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What is the seven year itch?

Originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald

Rebecca Charters* realised her marriage was in trouble when she sat across from her husband on a date night and thought, "I've got nothing to say to you." It was a sign that the seven-year itch had well and truly kicked in.

The term, which suggests that happiness in a relationship declines after seven years, gained popularity following the 1955 Marilyn Monroe film of the same name.

While 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that marriages which do end in divorce last longer now than they did in 1976, the median length of marriage before separation is still just 8.4 years. So, what is it that happens in relationships around this time that creates the potential for couples to split?

Anne Hollonds, a psychologist and director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, explains that marriage is often triggered by the decision to have children. "People marry and the following year they have their first child – that's the typical trajectory. You don't get much of a so-called honeymoon period. That tends to come before the marriage, when couples are living together."

This may help to account for the slight improvement in the length of marriages before couples separate. In 2016, 80.8 per cent of couples lived together before getting hitched, compared with 16 per cent in 1976.

Around "itch" time, many couples are emerging from the intense phase of starting a family. "Some aren't able to re-establish their relationship after what can be a tumultuous change," says Hollonds. "Having children is huge. It changes relationship dynamics."

Rebecca, now 45, can relate. She and her husband dated for a couple of years before they decided to do "the next logical thing" and get married in 2006.

"I thought I was marrying my best friend," she says. "It was the usual marital bliss that most people go through in the early stages."

She and her husband had their son and daughter within the first few years of marriage and rolled with the challenges young children bring. There was little time and energy to stop and discuss how they were feeling. When the children were both in daycare, the pair finally had an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about the next chapter of their lives. "We just didn't seem to be wanting the same things," she says. They fought more often and avoided difficult conversations.

Hollonds says cracks in a marriage often don't show immediately, as the focus is on getting through the day. "As issues emerge, people are unable to deal with them … they shove them under the carpet and hope for the best."

According to Rebecca: "Things just snowballed, as they tend to do when you don't nip them in the bud."

Resentment built and the couple turned to counselling for help. After a few months, realising how much damage had been done to the marriage, and that neither was committed to fixing it, they separated.

Counsellor Hailee Walker says that resentment can build quickly when there is dissatisfaction in a relationship. "If a partner used to snore at the beginning of the relationship, it was kind of cute, like lying next to a sleepy little bear. Then it becomes like lying next to a train, and it's infuriating."

For Matt*, 36, and Angela*, 46, signs their marriage was in trouble weren't so obvious. "I knew I wanted to marry Angela early on," says Matt. "I would have proposed earlier if I didn't think it would be weird." So he held off proposing until 2010, two years after they first met.

Angela had a 10-year old son from her previous marriage and Matt quickly formed a solid, loving relationship with him. And when the couple's son arrived three years after the wedding, Matt felt nothing but adoration for his family. But over the following few years, the pressure of balancing work with a young family was tough and Matt began to emotionally disconnect.

"There wasn't necessarily anything wrong with the relationship, it was more about me," he says. "I grew up an only child, so had a strong sense of identity. Suddenly I needed to put the kids first, Angela second, and me last. My sense of self was diminished."

These feelings culminated in Matt having an affair with a work colleague. "I guess the selfish part of me was just looking for adult fun," he says. "It wasn't because I loved another person – it was me looking for an escape."

Angela discovered his infidelity and was distraught – and shocked.

"I didn't really see the cracks at the time," she says, explaining that they rarely fought and that Matt had been very present physically as a father and husband while the affair was happening – they spent a lot of time together and never missed a date night. "Looking back, that great advice about making sure you go on date nights is potentially just glossing over the underlying issues," she adds.

Walker, who likens having children to throwing a hand grenade into a marriage, says couples lose a sense of themselves around this time and function more as co-parents.

Although Angela didn't see any signs that her marriage was in trouble, she recalls that Matt wasn't as engaged in conversation and took longer than usual to organise family-related things. "Tasks such as booking a weekend away seemed to take ages," she says. "In hindsight, it shows me our relationship was not front of mind."

Despite the hurt and betrayal of his affair, Angela could see that Matt was genuine in his regret and they focused on salvaging their relationship. The pair credit counselling with saving their marriage because it taught them how to communicate. "We speak very differently to each other now," says Angela." When one of us has something on our mind, we don't let it build up and verbally attack the other person."

Walker believes that while triggers for the seven-year itch can vary, it often boils down to complacency. "We get too comfortable in our relationships and we begin taking each other for granted," she says. Complacency can slip into any relationship and Walker warns that the itch affects childless and same-sex couples, too.

"The trigger isn't necessarily the presence of children, but our biological and psychological restlessness," she says. "The seven-year itch can arrive in any relationship and the tell-tale signs are the same."

Walker adds that a neurobiologist would attribute the seven-year itch to a decline in the bonding and love chemicals oxytocin, dopamine and vasopressin, while a biological anthropologist would trace it back to ancestral habits of couples staying bonded until at least one child has been raised through infancy.

She believes it's important for couples to recognise that the seven-year itch is a tricky time, and while it may not be possible to avoid it completely, the impact can be minimised. "If you feel unsatisfied, make the time to talk to your partner about it," Walker urges.

She also suggests that each partner should boost their appreciation and compliments, which often dry up as the relationship matures. "Up the romance and quality time and give your relationship the kind of attention you did in the beginning."

Looking back, Rebecca is philosophical about the fate of her marriage. "Sometimes we just aren't meant to be with that person," she reasons. She has used her own seven year itch experience to start a new career, and now helps others going through a breakup. "If I'd known what I know now, there are a million and one conversations I would have loved to have had before we got married."

Rebecca believes it's critical to go beyond the box-ticking approach of common interests when it comes to choosing a lifelong partner. Instead, dig deeper to ensure there are shared values and goals.

"People don't work at it like they should," says Rebecca, who has regular "check-ins" with her current partner. "You have to invest in each other, but also to know what your needs are."

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