In the beginning of our relationship, my then boyfriend, now husband, Zachary, and I couldn’t spend enough time together. We would go out every weekend on entire day and evening long dates. Movies, mall trolling, talking, talking, talking, and nice moments of being together in silence and being completely content and happy: this was how we jelled.
Since we met in July, this time of year I usually think back to the beginning. This year I realized that we have been together for seven years, which made me think of “the seven year itch.” I knew of a movie by the same title, that I had never seen, and I knew of a Roseanne Cash song that was a play on the phrase. And I knew that this phrase refers to a state of discontent that couples can find themselves in after being together for seven years.
I kind of started panicking a bit, wondering if maybe this was a real thing, that some couples might have a timer set on their relationship and that once seven years hits it’s all just over with for them? And what if we were one of those couples?
We were no longer the carefree couple we used to be. Sometimes as a very tired, exhausted (did I mention tired?) mother, I neglected to spend any time at all with Zach. After the birth of our second daughter the vibe of our household seemed to take on a completely different life. We loved our little Alice from the beginning, but honestly, two children and a husband always away at work was just too overwhelming. I remember doing all the “necessary to live” type of things for my children, Zach, and myself, but I really can’t remember the last ten months too clearly. (That’s right, Alice is ten months old now, and it’s still overwhelming. But I think a lot of us feel this way, whether or not we allow ourselves to admit it to anyone, including ourselves.)
I wasn’t the only one feeling overwhelmed. I could tell that Zach was seeming kind of depressed after working 16-18 hour days at the factory but he wouldn’t talk to me about it for a couple of months. It caused him to be snappy with me and so I became even shorter with him. Then one day it came to a head when we he was playing video games on his day off work. I felt it was not fair, because I never got a day off from being an every-two-hour breastfeeding new mother. I demanded that he stop and watch our older daughter so I could go take a shower. Out of Zach, who had never raised his voice to me before, came an angry yell: “Well someone’s gotta work around here and today’s my day off!” He was just as tired as I was.
At this point I didn’t need the research to know that, as one study found, “couples often began their unions with high levels of marital quality, but that it appeared to decrease twice: once rather steeply over the first four years and again after about seven” and that “couples with children experienced a more rapid decline in the quality of their marriage.” I knew this from experience. Life is stressful, childrearing is stressful, negotiation, compromise, even waking up is stressful at times.
Relationships start as a wide-open beautiful field, but as time goes on, stress, financial burdens, health, and children get thrown onto that relationship, and before you know it that field has become a landfill. If you don’t take that time and effort to sort through the landfill of your relationship, then eventually, the pile of relationship waste will be so huge that it becomes an avalanche that leaves nothing to be seen of the former beautiful field that was your relationship.
The good news is that the relationship landfill can be cleaned up if you put the time and effort into it. The research also shows that there are things couples can do to keep their marital quality high despite stress.
I can clearly remember that about a month ago I put into effect a conscious decision to spend one solid hour, once a week for Zach and I to just be alone and be happy. That time is never as soon as he gets home from work–he’s always too tired by that point–but that’s another area that I make a compromise. The hour that we get is usually on a Sunday, after our children have gone to sleep, and I know I should be going to sleep if I want a solid six hours without being woken up; but I forgo that, to touch base with Zach and to try to remember who we are.
And that time Zach raised his voice? We responded by cleaning up our mess of an argument, together. First off, we’re grateful that we trust each other enough to bring our issues out in the open and to honestly tell each other what we’re thinking even if it’s not so nice. But we also realized that we needed to calm down, which we did by putting ourselves in each other’s shoes and taking a walk outside. It’s easier to get over anger when you start thinking about how the other person is feeling and the stresses and pressures they are facing. And there’s nothing like the natural endorphins released during exercise and some fresh air to help you calm down and broaden your perspective.
All that to say, I don’t need to be afraid of the “seven year itch.” Experts disagree about whether it is even a real thing. Jennifer Nagy, author of The Seven-Year Itch: Fact or Fiction? concludes that “the seven-year itch is certainly not a proven phenomenon. Most experts have simply agreed to disagree.” My take away? A relationship can fail at anytime, from the very beginning onward. But that’s no reason to fearfully wait around for lighting to strike or an avalanche to end your marriage. We don’t have to expect the worst.
Instead, the key is to make the good happen. Every day that we wake is a day that we have an opportunity to enjoy life and to appreciate the beautiful, perfectly imperfect, intertwining, thorny vines that wrap around us—to recognize the good amidst the bad. In the middle of an argument, you can make the good happen by empathizing with the other person. In the middle of a diaper change, you can make the good happen by smiling at your baby instead of grumbling. In the middle of exhaustion, just keeping your eyes open is a way to make the good happen, a way to say “I love you” and “I am sacrificing for you because of that love.”
That is the work of marriage. And when Zach and I pause to look at the good we have already made together—the house settled into place on that once wide-open field, the children picking dandelions and running in delight—we see that it’s all worth it.