The concept of the seven-year itch was permanently etched in the minds of American moviegoers when Marilyn Monroe starred in a movie of the same name. Monroe played a voluptuous model about whom a husband fantasizes after his wife of seven years and their son go to a resort. The 1955 film has left the mark of fear or at least wonder upon the psyches of more than a few married couples. Take a Santa Monica woman who is nearing her seven-year wedding anniversary. She recently stopped me to ask: "What is the seven-year itch anyway, and how do people get through it?"
Psychologists and therapists say the concept of the seven-year itch, popularly thought to be a stage in the seventh year of marriage characterized by unsettled feelings and the urge to have an affair or leave the marriage, is part truth, part myth.
The crisis point, however, has less to do with years married and more to do with the developmental stage of an individual marriage, said clinical psychologist William J. Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. Marriages mature at different paces.
"There is nothing magical about seven years of marriage, except that half of the people who are going to get divorced do so by the seventh year of marriage," said Doherty, author of "Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart" (Guilford, 2001).
"But bear in mind that the highest level of divorce is at three years of marriage. These are marriages where the parachute simply doesn't open." The magic gone, illusions squelched, tedium setting in, many post-infatuation unions usually end after three years because they "go into free fall," Doherty said. These couples often married for the wrong reasons (to stabilize a tumultuous relationship, for example) or because they were living together and decided marriage was the next step.
If marriage is like a road trip, then the first seven years are probably some of the most treacherous. Often by the seventh year, couples have already adjusted (either well or not so well) to some of the most difficult transitions (morning breath, lousy housekeeping habits and the ill effects of stress on a dream spouse) and are having children.
"Turning points" in the marriage are times when change is required in the pattern of the relationship, said Frank Pittman, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta who specializes in infidelity. These are the times when couples are at greatest risk of infidelity, divorce or a partner's emotional departure.
"Usually, couples decide within seven years to further their commitment and have children," said Michele Weiner-Davis, a Woodstock, Ill., therapist who lays out a "marriage map" in "Divorce Remedy: The Proven Seven Step Plan for Saving Your Marriage" (Simon & Schuster, 2001), a book scheduled for release in September. "Marital satisfaction goes down dramatically with the birth of each child. With the complications of raising a child, the friendship goes out of the relationship and there is more conflict."
People start saying to their spouse, "I want to be appreciated for more than being the financial provider or caretaker," Weiner-Davis said, and "I love you, but I am not in love with you."
Although there is no reliable research on infidelity rates (because people lie), Pittman said that in his 40 years of clinical experience, the birth of a baby often coincides with an affair. (Obviously, we are talking about the father here.)
"An enormous number of men have their first affair around the birth of their first child because they have been replaced by the baby," said Pittman, who noted that some research suggests that infidelities in first marriages usually occur in the fourth year. "An affair is a wonderful way to run away from the adultness of a relationship. It is a way of getting away from the honesty and intimacy of a marriage."
For couples who have survived seven years, Pittman warns that another crisis is around the corner. Children starting school, a child's adolescence, career peaks and lows, children leaving home, the death of a parent, feeling old and hitting retirement put a couple's stability at risk, he said.
"One partner usually recognizes the need for change before the other one," Pittman said. "Usually, it is women who call for change. He hears nagging. At such times, the marriage is inherently incompatible, which is OK, because marriages have to go through stages of incompatibility."
Infidelities are attempts at escaping problems that appear threatening, scary and dangerous, Pittman said. "Bickering is the work of marriage," he added. "Couples should fight every day, but not to win. The point of marital conflict is to understand each other better. You can't be right and be married at the same time."
For those who resist an extramarital dalliance (even a one-night stand undermines a marriage, he said), the marriage grows stronger. "If you feel attracted to another person, move closer to your spouse, make the relationship more sexual, more communicative, more intimate, and reveal more of yourself," Pittman advised.
In "The Seven Year Itch," Richard Sherman, the husband who revels in a slew of fantasies about his model neighbor, doesn't succumb to the urge to have an affair. He waits it out, which is what Weiner-Davis would have advised him to do.
"When people reported [in a national survey] being unsatisfied with their marriages and did nothing other than wait," Weiner-Davis said, "five years later, 86% said they were really satisfied with their marriage. It's really about weathering the storm."
Birds & Bees, a column about relationships and sexuality, runs Mondays. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.