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The Myth of the Seven-Year Itch --
and Why it's Actually a FOUR-Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe's film "The Seven-Year Itch" perpetuated the idea that many married people get restless seven years into their marriage. Is it true that just around that seven-year mark men and women across the country start longing for infidelity, or at least a little something to spice up their marriage?

It may not happen this fast, but a leading expert says that American marriages hit a hurdle after the "infatuation phase" ends (that's after just two to three years!).

As it turns out, the "itch" is certainly there, but it happens a lot sooner for most of us -- after just four years of matrimony.

Part of Our Biology?

According to Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, and author of "Why We Love," it's because of "biological programming" that people get antsy after four years.

She has studied over 60 groups of people, from various cultures around the world (including Australian Aborigines, the Gainj of New Guinea and the Netsilik Eskimos), only to find some striking similarities ...

"People around the world tend to divorce during and around the fourth year of marriage," Fisher says.

The reason, she explains, has not to do with our hidden passions and desires, but rather is simply an expression of our biological desire to reproduce. Fisher says:

"As it turns out, the standard period of human birth spacing was originally four years. We were built to have our children four years apart and I think that this drive to pair up and stay together at least four years evolved millions of years ago so that a man and a woman would be drawn together and stay together, tolerate each other, at least long enough to rear a single child through infancy."

The tabloids, too, seem to bear this out. Just ask Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, Lance Armstrong and his wife, Kristin, or Madonna and Sean Penn. All of these couples divorced after four years of marriage.

A key part of keeping your marriage strong is saying nice things. Happy couples say at least five times as many positive things about their relationship than negative things -- even while they're arguing.

However, there is a slight, somewhat disheartening, caveat. If you break the statistics down further to include just Americans, the peak years for divorce are even under the four-year mark, at years two and three.

"Perhaps it is no coincidence that the American divorce peak corresponds perfectly with the normal duration of infatuation -- two to three years," Fisher says.

If you do make it past the four-year mark (or at least the two- and three-year marks), you're in luck. Divorce rates decline gradually with each year of marriage that goes by, according to Fisher.

What to Do if You're Feeling an "Itch" in Your Marriage

In order for any marriage to succeed, both partners must be willing to put in the effort needed to keep things fresh, fair and fulfilling. If you hit a snag along the way, and most people do, the following tips from respected marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, author of The Relationship Cure, can help to keep your marriage strong.

  • If you're having problems, seek help right away. The average couple waits six years before seeking marital counseling, according to Gottman, which means they're living unhappily for far too long.

  • Keep critical things to yourself. "Editing yourself" sometimes is a key secret of happy couples.

  • Talk about your problems, but do so gently and without blame. Starting a discussion with a criticism or accusation is a surefire way to escalate the conflict.

  • Men, accept influence from your wife. According to Gottman, a marriage can only be successful if a man can listen to and be influenced by his wife. Why? Studies show that most women easily accept influence from men, so a "true partnership" can only be formed if the man can also do this.

  • Don't accept hurtful behavior. Having high standards of how you expect to be treated helps couples stay happy in the long run.

  • Don't let arguments get out of control. The happiest couples are those who can repair an argument (by changing the topic, saying something caring or looking at the humorous side) and then let it go (by backing down, showing understanding or letting your partner know that you're in it together).

  • Say positive things. Couples in happy marriages make at least five times as many positive statements about their relationship than negative ones -- even while talking about a problem, according to Gottman.

Recommended Reading

The Top 5 Things Couples Argue About

Infidelity and Forgiveness: What The Experts Say


The Gottman Institute

Psychology Today

ABC News 20/20

The Register

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