My husband and I are leading a Bible study with mostly newlywed couples. After a few weeks, we noticed how often we referred to the seven-year-something . . . itch? pit? slump? The other couples in the group started nervously teasing about what terrible blockade may lay in their marriage journey.
Is the seven-year-itch a real thing? If so, are you doomed to bump into it? And why does it happen in the seventh year?
While the seven-year-itch isn’t predictable enough to set your calendar by, some version of it seems to exist in most marriages. I can’t be sure that it was year seven when we hit ours, but it was pretty close. In fact, for a few months, I thought I would never again be qualified to teach on marriage again. My husband and I may not have been itching, but we also weren’t “clicking.”
Some couples say that their romance died in year four or that they couldn’t stand each other by year nine. But almost every marriage experiences a wall in intimacy that seems to make them rethink their vows.
Where Does the Itch Come From?
Chronologically, the seventh year typically represents the presence of young children in the home. Around this time of family life, demands are high and resources are limited. The couple is trying to navigate who takes care of a sick kid, how to make ends meet on a tight budget, and how to succeed at work when your spouse and kids need you at home. Both husband and wife feel exhausted, overworked, and underappreciated. Whether they say it out loud or not, they both wonder, “What about my life? What happened to my dreams? I feel like I woke up in someone else’s life.”
Because time, energy, and money are short, a couple in this stage of marriage rarely has a chance to enjoy each other. When they laugh together, it’s probably because one of the kids said something funny. They’ve become “mom and dad” and forgotten how to be “husband and wife.” Great sex might happen once a year. Realistically, you’re never both “in the mood” at the same time, which also never happens to be when the children are quiet and don’t need you. Advice like, “Go on a date night once a week” sounds good but seems impossible to implement.
The lack of fun, intimacy, and sex leaves you both open to temptation. A coworker compliments you or laughs at your jokes and you realize that he’s a lot more fun to be around than your husband. Or you might get curious about the guy you dated in high school and look him up on Facebook. This gets you wondering what life could have been like with someone else.
In addition to the stresses of life also comes the thought that your marriage isn’t going to get any better. For a few years, you can psych yourself into believing that your husband will change. You attribute those irritating habits and frustrating faults to immaturity. But now it starts to hit you: this is the rest of your life. If he hasn’t paid the electric bill on time by now, he probably never will.
Can We Avoid It?
Does all of this sound pretty bleak? Maybe you’ve only been married for four years, but I’ve just talked you out of marital bliss. You don’t have to think of the seven-year-itch like a doomsday that you are inevitably marching toward. And even if you hit these predictable road bumps, they don’t have to derail intimacy.
Here are five practical things you can do to protect your marriage through the first decade:
1. Have a Mentor Couple or Counselor
As wonderful as it may be to have a group of friends who are in your stage of life, you also need to interact with people further down the road. I have a few friends who are in the crazy years of raising young kids. Being with them always reminds me of the stress of that season. I keep telling them to “hang on.” Our boys are now teens and young adults. This means Mike and I can can spend lots of time together without being interrupted or worrying about a toddler playing in the toilet. With the luxury of time together, we remember how to have fun and be Mike and Juli again.
Being with older couples will give you perspective. You’ll begin to realize that this is just a season. Couples with young children often just feel like they are trying to survive. They don’t have the money or energy to “work on” marriage. They just want to make it through the day without a crisis. Friends that have already traveled down this road can share with you how they survived and even grew through the challenges.
2. Focus on the Positives
When marriage gets difficult, your mind will automatically dwell on what’s wrong with your spouse. You may daydream about “what could have been” if you had married another person or even stayed single. Many sinful patterns begin with an ungrateful heart. Instead of recognizing God’s goodness, we can’t get past our disappointments. One of the best pieces of advice I was given through this season is to “count my blessings.” Get a thankful journal and write in it one thing a day that you love about your husband. Your heart will follow where your mind is committed to dwell.
If you are dieting, your success rate will be much higher if you avoid bakeries, ice cream shops and fast food. By staying away, you don’t give yourself a chance to be tempted by the smell of french fries or baking bread. This same principle applies to your marriage. If you don’t want to get burned, stay away from any source of fire. Knowing that your marriage is in a vulnerable place, resist the urge to flirt with a coworker or get in touch with an old flame.
Take it a step further and ask someone to keep you accountable. Have someone in your life who has permission to ask you tough questions.
4. Build in Breaks
When we had young kids, my husband was constantly asking me to go away with him. He wanted me to go on one of his business trips to a fun city or just to escape to a local resort for a weekend. As much as we needed the break, I felt that my kids needed me more.
I remember one trip we took when our oldest boys were two and four. My mom dropped us off at the airport and the kids were screaming with a death grip on me. “Please, Mommy! Please don’t go!” I cried the entire flight and felt tremendously guilty. Then I slept for 15 hours straight. My husband and I had a great time reconnecting and the kids somehow survived without us.
5. Learn to Say No
My dad always talked to me about my “golden apples.” I’m not sure where he got the phrase, but my golden apples represented my time and energy. He’d say, “Juli, watch your golden apples. You don’t have very many so be careful where you spend them.”
During this season of your marriage, your “golden apples” are very precious. In order to spend them wisely, you will need to say no to many worthwhile things. You might need to say no to lunch with friends, to volunteering at church, or to having an organized house. Some day, you will have more time and energy to say yes to these things, but not today.
Devote your golden apples toward the areas where God has clearly given you stewardship: your marriage and your children. If you invest well in these critical relationships, years from now, you will have the strength and wisdom to contribute to your church, friends, and community.
This advice was really difficult for me to accept as a young mom. I had just earned my doctorate degree and found myself changing diapers and making PB and J sandwiches. Friends told me that I was wasting my education and ability. But had I not invested my “golden apples” into Mike and the boys then, I would have very little to say about marriage and family today.
Marriage is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. There will be stretches in every relationship that feel like it’s not worth it. But if you have committed yourself to “finishing the race,” you’ll push through the wall, knowing that it will be well worth it in the end.