Scratching the 7-Year Itch

Keys to maintaining relationships over the long haul

Posted Oct 23, 2011

Steve and Megan met and fell in love while in college. They both shared the same sense of humor, both were politically liberal, but Steve was outgoing while Megan was shy. Steve saw Megan's quietness as intriguing and comforting, Megan admired Steve's ability to reach out to strangers, and even enjoyed his dragging her to parties that she would never go to alone. There was a physical chemistry between them, but also a psychological one shaped by their childhood experiences, past dating relationships, and emotional needs at that point in time.

When they met, each, like every couple, had something at the top of their list of needs. Megan, for example, had recently ended a relationship with a controlling abusive boyfriend, and she constantly worried about her depressed, withdrawn father; what she appreciated the most is Steve's gentle humor and support. Steve was still emotionally reeling from the recent death of his mother; Megan's quietness reminded him of her, and this, in turn, allowed him to open up and grieve. They were probably were not fully of aware of these needs at the time, or fully able to articulate what they felt, but had you asked them what most attracted them to each other, these are the elements they would claim.

And so they got married. They unconsciously made a psychological deal: I will give you this (my outgoingness, my energy and humor) if you give me that (your quiet support). In the first year of marriage, they worked out routines and rules about how they would live together: who would take out the garbage, who would initiate sex, how often they would see Megan's parents, what they do when they got angry - all those things needed to stay sane and create a somewhat settled life.

They also fine-tuned their vision of their relationship and future: Both work to save money to buy a house. Have a child or two. Megan could stay home or work part time. Steve would commute to the city and focus on climbing up the career ladder. Good to go.

Except things begin to change. By year 6, or 7 there is a shift. They find themselves moving into parallel lives with Steve working until 8:00 most nights, Megan spending Saturdays with the kids or visiting her mother. The time they spend time together often seems boring or too routine. And what was most attractive now turns into an annoyance. Steve's outgoingness now seems to Megan a distraction, his humor now seems to slide into a cruel sarcasm, while Megan's quietness now seems to Steve like indecision, a passivity that is driving him crazy.

There is tension - they argue over parenting, or money, or in-laws - and the arguments rarely lead to a true understanding or solution. Each "tries" and gives in for a time, only to collapse in frustration, or they silently agree to emotionally just sweep the issue under the rug. Things are not working as well as they used to. Both sense a growing gap - between the routines and rules and even the vision that hammered out at year one - and who they are now as individuals.

What has happened is that the relationship contract has run out because the relationship has been successful. They each gave the other what they needed and filled the emotional holes. Steve no longer misses his mother or needs one; Megan, thanks to Steve, is no longer so timid or fearful. They both have changed; something else is now at the top of their need list. They each feel cramped within the box of the life they have created and are living.

This is the point that some couples decide to divorce (the average length of marriage in the U.S. for couples who divorce first-time is 7.8 years). The cramped box they are living in is scraped to be eventually replaced by a new one. Others too frightened to take this step try and distract themselves from the feelings and the emotions. Steve may take a promotion that takes him out of town 3 days a week; Megan may find herself in an affair with the neighbor across the street; both may decide that it is time to get another dog or buy that cottage on the lake and spend the weekends teaching the kids to water ski. Or they may focus on a comfortable problem - they become child centered and both worry about Tommy's school performance or offer Megan's newly divorced sister and her kids to come live with them.

The challenge for any couple is being able to change the relationship to fit the ever-changing needs of each partner. How do we do that? Some guidelines:

Keep communication open. This does not mean having the essentially the same conversation every evening about your day. It means pushing yourself not to bite your tongue, to say what is on your mind. Too many couples constantly walk on eggshells or wind up using distance to avoid conflict. This only leads to building resentment or disconnection.

Solve problems as they arise. After a big argument it's all too easy to just make-up and sweep the issue under the rug, rather than circling back and trying one more time to put the problem to rest. But if you don't, it becomes just another land mine that you have to carefully walk around. If you're always looking down at your where your stepping, you never can really look at each other.

Keep your ear close to yourself. Or really look at yourself. Moving too fast, going on auto-pilot can make it difficult to hear the early creaking sounds of change inside you. Periodically slow down, assess the State of You, update your need list and vision of the future. Then share it with your partner.

Update your vision as a couple. What do you both envision in the next year, five years, ten years? Again, the key here is being open and honest, not polite and vague. It's not so important what you say as you both have the ability to say it. This is what will help you both narrow the gap between your daily life and your inner needs.

Make it a 3-some. Finally, if any of this seems too difficult or overwhelming, get help. Even a few sessions with a counselor or minister may provide a both safe place for getting these important issues on the table, and someone who can help ask the hard questions.

And that's what success over the long haul is about - having the courage to ask the hard questions and together see what happens next.