The Seven Year Itch - Does it Really Start after Seven Years?


Everyone has heard of the seven year itch, a popular way of referring to the idea that marriages typically tend to fall apart after seven years. However with wide ranging research on the quality of marriages and the reasons why they break up, the phenomenon of seven year itch has come under the scanner. So what is the truth and do couples really begin to fall out of love around the seventh year of their marriages?

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The idea of the seven year itch gained popular currency from an American film of the same name which was released in 1955 and starred then sex goddess Marilyn Monroe. The film is about a man content to be a husband and father for seven years when he comes across a beautiful girl and starts fantasizing about what would happen if he cheated on his wife. The fantasies spring forth from a psychologist’s book about married couples beginning to stray around the seventh year of their marriages. The title of the film was eventually adopted by popular culture as a way of referring to the declining quality of a marital relationship over time. Incidentally, the film is also famous for one of the top iconic images of 20th century cinema – Marilyn Monroe in a white halter dress which is blown above her knees by the passing of a subway train as she stands over a pavement grate.

While married couples always knew from experience that there is a cooling of passions over time, no one could say for sure when the decline began. However in recent years, researchers have been more successful in narrowing down the period of marital disillusionment to a more quantifiable time frame. Wright State University psychology professor, Lawrence Kudrek PhD., in fact says that there may be something to the popular notion of a seven year itch. In a 2000 survey of over 500 couples, Kudrek found that most married couples experience a gradual but steady decline in love during the first four years of their marriage after which the level of happiness stabilizes. However around the seventh year of marriage, the level of love and contentment once again begins to dip and this time the unhappiness is felt more keenly by the partners, often leading to an unraveling of marriage.

There are many factors which may explain the tendency of marriages to sink in quality around the seventh year. While couples may have already realized during the first four years that being married over time is far removed from the highs of dating or the honeymoon period, around seven years they might be subjecting their personal lives to a closer scrutiny. This could be because of approaching middle age or a vague fear that life is passing them by. Once a marriage is subjected to a microanalysis of gains and losses, it may seem not worth giving up so much for.

Yet another reason why couples may tend to separate around the seven years after their marriage may have to do with the additional responsibilities of bringing up kids. In his study, Kudrek found that marital pairs with biological children had lower levels of marital happiness than childless pairs or those who were living with stepchildren. This is probably because of the day-to-day stress that child rearing imparts on married couples as well as the fact that bringing up children leaves them with little quality time to spend with each other.

However later studies examining the decline in quality of marriages over time have found that there is nothing magical about the number seven. In a 2007 research carried out by Professor Kelly Musick, a sociologist with the University of South California revealed that in most cases disillusionment set in as early as three years after getting married. The research studied responses from two sets of couples – one which had been married for one to four years and the other which had been together from four to six years. The results showed that there were distinct differences between the groups with the couples in the former group claiming to be much happier in their marriages that those belonging to the latter. This led researchers to conclude that dissatisfaction besets a marriage much before seven years and the idea of the seven year itch is merely a theory.

Yet another interesting fact gleaned by researchers of Musick’s study was that the median duration of a first marriage that ended in divorce was a little more than seven years. While this may seem to confirm the notion of the seven year itch, the fact remains that couples start growing apart much before that and may take a long time to come to the decision to legally separate. However Musick’s research could not pin point the exact time when the quality of a marriage begins to decline but merely that couples begin to tire of each other much earlier than what was previously thought.

Latest research on the issue too highlights the impossibility of coming up with a precise time when marriages begin to go bad.  Results of a new study carried out this year by Grant Thornton, a British accountancy group, suggest that couples are more likely to break up after ten years or more of staying together. The research conducted on the basis of statistics gleaned by ninety big family law firms shows that the most common reasons for splitting like “falling out of love” or “growing apart” typically tend to crop up after around twelve years of being married. This comes as another nail in the coffin for the myth of the seven year itch according to Sally Longworth of the Forensic and Investigation Services department at Grant Thornton.

So, when exactly do marriages begin to unravel? It could be as early as the wedding reception, according to Professor Larry Bumpass who collaborated with Musick in the study. Or more likely when the trash has not been taken out for the third straight day or when there is not enough money to pay the bills and go on a vacation. While there can be no definite answers to the question of expiration date on marriages, the fact that marriages tend to decline in quality over passing years is now beyond doubt.