The Seven Year Itch: What To Do When The Relationship Rot Starts To Set In

"It used to be that we were so in love, but now everything just feels like one big routine."

“We’re at that point now where we’re either going to get engaged and buy a house, or we’re going to break up,” Michelle, 29, tells me. She’s talking about her relationship with her boyfriend that’s just gone into its seventh year. “People keep asking me when he’s going to put a ring on it, and we’ve had the conversation about marriage, but deep down I’m really not sure what’s going to happen. Things used to be so passionate, and we couldn’t get enough of each other. I guess we’ve been plodding along for some time but there’s no denying we’ve hit a rut. It’s make or break time, really.”

Karen, 35, is feeling equally disillusioned about her marriage. “It used to be that we were so in love, but now everything just feels like one big routine, and I’ll admit it, I’m bored.”

This is what’s commonly known as the seven year itch; that point in a relationship or marriage where the rot starts to set in; the honeymoon stage has been and gone, routine has replaced romance and you begin to reassess where, if anywhere, your relationship is actually going. It seems even celebrities aren’t immune. Ruth Negga reportedly split from her boyfriend of eight years in April this year, while Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan shocked us all by hitting the brakes on their love story after eight years too.

So what happened? How could a relationship seemingly so passionate and loving suddenly turn cold? Channing and Jenna’s joint statement hints at itchy feet. There were no “salacious events” at the root of their split they claim, “just two best friends realising it’s time to take some space and help each other live the most joyous, fulfilled lives as possible.” Hmm.

#REGRAM from @jennaldewan: "#glaadawards #GotYourBack"

A post shared by Channing Tatum (@channingtatum) on

Biologically speaking, there is some evidence to suggest the seven year itch really is a genuine romantic turning point. Writing in the Scientific American, Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, claims that due to our reproductive pattern, we come hardwired to stay bonded “at least long enough to raise a child through infancy and early toddlerhood. us, we may have a natural weak point in our unions,” that can begin to present itself anywhere from four years in and up. In more depressing news, more recently, researchers have even claimed that, the itch can actually set in much earlier, with some suggesting relationships are doomed to failure by the time they hit two years. Better to know sooner rather than later I guess.

I wanted the expert scoop, so I ask David Kavanagh, a psychotherapist and relationships expert for his take. Why is it so many couples fall victim to this romantic quagmire? Why do many relationships end at the the point you’d expect them to be at their most secure? While David doesn’t believe that the seven year itch really exists (more so that things can stagnate at any point in a long term relationship) he does think there are some clear reasons why seemingly secure relationships can suddenly become disentangled. Turns out our expectations are in part to blame.

“People experience dissatisfaction as a result of the fantasy of what they think marriage actually is or what they expect it to be like,” he surmises. “I think a lot of people can become very discontented, especially when children come along, due to sleep deprivation and the stress. It’s not so much that seven years pass and people start getting unsettled,” he concludes, more so that the relationship doesn’t live up to the expectation and previously small irritations start to become more pronounced over time.

David reckons that our ever-busy lifestyles are also at fault. “Not having enough time both for the individual and for the couple is a big problem,” he tells me.

Life is really busy for a lot of people and that’s a major part of it. Our roles as men and women have changed radically in the last 10 or 15 years and I think that combined with higher expectations of each other has become problematic. It’s very difficult to accept a partner as he or she is, and we sometimes live in a fantasy world of what people and relationships are supposed to be like, emulating a particular lifestyle.

Like the ones we see in Hollywood or on Instagram for example.

“Then couples discover that’s not how real life is because you have to put the dishes away and do the laundry,” David adds. “It’s not very glamorous. The consumerist mentality combined with the idea of fantastical marriages makes it more difficult for people to accept their lot in life, whereas 50 years ago that wasn’t the case. They didn’t have something to compare their relationship to and find it lacking.”

Ruth Negga and her recently ex-boyfriend, Dominic Cooper

So what should you do if you’re experiencing a relationship itch? If you’re considering leaving David suggests “thinking about what life would be like if you split. Would you actually be any happier and in what way would you be happier, and why?” he asks. “What if in five years you pushed through the difficulties you’re having now and managed to come out stronger on the other side? Ask yourself what the benefits of that would be. Figuring out what life would be like and projecting into the future is very important for people,” he explains.

And if you reckon your relationship just needs a bit of a reboot?

I think seeing a therapist is very important and recognising the reality of the situation too. In other words, what are the real core issues that you have as a couple, is it that you aren’t spending enough time together, is it that one of you is focusing too much on their smartphone rather than engaging with their partner, because these things can be changed easily enough. Where there are issues like money problems, or too many children for the couple to manage, both kinds of stresses aren’t as easily managed, but I usually recommend couples to just knuckle down for a little bit and get through the tough times, rather than expecting too much from each other and the relationship.

What else can you do? Edge out some more time for each other, schedule in time for regular date nights (and sex too) and be sure to communicate.

For Linda, 33, a relationship reshuffle gave her marriage the jump start it needed. “Every week, my husband and I take time to discuss what’s working and what’s not, and to air any grievances,” she explains. “We also schedule in a big date night every fortnight, even if it’s just to share a bottle of wine and watch a movie after the kids have gone to bed. Making that quality time for each other has been such a positive thing for us.”

The good news, says David, is that the ‘itch’ doesn’t have to mean make or break for your relationship. “Usually,” he encourages, “researchers find that people, when they stick together, come out the other side of it in a better place.”

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