Previously, I talked about rebirths and change in another article (check that out here!). This time, I want to discuss the rebirths and changes that happen as part of being a couple — especially couples who go through and have to deal with the Seven Year Itch. What tips can help us deal with this difficult time? Life is already difficult dealing with changes yourself, what if the two of you change at the same time? Just as we are born and reborn many times over in our lives, our relationships are born and reborn many times over as well. The dynamics, for sure, is difficult, but it is navigable. What if we change life directions? What if one of you decides to change career, or gets promoted, or has to move to another city (or country, like we did!) because of work? Those are the clearer external changes in a couple’s or a family’s life. I will write about dealing with these external changes in a longer article. It’s a project I’m working on and I’m excited to share it with you sometime in the next few months.
For today, I will talk about the more subtle changes: the changes in character and behaviour that naturally happen as a person gets older, but becomes complicated because the person is in a relationship.
The Seven Year Itch
The Seven Year Itch states that happiness in a relationship declines after around year seven of marriage, which explains why the median duration of marriages that end in divorce or separation is around 7 years (to be more accurate, in 1922, it was 6.6 years; in 1974, the median duration was 7.5 years; in 1990 the median duration was 7.2 years; in the 2000s, it is also roughly seven years.)
Every major relationship transition (being friends to lovers, to being engaged, to being married, to living together, and then having kids) brings with it the requisite stress and anxiety that naturally come with usual transitions. A full cycle usually happens in seven years (thus the term “The Seven-Year Itch”). So you have to look at seven year cycles in your relationships because the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th years are critical years.
Dealing with the Seven Year Itch:
1. Acknowledge that changes are inevitable to life
When you ask people who are long-married, they will tell you that they’re no longer the same people who got into the relationship in the first place. You can also ask them if their original (external) plans actually happened — you know, those plans of having a house, where to live, how many kids to have, etc. 8 out of 10 times, they’ll laugh at you (or probably even ask you, “Plans? What plans?”). In fact, the most successful couples I know actually told me, “We did not even have bank savings! For so many years, it seemed like we were just surviving, but really, we were going with life’s flow.” Life’s flow, they explained, has to do with dealing with changes. Change in relationships is inevitable because relationships are a combination of two people with separate histories and backgrounds. When people say a person is the summary of the five people closest to us, that circle inevitably includes our significant other; and this means the person who started off in the relationship is no longer the same person 2, 5, 7 years down the road. Go ahead and test it yourself — talk to someone you haven’t seen in a long time and ask that person if they notice anything different with you. There’s a 90% chance they’ll notice something different with you from behaviour or even a character standpoint.
And change is not just good, it is inevitable. The faster you realise this, the better you will be in dealing with it.
2. Changes — the external kind — are actually much easier to accept and deal with than the internal changes: Manage those external changes first and don’t confuse the two.
There are external issues that may or may not be a symptom of a deeper pattern in your relationship. External changes can be dealt with with the right amount of logistical skill — either through becoming more efficient, or fixing schedules, or managing budgets better. I know a couple who were on the brink of separation because the wife decided to change jobs and it brought such a strain on their schedules that they became so busy and could not spend quality time anymore. At first they thought that they were becoming more and more incompatible.
After two date night meetings, they realised they wanted to stay together and resolved to isolate the problem by not letting it get out of hand. They used a logistical solution to solve a logistical problem. They got a maid, scheduled more regular dates in that one day a week their schedules could fit, made breakfasts a special time, and watched Netflix more often. Sometimes we over-catastrophise issues that come up as indicative of incompatibility of persons when it’s really just an issue of incompatibility of schedules.
3. Make your standards and expectations more concrete. Avoid moving standards.
This is where many couples stumble and reach points of no return. A lot of couples are not able to communicate their expectations well to their partners and they feel aggrieved because of perceived slights. In fact, that’s all expectations are — EXPECTATIONS. Someone once said that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. This is only partly true. According to Donald Baucom (of the University of North Carolina Couple’s Lab), high expectations actually lead to overall better relationships. People get what they expect. So couples with low expectations tend to be in relationships where they are treated poorly, and couples with high expectations tend to be in relationships where they are treated well.
It is EXPECTATIONS NOT COMMUNICATED WELL that lead to resentments. So verbalise those expectations!
4. We do not have CONTROL over what EXACTLY changes in our partner. But we can remain patient as they navigate the internal and external changes that lead to growth and integration.
There is a cognitive block when it comes with dealing with a partner changing — specially when it seems the partner is changing for the worse. It is as if the only change a partner is ALLOWED in a relationship is change for the better — and usually according to our personal standards of “better”. It is this personal standard that has led to many breakups during the seven year itch.
Of course, there are legit grievances, specially those that deal with infidelity, or psychological (and physical) abuse. Nobody has to go through that, and those have to be dealt with separately.
But however we want to control another person’s life, we cannot know for sure. We can influence, but not control everything. The change happens through osmosis and what we desire (what we verbalise) may not be the change that happens in our partner.
But we can take the changes in ourselves and our partner as indicative of growth and integration. I believe we are constantly moving towards a fuller version of ourselves. And like the process of moulting into new skin, it is painful, stressful and seemingly negative.
5. Be Aware that Changes are always CO-CREATED. You affect the change happening in your partner.
You have to realise: You ARE part of and are (usually) the biggest reason for a partner’s change. Whether you agree or not, whether you are aware of it or not, you cause change in your partner- sometimes you make your partner better, sometimes you make your partner worse. So one of the most important questions to ask when you see a change in your partner is “What changed in our relationship? How did I bring about this change?” Change between couples is always co-created by you, by the environment, and by the people you deal with.
We have the capacity to change the people around us, especially our significant other. This capacity is actually not a skill, it is merely the effect of two people being together: a relationship mutual osmosis. Inevitably, we become what we behold. We become who we live with. Couples who have lived long enough even begin to physically resemble each other, in some cases, even wrinkles come out in the same places on a couple’s face — where a couple’s history is literally written on their faces, after having gone through common experiences of pains and joys together. Of course, the change is not just skin-deep. We literally and figuratively become more and more like the person we love.
So to say after seven years, “you’re not the person I fell in love with,” is not just a correct statement, it is the truth! Yes, the person you are with now, is no longer the same person you fell in love with 7 years ago! If he or she was with you, then I hope he HAS changed. If the person is not more like you, and you are not more like him, then you have to ask whether you have a real relationship. People who do not change are not in a real relationship — they’re probably just faking it the whole time!
The couples who survive the 7-year itch are those who are able to understand that change is inevitable and are able to flow with the changes, are able to use their management skills on external changes and can separate logistical difficulties from emotional issues, are able to verbalise their expectations clearly, are able to let go of control, and have a longer, more patient, view of their relationships, and are able to see change as a friend and not an enemy. When you’re able to do this, then the 7-year cycles that a couple goes through become exciting transition points in their journey to growth and fullness of life!
You have a minute? You might also find these interesting:
- How Psychology and Spirituality are Two Sides of the Same Coin
- Three Practices to Celebrate Your Day
- Volo Ergo Sum
- First Two Steps to Creating Resilience
- Turning the Other Cheek