his commitment. But imagine for a moment that he held out a crystal ball, and you could look into this crystal ball and see the way that your entire marriage would unfold. You'd be able to glimpse the highs and the lows, your future kids and pets, and whether you would become one of those old grumpy couples that don't speak to each other in restaurants or one of those adorable elderly couples that everyone aspires to be. Would the answer to your suitor change depending on what you saw in that crystal ball?

Of course, there is no crystal ball that can tell you your future, but there are a ton of researchers studying marriage and the family that want to try. These prognosticators sift through mounds of data to see which factors most predict success in marriage and which portend a messy divorce: Is it the level of education reached? Race? The economic independence of the woman? The age at which you get married? One factor that is considered very carefully is the presence of children.

The initial news isn't good. In a study of more than 200 couples that spanned eight years, about 90 percent of the subjects reported a decrease in marital satisfaction after their first child was born [source: LiveScience]. That doesn't mean that the couples divorced, but it's hardly good news for new parents to discover that even though childless couples experience less marital satisfaction over time, that darling new baby accelerates the process.

But if you can make it through midnight feedings, random acts of vomit, sleepovers involving 10-year-old girls and teenage angst, then everything after that should be a cakewalk, right? Not if you believe stereotypes about the empty nest. Many people have fears that as soon as their last child walks out the door for college, the military or the workplace, they'll find themselves alone with a spouse they hardly know anymore. Are these stereotypes true, or could marriage actually improve with an empty nest?