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5 Key Crossroads in Any Long-Term Relationship

Like it or not, our relationships change over time and challenge us.

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As demographers and sociologists are ready to point out, our long-term relationships are challenged unlike those before simply because they are long-term. Whereas for millennia, couples had a relatively short time together due to shorter lifespans and greater medical risks, couples for the last 100 hundred years or so are doubling and tripling what our ancestors ever had to navigate.

But those same demographers and sociologists are also likely to point out that many of our challenges are developmental—we know more now than ever about how people change over the life cycle.

Here are five of the most common challenges that couples face:

1. The first year

You might think this would be one of the easiest of times, but if you've gone through this transition period from single to married or living together, the challenges are real. And statistically we know that many couples barely make it out of the gate: Kim Kardashian, with her 72-day marriage, is a poster child for how difficult this can be. Why? Because there’s all the negotiating, that melding of lifestyles and preferences and habits. As the glow of oxytocin begins to naturally wear off, everyday life rears its head and normal cracks in the relationship begin to show.

The challenge of this first year is developing routines and rules of engagement that work for both: How much time do we spend as a couple, as individuals, at our jobs? Who cooks? How do we divide up expenses? How often do we have sex, and who decides? How often will my parents come over for dinner? Tough stuff, life is in the details. And if you can’t sort this out, you’re likely to get out of the relationship.

And if your relationship is a rebound from a previous one with little time to settle, these first-year challenges are amplified. Suddenly you come out of the grief of your past relationship; you wake one day and realize that in your desire to find your un-ex, you overshot the mark, and through a now-clearer lens, you see your new partner for who they really are. While the realization is good, working through it can be difficult. Can you? Sure, but it’s an added challenge on top of your first-year one.

2. The seven-year itch

Most of us make it through that first year, and we do a good enough job of building a coupled life. We’ve worked through who takes out the trash or pay the bills; the sex maybe has fallen into a routine, but it’s good enough. And now there are kids, who are both a relationship glue and a new source of challenges. All that negotiation you had to do in year one, you have to do again around middle-of-the-night wake-ups, staying home with a sick child, pick-ups, drop-offs, and play dates.

But those challenges can usually get worked out (after the sleep deprivation is repaired). But around five, six, or seven years into the relationship, there is a psychological shift that isn't about kids or job stress. There’s a restlessness, arguments flare up about dishes left in the sink, shoes left in the living room. There's a sense by one, but usually both partners, that things aren’t working as well as they were.

What’s not working? The problem here is a developmental one. When the couple hooked up seven years earlier, what they essentially did is cut a psychological deal. Each had something on the top of his or her list that they each needed, and what they essentially agreed to do when they became committed is to give the other person their one thing—stability, a baby, a way to get away from home, whatever. And it worked—over the six or seven years, they gave the other person what they needed, they did a good job of building a box of life with all its routines and rules.

But now the partners are beginning to outgrow the box because they each have changed over that time. The thing they each needed at year one they no longer need, because the other person did a good job of supplying it. And what they likely most liked about the other person has now warped and is driving them crazy: The strong leader is now a control freak; the fun-loving, spontaneous one is now flakey and irresponsible. So, the couple starts arguing or starts to pull away. And the risk of divorce is high: seven years is when most people in the U.S. get divorced the first time, average age 30.

Some couples obviously work through this—they are able to renegotiate their contract, bring it up to date with their current needs. But many don’t, and if they don’t get divorced, what they often do instead is distract themselves from their couple problems. They have another child or throw themselves into the kids' activities and become child-centered. Or they become work-centered with someone taking that job out of town and coming back home on Friday. They buy a boat and spend every weekend at the lake. A couple of problems go underground.

3. The children leave home

As the children begin to move towards greater independence—the being able to drive in high school, the going off to college or moving out of the house to live with friends—and hopefully getting fully launched, you would think that the couple has a golden opportunity to settle back into their couple life. They are not as distracted by kids, they likely are still healthy, have the most money they’ve ever had. But again, the opportunity can easily turn into a challenge.

The couple that was child-centered and more Mom and Dad than Ann and Tom now stare at each other across the dining room table. They don’t have kids as a distraction and buffer, and all those issues that were swept under the rug around Year Seven come back to haunt them. But wait, there’s more: Now we can add the midlife crisis. One or both of them realize that they have about 20 good years left, and they start asking themselves if they want to keep doing for the next 20 what they did for the last 20. A lot of folks say no.

4. Traumatic events

These can happen at any point in the life cycle, but they always challenge the couple in new ways. Here we are talking about the death of a child or the wearing down of dealing with a disabled child, bankruptcy, serious debilitating illness in one of the partners, an addiction that continues beyond the other person’s breaking point. These are psychologically and emotionally challenging, because each person grieves or handles stress differently; small tears in the fabric of the relationship grow wider under the stress. The couple argues more, or they pull away each into their own silos or divorce. Or not, and are able to support each other, work as a team, and are able to get through.

5. Old age

According to the Pew Research Foundation, the divorce rates of adults over 50 have doubled since the 1990s. Just when you think folks would want to settle into old age with their companions, some folks see it as the last chance to break out. Maybe they missed the opportunity at the midlife mark and instead did another round of sweeping problems under the rug, or maybe things were really going OK. But now it’s time to go for broke: One partner finds a retirement village somewhere and moves out; one has an unexpected affair. Or not, and they either work through it or settle, feeling that it’s good enough or too difficult to start over.

So, what is the moral of the story? That our needs change over time, our view of the span of our lives and the opportunities we feel we have or don’t have shape what we do or don’t do at each crossroads. That big life events, often outside of our control, can strain and test our relationship and ourselves.

Is divorce a bad thing? Is staying together a virtue? Like most things in life, the answer depends on your own values, your role models and their impact on you, and for many is a moving target that shifts as we go through our lives. But maybe the biggest lesson here is that challenges, the crossroads, come with the territory of simply living our lives.

In spite of ourselves, we and our relationships are made to change.