Is the 7 year itch real? That’s a question that has been tackled by social scientist and psychologist for years without yielding a definitive answer. It is certainly not one that I am going to attempt to answer here given my particular knowledge deficiency on the subject. Instead, this post represents a jumping off point for discussion on understanding a phenomenon which affects our middle-aged demographic. Man up dudes. It’s time to scratch that itch and put some fire back into your relationships.
So you’ve been married or in a committed relationship for a long time and that “new relationship-smell” has long worn off. You don’t talk to each other when you’re alone. Habits you once found cute are super annoying now. You feel less appreciated and less desired and if you could snap your fingers a-la Samantha Stephens in “Bewitched” and be gone, you would. Sound familiar? If you answered “yes”, there are measures that you can take to help navigate these troubling waters (buying a sports car is not one of them). If you answered “no”, don’t worry young buck because you’ll be there soon enough.
Reference to the number 7 was popularized by the success of the 1955 Marilyn Monroe film The Seven Year Itch but it is also based on US Census data indicating when a divorce is likely to happen. Other data indicate that the number is closer to 4 years. Whether it’s 4 or 7 or some other number, most experts agree that there is a period in the multiple stages of a relationship where couples are susceptible to pulling the plug.
As promised during the start of Man Up, this is a personal journey of discovery of the post-40 year life stage including its issues and challenges. I am not here to misrepresent myself as an expert on any topic. Rather, I hope that you and I will take a closer look under the hood and examine the engines that drive us. I don’t doubt than many of you are in healthy, happy relationships while others are negotiating the day-to-day difficulties of relationship management and still others are divorced or separated. I do doubt that many of us give time or thought daily, weekly or monthly to what it takes to exist in healthy relationships and apply what we learn to our own situations.
Where Am I on the Continuum?
Key to understanding what’s going on in your relationship is to understand what phase of the relationship you are in. For most of us, relationships go through various stages according to Dr Marty Tashman:
1. The Honeymoon – you are consumed with being together, the sex is good, and the attraction is strong.
2. Accommodation – roles are established, expectations set, and the day-to-day realities of managing a relationship have settled in.
3. The Challenge – there’s trouble in paradise, major life changes (new job, unemployment, illness) begin to test the strength of your bond. Children and family crises are important factors during this stage. There is a certain amount of disillusionment in this stage. The relationship is not meeting early expectations and one or both partners run the risk of being attracted to other people. This is a time when the relationship is vulnerable to infidelity. Hello 7 year itch!
4. The Crossroads – what do I do at this stage of my life? You’ve already encounter a few challenges in your relationship and you have learned how to deal with them as a couple and how each responds individually.
5. Rebirth – learning to re-appreciate and re-love one another. You’ve learned how and when to compromise and accept areas of difference without resentment. This is our ultimate destination Hominids! Conquering stages 3 and 4 is how we will get here.
From Challenge to Rebirth
According to Dr Marty Tashman, how you deal with the challenge phase will determine the direction that your relationship takes in the Crossroads stage assuming you want to get there of course. I’ll list some professional tips and some not-so professional ones as well (those are mine).
Experts vary on the key ingredients of a good relationship. Here are a few: 1) Feeling accepted. When one partner says something to the other to make them feel valued and important, it strengthens the relationship. Stay away from saying things that come across as criticism. Focus your arguments on the issue at hand and not what happened two and half years ago. 2) Let your partner feel that they have influence over you. We all need to feel that weight and thought are given to our perspective. If my perspective doesn’t matter, then I don’t matter. 3) Keep the nagging to a minimum. We are adults here. Don’t continuously remind them about things that they already know. If you are the recipient of the nagging, prevent yourself from withdrawing in angry silence or some other passive-aggressive form of rebellion (I have a natural inclination for angry silence as my wife attest). 4) Keep your judgments to a minimum. When we feel that our significant other is negatively judging us, we feel diminished and devalued and the response is typically a defensive one. Regardless of how many times you apologize, negative remarks can not be taken back.
When the cost of being in a relationship outweigh the benefits for one of the partners, this person may be tempted to call it quits. So work toward getting back to a mutually beneficial bond. Here’s what I think works for me:
1) Encourage one another. It doesn’t matter what you provide encouragement for so long as you show your support. “Good luck on the meeting today babe. I know you’ll do well.” “I love the way that you interact with our children. You are a fantastic mother.”
2) Have open and respectful communication. Disconnects and ill-informed internal dialogues resulting from poor communication can breakdown trust and wreak havoc on stability.
3) Keep your dreams on the table. We are all working toward something right? Whether it’s an exciting retirement plan, entrepreneurship or completing a bucket list together, talking about it periodically reminds you that you have purpose as a couple and share the same dreams and visions. It also affords you an opportunity to discuss when those dreams and visions cease to align. I said goodbye to my dream of owning a horse farm after my wife said she was having none of that foolishness. Hello compromise!
4) Respect and honor your partner’s contributions to your relationship and to your lives. Regardless of how roles are defined in your relationship, partnerships are successful when each partner feels that they have equal footing in the deal. Antediluvian caveman attitudes and behaviors don’t work for most modern women.
5) Keep it sexy and keep it hot! Think about what attracted you two to each other in the first place. You were attractive, probably took pride in your appearance, you smelled good, had muscle tone, energy, vigor, and the sex was hot right? There is no reason that you can’t get one or two of those back. The bottom line is everyone wants to be desired and wanted and, while to some, love is unconditional (I would argue that it is not), desire and attraction have some conditions. Give her a reason to get her eyes off of Idris Elba and back on to you no matter how daunting a task that might seem.
6) Drink plenty of wine and laugh.
Scratch The Itch
I’ve learned that love is an irrational and fleeting emotion. We’ve all done things in the name of love that no rational being would do and to rely solely on love as the cornerstone of your relationship’s foundation is…well…irrational. It takes a great deal of work, energy, partnership, compromise and understanding to manage a relationship from the Honeymoon to the Rebirth stage. The question is, if you are itching, how do you intend to scratch that itch? Whether it’s 7 years hypothesized by some or 4 years as a 1980’s global study suggests, there is a critical moment in your relationship that requires either a fight or flight response. The situation is quite normal. There is no evidence that emphatically demonstrates that humans, as a species, have a predisposition to be monogamist. Perhaps you are not built for monogamy. Maybe you need a new situation every 4 years or so to be content and happy in your relationships. Or you’ve made the conscious and rational choice to pair-bond for life. It takes a rational decision to assess whether or not the benefits of the relationship outweigh the cost and effort it takes to maintain it. There is a reason why sites like Ashley Madison and others exist…there is no shortage of business for them. These sites do more than provide a forum for discreet adulterous behavior. They prey on peoples frustrations and exploit the cracks in the relationships of those who struggle to navigate the often bumpy road of relationship management.
Don’t be a victim of the pitfalls. Understand where you are in your relationship and be ready to Man Up Hominids and get to work.