7 year itch in a colourful fauvist style
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7 Year Itch

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Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
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created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
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Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
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What is the 7 Year Itch?

The term "7 year itch" has permeated popular culture as a label for the critical period in a relationship when partners may begin to feel dissatisfied or restless. While the phrase itself was popularized by the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, featuring Marilyn Monroe, the concept has since been taken up by psychologists and sociologists to explore the dynamics of marital dissatisfaction over time.

Originally, the "7 year itch" referred humorously to the declining interest in a monogamous relationship after seven years, but has since evolved into a broader discussion about long-term relationship cycles. It’s not just about wandering affections; it encapsulates feelings of boredom, loss of connection, and the routine nature that can creep into relationships.

Research in the field of relationship psychology often points to a dip in marital satisfaction correlating with significant life events or transitions, such as the birth of a child, financial pressures, or simply the passage of time. A seminal study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a pattern of decline in relationship satisfaction after the early years of marriage. The research suggests that while not all couples experience a dramatic "itch" at exactly seven years, many do encounter challenges during middle years of a relationship.

Further statistical analysis, such as that provided by the National Center for Health Statistics, indicates that the median duration of first marriages that end in divorce is around 8 years, subtly supporting the notion of a critical period around the seven-year mark. This data doesn’t imply causation but highlights a common timeline for reassessment and significant relational decisions.

In understanding the "7 year itch," it's crucial to note that while the idea has a basis in observed trends, it is not inevitable. Many couples navigate these waters successfully by adapting to each other's growth and changes over time. The key to overcoming the "7 year itch" lies in recognizing its signs, understanding its origins, and actively working to rejuvenate and reinforce the relationship.

Signs and Symptoms of the 7 Year Itch

Identifying the "7 year itch" in a relationship involves recognizing specific signs and symptoms that indicate a possible decline in relational satisfaction. Here are some common indicators:

1. Decreased Emotional Intimacy

One of the most telling signs is a noticeable decline in emotional sharing and intimacy. Couples may find themselves discussing only functional or household topics, avoiding deep, meaningful conversations. Dr. Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist, notes, "When emotional intimacy declines, it's common for couples to become more like roommates than romantic partners."

2. Reduced Physical Connection

Alongside emotional distancing, a decrease in physical affection—ranging from everyday touch like holding hands to sexual activity—can signal the itch. According to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, physical intimacy levels are strongly correlated with marital satisfaction and its decline can be a red flag.

3. Increased Conflict or Indifference

Whether it's more frequent arguments or an increase in indifference where conflicts are no longer worth resolving, both scenarios can indicate a problem. Relationship expert Esther Perel states, "Conflict in itself is not a sign of a troubled relationship, but how it's handled can be. Indifference, however, is a sign of emotional disconnection."

4. Fantasizing About Life Without Your Partner

It’s normal to occasionally wonder about different life choices, but consistent fantasies about life without your partner or with someone else can be symptomatic of dissatisfaction.

5. Avoidance of Home or Partner

Spending excessive time at work, with friends, or hobbies, not out of passion but as an escape from home life, might be a sign. Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist known for his work on relationship stability, suggests that "turning away from rather than toward your partner" is a predictor of marital unhappiness and possibly divorce.

6. Lack of Future Planning

When one or both partners show reluctance or apathy towards future plans, whether vacations, home improvements, or major life events, it might indicate doubts about the relationship’s longevity.

7. Feeling Stuck or Bored

A pervasive sense of stagnation or boredom can also be indicative of the "7 year itch." Dr. Greer adds, "Feeling that the relationship is in a rut, or that it’s not growing, can lead to restlessness and dissatisfaction."

Psychological Underpinnings

Understanding the psychological factors behind the "7 year itch" can provide insights into why some relationships face challenges around this time. Here are key psychological concepts that play a role:

1. Habituation and Novelty Seeking

Humans naturally seek novelty and excitement, which can conflict with the familiarity and routine established in long-term relationships. Over time, the initial thrill of new love wears off, a phenomenon known in psychology as habituation. Dr. Arthur Aron, a social psychologist, explains, "Our brain's response to novelty drives us to learn new things and explore new experiences, but in relationships, this can lead to restlessness once the novelty fades."

2. Life Cycle Transitions

The seven-year mark often coincides with significant life transitions—such as the arrival of children, career pressures, or mid-life crises—that can strain a relationship. These changes can shift priorities and focus away from the relationship, leading to feelings of neglect or disconnectedness.

3. Evolutionary Psychology Perspective

From an evolutionary standpoint, some theorists suggest that a waning romantic attachment after several years may be a relic of early human societies' need for genetic diversity and adaptability. This theory, while controversial, provides a biological basis for why sustaining long-term passion can be challenging.

4. Social Exchange Theory

This theory posits that relationships are analyzed in terms of costs and benefits. Around the seven-year mark, individuals may start reassessing their partnership based on what they invest and receive. Dr. Elaine Hatfield, a pioneer in this theory, suggests, "When people feel that the costs of their relationship outweigh the benefits, they may start to feel dissatisfied, which can contribute to the '7 year itch.'"

5. Attachment Theory Dynamics

The dynamics of attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant—can also influence long-term relationship satisfaction. Dr. Phillip Shaver and Dr. Cindy Hazan’s research on attachment theory in adults indicates that mismatches in attachment styles may lead to significant relational turbulence as the relationship matures and more secure attachment needs become prioritized.

By exploring these psychological concepts, couples can gain a deeper understanding of why they might be experiencing a "7 year itch." More importantly, this awareness can empower them to take proactive steps in addressing the underlying issues, ensuring that their relationship evolves positively beyond this phase.

Impact on Relationships

The "7 year itch" can subtly infiltrate a relationship, altering its dynamics in profound ways. Emotional distancing may become the norm, where once there was intimacy and shared secrets, now there might be silence and solitude. This growing divide often leads to a breakdown in communication. Words once spoken freely now tread a line of caution and hesitation, exacerbating misunderstandings and fostering resentment.

Physical intimacy too can wane, casting a shadow over a relationship that once thrived on closeness. This decline is not just about less frequent sexual encounters but also about the dwindling of non-sexual touches that bond partners, such as holding hands, hugs, and casual caresses. The absence of these can leave individuals feeling more like cohabitants than lovers, deeply impacting their emotional connection.

As emotional and physical disconnect grow, conflicts may become more frequent and more intense. These aren't just quarrels over who does the dishes or picks up the kids from school; they're often deeper disagreements about values, desires, and needs that go unmet. This turmoil can ripple out, affecting family dynamics, especially if children are involved. Kids are particularly sensitive to changes in the home environment, and their well-being can be compromised by the ongoing tension.

Moreover, the dissatisfaction and emotional void can lead some to seek comfort outside their relationship, raising the risk of infidelity. For others, the relationship might begin to feel like a trap, stifling personal growth and happiness, leading to stagnation where there should be evolution and mutual support.

Strategies to Overcome the 7 Year Itch

Overcoming the "7 year itch" is about reinvention and reconnection. It starts with open communication, where both partners commit to expressing their feelings, fears, and desires honestly. This dialogue should be ongoing, not just a one-off conversation. It’s about continually checking in with each other to navigate through life’s changes together.

Rekindling romance is crucial and can be as simple as reintroducing date nights, surprising each other with thoughtful gestures, or revisiting places that hold special memories. Such activities can reignite the initial spark and foster new memories. Moreover, introducing new activities that both partners can explore together helps inject novelty back into the relationship, combating the habituation that might have set in.

Physical intimacy should also be addressed deliberately. This might mean scheduling time for intimacy if life has become too busy or seeking therapy if there are deeper issues affecting this aspect of the relationship. Physical closeness is often a barometer of relationship health and working on it can improve emotional bonds.

For some couples, external help from a relationship counselor or therapist may be beneficial. Professional guidance can help navigate the complexities of relational dissatisfaction, providing tools and strategies tailored to the couple’s unique situation.

Lastly, it’s about remembering and focusing on the positives that brought the partners together. Acknowledging and celebrating each other’s growth and achievements can foster a sense of teamwork and partnership.

In essence, tackling the "7 year itch" requires effort and commitment from both partners. It's about actively choosing each other again, everyday, and working together to ensure that the relationship not only survives but thrives beyond the seven-year mark.

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