March 6, 2000 (Reno, Nev.) -- In the 1955 movie "The Seven Year
Itch," Marilyn Monroe tempts her neighbor to stray while his wife and
children are away for the summer. Ever since, the seven year itch -- a period
of restless angst -- has been used as an excuse for infidelity.
Now, a study suggests that such an itch is often a reality. An evaluation of
93 married couples during their first 10 years of marriage showed two typical
periods of decline. (A decline was defined as a decrease in marital quality
measured by taking into account passion, satisfaction with the relationship,
amount of shared activity, and agreement between the partners.) The marriages
started with a bang (with passion usually high), but after the "honeymoon
effect" wore off they showed a decrease in overall quality over the first
four years. The marriages then tended to stabilize before another decline set
in around year eight, says Lawrence A. Kurdek, Ph.D., the study's author and a
psychologist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
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The first decline, Kurdek says, is probably a normal adjustment to new
roles; the second decline is often related to the birth of children. Couples
experiencing the seven year itch disagree with each other more, become less
affectionate, share fewer activities, and express overall dissatisfaction with
their marriages, says Kurdek, whose study was published in the September 1999
issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
Why Seven Years?
The seven-year mark is coincidental, says Kurdek.
But it's not uncommon for problems to come to a head in a marriage after
seven years, says Lonnie Barbach, Ph.D., a couples' therapist in Mill Valley,
Such was the case for Susan Fitzpatrick of San Diego, Calif. Not long before
her divorce, she had returned to college full-time and took her first vacation
alone, both of which were signs of growing independence that she says rattled
her husband. He struck up an affair after eight years of marriage. She blames
their divorce on a lack of communication and her husband's resistance to
change. "He suddenly realized he wasn't happy about certain things in the
relationship, but he wouldn't tell me, even if I asked," she says.
Statistics support the idea of a seven year itch. According to the most
current figures available from the National Center for Health Statistics, the
median duration of marriage was 7.2 years for couples who divorced in 1989 and
Singles and the Seven Year Itch
It's difficult to say if the seven year itch applies to unmarried people in
long-term relationships, because the research has not been done. Sometimes,
however, avoiding the "I do" helps keep the courtship alive in a
long-term relationship, says Barbach.
But don't count on it. "I certainly wouldn't recommend two unmarried
people live together to keep the romance alive," says Howard Markman,
Ph.D., a marital counselor at the University of Denver, Colorado. "People
thrive on a commitment in relationships."
Focusing attention on the relationship is the obvious but often-overlooked
key to marriage longevity, says Barbach. Couples with children may have to make
special efforts, since Kurdek's study found that they showed steeper declines
in marital satisfaction than childless couples. He speculates that unhappy
couples either avoid divorce for the children's sake or expend more energy
raising their kids than nurturing their marriage. But he also points out that
some couples may find that having children makes them happier overall.