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Timeline of a Love Affair

Sex and Marriage: "Seven Year Itch?" continued...

The survey also shows that married people younger than 30 are those most likely to have sex with someone other than their spouse. But there's no clear increase or decrease as people age, and by extension, the length of marriage.

The recurring question about a "seven year itch" is a funny case of fiction taking on a life of its own. The Seven Year Itch is the title of a 1955 movie starring Marilyn Monroe, which refers to a pretend chapter title in a made-up book by a fictional quack psychoanalyst who claims that men tend to have extramarital sexual affairs after seven years of marriage. Prior to the 1952 debut of the Broadway play upon which the movie was based, the "seven year itch" was just a folksy name for scabies. (Scabies is a very itchy condition caused by tiny mites living in a person's skin. It used to be  hard to cure, and it could last for years.)

In general, infidelity is not rampant in the United States. In any given year, only 3%-4% of married people say they've had sex with someone besides their spouse. About 16% say they have ever done so.

The Long Slide

Over time, married people tend to become less and less satisfied with their relationship -- not something you'd want to mention when toasting a bride and groom.

"On average, the newlywed period is a high point in the history of the relationship," Benjamin Karney, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells WebMD. "From there, it's hard to get better," he says.

For many years, common wisdom stated that happiness in marriage followed "U-shape" course, declining gradually into middle age and then gradually increasing into the golden years. This idea was flawed because it was based on studying groups of couples at a certain point in time, then plotting satisfaction with age. "The people who have been married the longest are a select group," Karney says. "They're the survivors."

When researchers looked at what happened with certain married couples over a long time period, satisfaction didn't follow a U-shaped course. In fact, it tended to fall from day one and never went up. The steepest drops were at the very beginning and in late life.

On the bright side, the decline stays within a narrow range near the top of the satisfaction scale. On a scale where one is least and twenty is most satisfied, couples tend to start at about 19 and end up at about 16.

Ties That Bind

So how does a love affair survive and thrive?

Having good communication and keeping relationship problems in perspective are the quick and easy answers, "but they're the small potatoes," Bartell says. "How we chose our partners is most important."

Next Article:

What physical changes do you experience when in love?