You’re happy and in love, enjoying the gradual weaving together of your lives and deepening your connection day by day. You feel positive about your shared future and secure and satisfied in your relationship. As time passes, however, the crispness of experience slowly begins to dull and give way to increases in tension and doubts, and your partner appears to be experiencing the same thing. Maybe you even start to have serious crushes on other people. You begin to wonder if the relationship has simply expired…and you note that this shift becomes really noticeable roughly around the 7-year mark.
Enter “the 7-year itch”, which Psychology today describes as follows:
“The basic idea behind the “seven-year itch” is that romantic partners experience turbulence and a potential point-of-reckoning around seven years together. Viewed as a critical juncture, the seven-year itch is defined as a time when couples re-evaluate: They either realize that their relationship isn’t working, or they feel deeply satisfied and committed to their relationship.” (DiDonato, 2020).
Is this really a thing? Do relationships really have a tendency to reach a make-or-break point after about 7 years? In this article, we’re going to examine whether there’s any validity to this theory, plus offer some advice on what you can do to course correct if your relationship starts to lose its sparkle–no matter how many years you’ve been together.
Is it Real? Yes and No.
The 7-year-itch might be more aptly named ‘the 4-5-year itch” because in reality, divorce rates peak at around 4-5 years after marriage (Fisher, 1989; Kulu, 2014) and then steadily decline. There are a few theories on why this happens. One interesting theory is that back in the day, females who changed partners after about four years may have been better able to vary the genetic makeup of their offspring. Four years would make sense because it’s enough time to work together through the most demanding first few years of raising a child before finding a new partner and starting over. We may have an ingrained predisposition towards this genetic variance, and if so, it could help explain the fact that divorce rates peak at 4-5 years (Fisher, 1989).
Another theory is that ‘time’ on its own does not account for declines in relationship satisfaction. Rather, it could be trends in the timing of certain other factors that cause declines in relationship satisfaction. Some external stressors such as family stress or financial stress may peak at a particular interval (for example, a certain number of years after either marriage or getting together). If this is the case, it’s not time itself that’s the culprit, but simply that these external stressors loosely follow a particular timeline (DiDonato, 2020).
What To Do About It?
No matter how many years it’s been, if you feel like your relationship is in a slump there are plenty of strategies you can adopt to get past it.
First, it’s important to understand the reasons that lead to this state of affairs in the first place. Our friend and fellow family lawyer Raymond Hekmat notes four major causes behind the 7 (or 4)-year itch: Lack of communication, miscommunication, financial stress, and declines in intimacy (Hekmat, 2022). If you find yourself feeling like your relationship is stagnating or undergoing a lot of tension, the first step is to assess the cause, starting with an examination of whether any combination of these four factors might be feeding into your slump. Hekmat and other experts advise couples to take the following steps:
Watch out for relationship red flags: Before getting married, couples are advised to consider the following:
-Do you both have clear boundaries with your families?
-Do you both have room to grow as individuals within the relationship, without feeling constricted or like you need to remain a certain way?
-Do you tend to avoid talking about difficult or contentious subjects, such as money, religion, children, and one another’s cultures (Hekmat, 2022)?
If the answer to any of these is ‘yes’, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get married. It does mean that you need to address these issues head on before you get married in order to stack the odds in favor of a happy, healthy, stable, successful marriage that helps you blossom both as a couple and as individuals.
Plan your marriage more than you plan your wedding: The stress of wedding planning often consumes engaged couples so much that they don’t spend nearly as much energy planning for their marriage, despite that marriage planning is infinitely more important than having everything be perfect and impressing friends and family for one day. Make sure you make time to plan your marriage, especially the financial aspect of it. What are your spending and savings goals for 1, 2, 5, and 10 years down the line (Hekmat, 2022)? How do you plan to allocate your assets–what will be shared, and what will be separate? What roles will you both have in managing finances and other aspects of your marriage? What insurance policies will you take out together? Do you know one another’s money personalities?
All of this and more can be covered in your prenup, which is one of the most important if not the most important contract of your entire life. It will serve as a roadmap for your marriage and help you plan for how to take care of yourselves and each other just in case you ever divorce. If you answered ‘yes’ to the question above about avoidance of difficult issues, you might benefit from looking into how to bring up a prenup without upsetting your partner. Yes, it really is possible, even if you expect the worst. Facing the little bit of friction that may be brought up by a prenup is strongly preferable to the amount of friction you’ll endure later on down the line if you don’t have these conversations up front.
Practice straightforward communication: Unfortunately, many of us communicate either too passively, too aggressively, or too passive-aggressively on important topics like money, children, family, intimacy, and more (Hakmet, 2022). And even more unfortunately, poor communication is behind many divorces. Practicing clear, direct, transparent communication may at first feel unnatural and very, very vulnerable, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Invest in your relationship with couple’s therapy Hekmat, 2022): If something is broken or even just not working to its full capacity, you consult a professional. Right? This applies to a leaky toilet, a slow or broken computer, or your health. If you broke your arm, you’d go to the doctor. If you got sick, you’d take some time off work. Why? Because you care about your health and want to take care of it–naturally. However, when it comes to our relationships, most people are reluctant to make the same investment because many feel a sense of shame around asking for relationship help. However, going to therapy is just like going to the doctor, but for your relationship.
Some people go to the doctor as a preventative, too, just to make small tweaks and ensure that everything is in tip top shape. Many healthy couples do the same by going to therapy as a form of relationship maintenance, rather than waiting until they need relationship CPR. And in fact, therapy works much better when you’re not already on the brink of divorce. Investing in your relationship by going to therapy is an excellent way to maintain and boost the health of your relationship, troubleshoot issues that are coming up again and again, and deal with a slump.
Talk to a friend: If you can’t afford or are otherwise reluctant about therapy but you feel that your relationship is going through a rough patch, talk to a friend. Sometimes when you’re in the thick of a stressful situation, it’s difficult to see it clearly. Sometimes you can’t even see the ‘real’ problem from that viewpoint (Howard, 2020). Talking to a third party gives you the chance to see the situation from a more objective viewpoint, which might help you gain clarity about what’s really going on. It also allows you to vent and unload your frustration and negative feelings before talking to your partner about them, which will make you substantially better-equipped to have that conversation with your partner in a calm and clear way.
Write it down or speak it out: Sometimes writing down your feelings also helps to confer clarity. It’s important to be completely honest when you write. What’s going on? How are you really feeling? What do you love about your partner? What’s going wrong (Howard, 2020)? Alternatively, try going somewhere where no one can hear you (preferably in nature) and simply talking continuously without stopping–to yourself, to a God or any other divine power you believe in, to the universe, to the earth, to your higher self, or to anyone. Do this until you feel done. This practice can aid in finding solutions as well as unloading feelings so that a sense of lightness and clarity can come in.
‘The itch’ may be more likely to happen after 4-5 years, but it varies by couple and can also come and go throughout a relationship in the form of lows and rough patches. Remember, a relationship slump does not have to spell the end. All relationships go through ups and downs, and as long as you’re proactive about getting to the root of the problem, a rough patch can lead to a sense of renewed closeness and deepened understanding in its aftermath.
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DiDonato, Theresa E., PhD. Is the 7-Year Itch a Myth or Reality? Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meet-catch-and-keep/202002/is-the-7-year-itch-myth-or-reality
Fisher, H. E. (1989). Evolution of human serial pairbonding. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 78(3), 331-354.
Hekmat, R. 2022. 5 Ways to Beat the 7-Year Itch. Retrieved from: https://hekmatfamilylaw.com/marriage/5-ways-to-beat-the-7-year-itch/
Howard, M. 2020. Is the ‘Seven-Year Itch’ Actually a Real Thing? Retrieved from: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a32334584/seven-year-itch-meaning/
Kulu, H. (2014). Marriage duration and divorce: The seven-year itch or a lifelong itch? Demography, 51(3), 881-893