The seven-year itch marked the end of my parents’ marriage when I was a toddler. They’d met in a traveling music program and had a whirlwind romance, and in spite of their completely different backgrounds, they’d fallen in love. As family differences became more pronounced and personal values changed, however, their marriage dissolved at that notorious seven-year mark, just one year after I was born. I spent quite a bit of my childhood reflecting on what went wrong as I went back and forth in a traditional custody schedule, pondering what I could do differently when I got married to attempt to “prevent” what had happened to them.
Decades later, as soon as my then-fiancé proposed, I embarked on a mission to heal my perception of marriage—and to make mine last. To say “I do” with confidence, I needed to understand why things ended for my parents and for the 39 percent of couples who get divorced. (That number, by the way, is down from 50 percent in previous decades). Armed with “preventative” marriage therapy and discussions with everyone who was open enough to disclose their reasons for staying together and their reasons for divorcing, I approached year seven with determination.
Kid-proofing a marriage
The seven-year itch often happens around the time when most married couples are having children or raising young children, which we all know is not for the faint of heart. That was the case for my parents, as my birth not-so-coincidentally coincided with the beginning of the end. My husband and I, after having three sons in four years, named the first six months after a birth “The Fog,” to unaffectionately acknowledge both of our mental states in those difficult months. Nobody slept more than three hours at a time, “real” meals were few and far between, and tensions ran high as we negotiated who would change the next diaper.
According to Cheyenne Carter, PhD, Assistant Professor of Wake Forest University’s Online Master’s in Counseling program and a couples counselor in private practice, this is a common time for marital strife. “Research suggests that certain periods tend to be more common for disconnection and conflict, including the addition of a new baby, the seven-year mark, and entrance into empty-nest years,” she says. And there’s more. Couples who are seven years in, she explains, have also started to come to terms with the reality of who their partner is, as well as what the relationship is really like versus what they had envisioned.
For us, acknowledging that “The Fog” existed—and that it was a real expression of the lack of our most basic physical needs being met—helped prepare us for the most difficult months of baby life. Each time, we spent the following six months recovering as a couple, reviving forgotten date nights (statistically proven to make couples happier) and looking at each other through a lens that wasn’t blurred by a baby’s bodily fluids and crying. (The crying was being done by the baby, of course, not us. Well, actually, it was us, too.)
Courtesy Alexandra Frost
Seeking new opportunities
Around this time, we noticed that we were getting bored. We had done the big, fun wedding, found the jobs, bought a house or two, gone on some trips, and had babies. Now what? It was time to move past our mundane days and even our regular date nights to try something new, instead of spending every Saturday night at the same trusty Chinese restaurant we’d been visiting for seven years, ordering the same chicken dish every time.
Carter says that intentionally adding new experiences into a relationship can help couples survive the seven-year itch. “Experiencing new things together activates the dopamine system in the brain, with this chemical serving to biologically strengthen the bond and increase the sense of individual well-being,” she explains.
For us, this meant finding a reliable babysitter and an even more reliable top ten list of things to try around our own city. (“Best hole-in-the-wall restaurants you’ve never tried” was the Google search we started with.) I’d love to say that we’ve since branched out into skydiving, scuba lessons, and ballroom-dancing classes, but hey, baby steps. We do have three babies and an on-the-clock babysitter, after all.
I believe that my own parents, as they tried to get through a graduate program while surviving life with a newborn, either didn’t have time for this type of bonding or didn’t think it was as important as it actually is.
Avoiding the D-word, but not the tough conversations
Could my parents’ marriage have been saved by having the right conversations? By going to marriage therapy? Maybe, maybe not. But back in our first days of premarital therapy, our wise counselor took us through an exercise that had one main, lifelong commitment at the end: eliminating the word, and option, of divorce as part of our everyday vocabulary. He explained the harm in the word floating around daily life like an option or, even worse, being used in fights as an ultimatum. This was the beginning of establishing trust that both of us were in it for the long haul.
Tough conversations, on the other hand, are abundant and necessary. And, of course, that’s true at all times, not just during the seven-year itch. Reading the book Crucial Conversations as a couple changed the way we converse with each other, especially in helping to create a safe space in which to say tough things. That’s an essential part of maintaining a marriage. “Learn to identify your needs and openly hear the needs of your partner. Learn how to manage your emotions healthily,” says Carter. “This supports the creation of safety for effective communication.”
If you aren’t in a place in your marriage where you can do this, seeking professional counseling can help. And this is something you shouldn’t put off. “Research suggests most couples go to their first session years after the onset of initial disconnection and conflict,” says Carter. “Engage in proactive maintenance of your relationship. It is far less costly—emotionally and financially—than trying to heal years of resentment, anger, and detachment.” Is your relationship on the rocks? Check for these 8 secret signs your marriage is headed for divorce.
What would it be like to live with you?
Once, when I was complaining about some trivial quirks that were making my marriage miserable, that same wise counselor asked me a marriage-changing question: What would it be like to live with you? Man, it was like a tornado had flattened my ego in a few quick words. “Not great” was probably the answer. After all, I wasn’t as quick to forgive as my husband. I went from hungry to hangry in a matter of minutes. I made what he called clothes mountains around my room. And I cared that he chomped on ice cubes while I was watching a show?
By turning the finger around, so to speak, and doing a little self-reflection and analysis, I completely changed the way I saw my husband. Carter calls this “cultivating compassion” and says that acknowledging your own “imperfect state” increases the ability to forgive your partner’s mistakes as well.
If you and your partner are approaching the seven-year mark, you can take heart in the numbers: The most common year to divorce is actually the third year of marriage, and half of all divorces happen by the seventh. (The idea of the seven-year itch was popularized by a 1955 Marilyn Monroe movie.) As my husband and I move toward the end of our seven years together, we can officially say we’ve survived “the itch.” Now, we’re ready to plan a big tenth-anniversary vacation. Next, find out the surprising secrets of the most happily married couples.