WHEN THE LAST of the children leaves home, couples who have devoted decades to raising a family suddenly find an empty apartment, time on their hands and a marriage that is jolted into a new phase. Having an 'empty nest' can be a blessing - a chance to pursue work opportunities, long-neglected hobbies and reclaim privacy and romance. Jenny, a nurse who has two adult daughters, says her relationship with her husband, George, has blossomed since their youngest left home two years ago. She and George enjoy spending more time with each other, more time with their friends and taking holidays in the places they, not their children, choose to go. 'I only worked part-time while the girls were growing up. Now I can focus on my career, even if it is a bit late,' Jenny says. 'We go out a lot more and enjoy doing lots of things together at home, like cooking meals. 'In a way it is much better than when we first got married, because now we have more money and security and can relax more.' But not all experiences are happy. For some couples, the children's departure reveals cracks in the relationship. After years of having conversations cut short by ballet classes and homework problems, some find they simply have nothing left to say to each other. Professor Joyce Ma Lai-chong, chairman of the social work department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says it is rare that marital problems are caused by children leaving home. It's more common, she says, that festering grievances come to the fore. 'If the marital relationship is already unsatisfactory, maybe they've had the excuse that they need to keep going to take care of the children, but when the adolescent children go away to university, the parents are forced to face their marital problems,' Ma says. 'In extreme cases, that may lead to a marital crisis. It very much depends on the nature of the relationship. If they're close before that, it's a chance for them to be even closer, they have more time to enjoy their relationship, as previously every activity has had to include the children. At the same time, it will be an opportunity for the mother and father to pursue new activities. 'But, of course, if it's not going well anyway, it's an opportunity for crisis.' Ma says it is natural for parents to feel sad when their children leave home, but not to the point that they no longer feel they have an important role in life. She says it is vital for both parents to make time for themselves, and each other, as the children are growing up. 'If the mother is immersed in the parent-child relationship, especially if they're already in an unsatisfactory marriage, then it's very difficult for the mother to let go when the adolescent leaves home,' Ma says. 'Women especially shouldn't rely on the parent-child relationship as their only source of personal fulfilment. They could pursue, for instance, a career, but it could be hobbies or their own personal interests.' Ma says the transition to life after children is made easier if everyone in the family is well prepared. The couple should talk about what they will do with their newly discovered free time and how the dynamics of their relationship might change. 'Now we have more money and security and can relax more'