When Phillip met Diane, he found her attractive, easy to talk to--different from the other girls in high school. After dating on and off for years, they married in their early 30s. Now, seven years later, their relationship is wearing thin.
“I didn’t get married to have someone nag me about when I can go out,” said Phillip, who spoke on the condition that his and his wife’s real names not be used.
“I’ve lost a lot of my own identity. She wants to change me,” added Phillip, who lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife and child.
“The seven-year itch"--a phrase made popular by the 1953 play and subsequent movie with Marilyn Monroe--is the struggle to maintain intimacy despite dissatisfaction or boredom that often arises during the seventh year of a marriage. For those who get mired in it, it’s no joking matter.
“After seven years, people can feel disappointed, hurt, depressed, lonely, miserable. The symptoms are right on,” said Homa Mahmoudi, clinical psychologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
After a courtship filled with romantic strolls and candle-lit dinners, couples marry in the glow of love, but the passion can get lost between the jobs, the dishes and the diapers.
“By the seventh year, things have become routine,” said Mahmoudi, who specializes in marriage and family therapy. “A lot of time has been focused on the career, the education of the children, the development of themselves. And not so much on their love, their sexuality, their passion. After seven years, they feel abandoned.”
Some, like Phillip, turn to a lover instead of addressing these issues in the relationship.
Mahmoudi said affairs are common during this period. “I see it as a cry for help: ‘I’m not satisfied in this relationship. I need your help.’ ”
This period of marital re-evaluation and perhaps wandering isn’t as predictable as the turning of the calendar, however.
One therapist estimated that it hits somewhere between six and nine years. It comes earlier to those who married in their early 20s and later for those who delayed marriage until their late 20s or early 30s, said Daryl Rowe, a therapist who practices in the Nubian Psychological Group of Los Angeles with his wife of nine years, Sandra Lyons Rowe.
The arrival of children figures into it, too. Couples who might have reached a crisis at four years--a common point--without the distraction of children instead find themselves as parents even more at odds at seven.
Then there are individual biological clocks.
“Ages 30 and 40 are transitions that bring out the pressures of marriage. . . . You re-evaluate whether that is the person you want to get old with,” said Rowe, who teaches psychotherapy and cross-cultural counseling at the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology.
Getting through this time can be a struggle for some couples, but when disaster strikes, it can be particularly tough, experts say.
“It exacerbates it, underscores all the negatives,” Mahmoudi said.
Yvette and her husband were struggling in their marriage when a crisis hit in their seventh year.
Pregnant with their second child, Yvette found out at her five-month appointment that the fetus was dead.
Her husband “was not real understanding when the child was lost. We had a very tough time,” said Yvette, who asked that her real name not be used.
Their constant arguments got worse and increasingly violent.
“It escalated to the point that I said, ‘This is sick.’ Sick on my part, sick on his part. One of us is going to kill the other,” said Yvette, who lives in the San Joaquin Valley.
The couple went to counseling, and have learned to communicate more effectively. Although they still struggle with some issues, they have celebrated 13 years of marriage.
The seven-year period can be an opportunity for growth as it was in Yvette’s marriage. And while some couples need counseling to get their relationships back on track, others simply need to do some negotiating.
“I look at the seven-year itch as a time that housecleaning needs to be done,” Mahmoudi said. “Look at what garbage needs to be thrown out. And ask how can I make life more exciting and enjoy it more.”
Housecleaning can be taken literally. A frequent bone of contention during this time is household duties, said Katherine Rieder, who works with divorcing couples as a mediator with All Valleys Mediation Center in Sherman Oaks.
Yvette said she and her husband have clashed on this issue and worked through it.
“When we married, he didn’t do anything,” she said. “Not mop a floor, not wash a dish. That has changed drastically. He didn’t change because he wanted to--he had to. I’m not a slave, and I’m not trying to be superwoman.”
Supportive people can also be a saving grace. Friends and family who encourage a couple to stay committed and connected can be as good as a therapist, Rowe said.
Gary and Michelle Ventimiglia of Van Nuys, who have been married 16 years, are part of a community of six couples who have family barbecues, lend one another money and hold hospital vigils in time of sickness.
The support system for their marriage has been invaluable, said Gary Ventimiglia, a father of three.
Couples who have gotten caught up in the career and the kids also need to spend time with each other away from the children to revive their relationship, said Rieder, also a marriage and family therapist with Valley Counseling Clinic in Tarzana. “You’d be surprised how many couples don’t do that,” she said.
Gil and Jo Borboa of Northridge, who have been married almost 12 years, have made a point of spending time alone since their first child was born 7 1/2 years ago. Between sitters, family and trading duties with friends, they go out to dinner twice a month and get away overnight every four months.
“It makes a difference with us. We can handle the crazy times and not go after each other when things get stressful,” said Jo Borboa, who now has three children.
“Uninterrupted time to get reacquainted can get a relationship back on track. Do that for a while and it gets better than before,” Mahmoudi said.
Rowe has an acronym for how couples can come through this period stronger: L.A.U.G.H., which stands for Listen, Articulate, Understand, Generate Solutions, and Hug.