If you’ve ever heard that year seven is the make-it-or-break-it year for marriages, you may start to get nervous as that anniversary approaches. The seven-year itch, as it’s called, is a term that describes feeling restless or dissatisfied in a relationship — typically at that seven-year mark.
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But is it real? And how can you avoid it? Clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD, explains the origins of this term, how it may feel to experience it and what you can do to put an end to it and make your marriage stronger than ever.
What is the seven-year itch?
Did you know that the term “seven-year itch” actually came from a movie?
Occasionally, TV shows and movies make such an impact that they create words and phrases that become a part of our cultural lexicon. Sometimes, they’re light and funny, like the term “jump the shark,” which originated on the show Happy Days. Other times, they’re dark and disturbing, the way the 1944 film Gaslight led to the concept of “gaslighting.”
In 1955, Marilyn Monroe starred in a film called The Seven Year Itch, in which a married man becomes so infatuated with her that he starts planning to cheat on his wife. The man has been reading a psychiatrist’s manuscript, which claims that all men cheat in their seventh year of marriage — which is exactly how long he’s been married.
That’s how the term “seven-year itch” was born. “It’s now used as a catchall term to describe feeling dissatisfied or restless in a relationship at or around the seven-year mark,” Dr. Borland explains.
Is the seven-year itch real?
There’s no definitive proof that the seven-year itch is real — or that it isn’t, either. “While research outcomes vary somewhat, the percentage of divorces, particularly in first-time marriages, tends to spike around the seven- or eight-year mark,” Dr. Borland notes.
Couples in the so-called honeymoon phase (defined as lasting two and a half years after getting hitched) report very high levels of satisfaction in their marriages, which either declines or stabilizes as the years add up. Of course, by the seven-year mark, partners are well past the honeymoon phase — and issues may have begun to arise.
“With added time, marital struggles can include issues like poor communication and listening skills, a lack of empathy and partners having unrealistic expectations of one another,” Dr. Borland explains. “Those issues can be created or compounded by the pressures of raising kids, dealing with finances and other issues, including facing differences in values and beliefs when it comes to culture, religion and politics.”
Symptoms of the seven-year itch
If you’ve started to feel dissatisfied or unfulfilled in your marriage, it’s important to look at the reasons and get to the root of the issues.
But what qualifies as feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled in the first place? Dr. Borland says these feelings and behaviors may include:
- A lack of physical and/or emotional intimacy.
- Poor communication.
- Increased conflict, including arguing, hurtful words or criticism.
- Keeping secrets from your partner.
- Not spending much or any meaningful time spent together.
- Taking one another for granted and/or feeling unappreciated.
- A lack of trust.
- Fantasizing about infidelity.
“You may also feel low motivation to improve your marital dynamics,” Dr. Borland adds. “But if you want your marriage to succeed, it’s critical to identify the issues and commit to working through them.”
How can you prevent the seven-year itch?
First, remember, the idea of the seven-year itch began with a movie, and there’s no scientific proof that it’s a real phenomenon. But if you do start to feel, well, itchy in your relationship — at the seven-year mark or any other time — there are steps you can take to make sure it stays strong.
“Despite potential obstacles that may occur around this marker, many relationships can be saved and even strengthened if both partners are committed to putting in the necessary work,” Dr. Borland states.
1. Work on your communication skills
You can’t fix something that you can’t talk about. Good communication is a key element of any healthy relationship, and it’s one of the best ways to ward off the supposed seven-year itch.
“You and your partner should be in the habit of talking to one another regularly about your feelings and concerns,” Dr. Borland says. “Prioritizing communication and working on your own listening skills helps prevent misunderstandings and strengthens your bond.”
2. Examine your assumptions
When you’re feeling a certain way, it can be difficult to see it from someone else’s perspective. But getting stuck in your own head can lead you to make incorrect assumptions about your partner’s feelings, which can derail your relationship.
“Monitor your own assumptions about what your partner is thinking or feeling,” Dr. Borland advises, “and conversely, don’t expect your partner to know what you’re thinking or feeling, either.”
In the end, this one comes back to communication skills: Instead of guessing, assuming or inferring, ask. Sitting down to talk it out with your partner can nip problems in the bud before they progress.
Not sure how to put things into words? Try putting it in a letter to them, if you feel more eloquent in writing — whatever helps you express your feelings and concerns.
3. Reignite the spark
“Physical intimacy is an important part of most romantic relationships,” Dr. Borland says, “so try to prioritize intimacy, even in times of stress.” If you’re not sure how to re-approach sex after a hiatus, planning a surprise date night or a small getaway can help rekindle the vibes.
But if your decrease in physical intimacy has been due to sexual dysfunction, pain during sex or other physical concerns, don’t hesitate to speak with a healthcare provider. They can help you get to the core of the issue so you can get back to the bedroom with confidence.
4. Spend more time together
This one may sound counterintuitive at first because if you’re not feeling your partner right now, spending more time with them may be the last thing you think you want. But prioritizing meaningful time together can bring you back together emotionally.
The hustle and bustle of everyday life — from kids and jobs and home maintenance to whatever else you’ve got going on — can make it all too easy to spend time on everything except for one another.
“You don’t necessarily have to love all the same things that your spouse does, but showing interest in their hobbies or pursuing an activity that’s new to both of you can help bring you closer together,” Dr. Borland says.
5. Show your appreciation
Over time, you may start to feel undervalued or unappreciated by your spouse — or vice versa. Even if you don’t mean to take one another for granted, it can be all too easy to forget to show your gratitude.
Make an effort to both show and tell your partner how much you appreciate them and the role they play in your life. Sometimes, that’s as simple as saying “thank you,” though you can also learn their love language so you can express your thanks in ways that are most meaningful.
6. Choose your social circle wisely
You may not even realize the ways that your friends are sabotaging your relationship (and they may not either!) But think about it: If all of your friends are in toxic relationships, and you hear about it all the time, you may find yourself following their lead, even without meaning to.
“Spend time with positive people who will help strengthen your relationship,” Dr. Borland suggests. “Avoid unsupportive people who may try to weaken your relationship or encourage you to compromise your values.”
This doesn’t mean you have to cut ties with friends whose relationships are on the rocks. But it does mean taking a close look at how certain friends may try to convince you to engage in bad behavior alongside them.
7. Seek support from a professional
When your relationship is on shaky ground, consider calling in some professional assistance. “You may want to pursue help from a trained mental health professional, either in the form of individual therapy or couples therapy or both,” Dr. Borland advises.
A therapist or counselor can help you and your partner navigate your issues and learn tools to strengthen your relationship for the long haul, like how to:
- Express yourself in ways that are healthy and productive to your relationship.
- Better listen and respond to your partner’s needs.
- Build (or rebuild) trust and intimacy.
“A mental health professional can also help you both learn to allow for forgiveness,” Dr. Borland adds.
8. Know what not to do, too
Just as important as knowing what to do is knowing what not to do.
“When you’re grappling with seven-year itch concerns, it’s important not to seek comfort in potentially problematic or addictive behaviors,” Dr. Borland states. “These can worsen your relationship problems, as well as your own health.” Such behaviors include:
- Alcohol and/or drug use.
- Increased spending.
- Internet relationships.
Don’t make any sudden, significant life changes during this time, either. “You especially don’t want to make rash decisions in a vacuum, without talking through them or coming to an agreement with your partner,” he says. These changes may include:
- Moving out of the home you share.
- Changing your job or career.
- Making a significant purchase that would have financial ramifications.
And try not to retreat into your shell, tempting though it may be. “If you’re having issues in your relationship, whether at the seven-year mark or at any other time,” Dr. Borland says, “don’t isolate yourself from your partner or from other trusted sources of emotional support in your life.”
When it’s time to end a relationship
With hard work and commitment, couples can overcome relationship issues and come through stronger, healthier and happier. But there are times when what’s best for everyone is to call it quits.
One of those instances is in the case of intimate partner abuse, also known as domestic violence — and you may not even realize that what you’re experiencing is abuse. “Domestic violence encompasses more than just physical abuse,” Dr. Borland says. “It encompasses mental, emotional, sexual and financial abuse, as well.”
Learn to recognize red flags in your relationship and know that your healthcare providers — from your family doctor to your therapist — can be a trusted source of support if you’re experiencing domestic partner abuse.
If you live in the U.S., you can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233 or text the word START to 88788.