- Statistics show that the average length of first marriages when couples divorce is eight years.
- The underlying dynamic is that our needs have changed, and the structure we've built no longer fits us.
- The key is paying attention to restlessness and using it as information to update the relationship contract.
According to the census bureau, the average length of first marriages for divorcing couples is 8.2 years, reflecting the infamous "seven-year-itch." But why seven instead of, say, 11 or 15? Good question. Here’s the thinking.
Adult development moves in roughly seven-year blocks.
It’s a given that we not only change as we move through our adult lives, but as researchers such as Levinson, Vaillant, and Sheehy have found, there’s something about that six to 10-year zone: roughly seven years of stability and then two to three years of restlessness and transition before settling into the next stage. Sometimes the focus is on work and career—needing to take that job in Chicago—sometimes about aging and long-term plans, sometimes about working through your childhood and your relationship with parents—but sometimes it's about your intimate relationship.
In the Beginning
When you first fell in love, you psychologically needed something in your life—to get away from your parents, have stability or a baby, to feel important or cared for. While often never directly talked about, the other person provided this. You unconsciously made a deal: I’ll give you your number one thing, and you give me mine.
Building a Life
In the first couple of years, you build a life with rules and routines together, so you have stability and do not have to invent your life anew every day: Who takes out the trash, how often does my mother come over for dinner, who initiates sex? Some couples never get through this stage—they argue about lifestyle and expectations and get divorced—but most of us make it.
But five, six, seven, or eight years in, one of the (or usually both) partners gets restless. The life they've built with its rules and routines is no longer working or fits. Why? Because your partner did a great job filling that year-one need—you left home, have stability or a baby, felt needed—and now your needs have changed. But you’re stuck in this box of a life you’ve created, and what you often most liked about the other person is now driving you crazy: The solid, steady, grounding one now seems rigid and controlling; the spontaneous, fun-loving one is a bit too dramatic.
Break Out or Distract
This is the seven-year itch. Couples start arguing or pulling away. Someone has an affair. The underlying message is: “This is not working; I’m outta here. Starting over,” and they divorce. And two or three years later, they remarry and start the process all over again.
Or, instead of arguing, they don’t. They do their best to sidestep all these emotions and embrace distractions, focusing on kids—10 soccer games a week, ballet lessons—downshifting from being a couple to only being mom and dad. Or they focus on jobs and careers, working 80 hours a week to get that promotion, or they distract with something else—starting a dog kennel or buying a boat and waterskiing every weekend. If you go the distraction route, like those who divorce, you’re good for maybe another eight years—till the kids turn teenagers and your parenting is winding down, till you get that promotion and are bored or burnt out from your job and heading into your big midlife crisis. The restlessness and feeling trapped in the box of your life rears its head again.
It sounds depressing, but not inevitable. Instead of divorce or distraction, the challenge is to pay attention to that restlessness and those emotions and use them as information, helping you to take stock and see what you need now. Yes, you’ve grown out of the box of a life you’ve created, but you don’t need to start over from scratch or endure. Instead, you want to upgrade the relationship contract from year one. Decide what you each need to change—less heavy lifting and more teamwork, less feeling dismissed and more being heard, less frantic a lifestyle and more a settled one, more intimacy and sex.
And if you need help sorting out what you need, or can’t have these conversations easily on your own, get support from a therapist, a minister, or someone. These are important crossroads in your psychological life. Don’t go down the wrong path.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Facebook image: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock
U.S. Census Bureau (2021). Number, timing, and duration of marriages and divorces 2016. Washington, D.C.
Levinson, D. (1986). The seasons of a man's life. New York: Ballantine.
Vaillant, G. (2015). Triumphs of experience. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Sheehy, G. (2006). Passages: Predictable crises of adult life. New York: Ballantine.
Taibbi, R. (2017). Doing couple therapy, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.