When I got married, someone, instead of congratulating me, told me that they would congratulate me after 7 years. I didn’t know about the “seventh year crisis” then, although that kind of “expiration date” kept spinning around in my mind as if it were a prophecy. Today, almost 15 years later, I can affirm that we have overcome that “obstacle.” However, many couples do not achieve this.
The seventh year crisis refers to a phenomenon that began to be observed in the 1980s and 1990s in different countries, from the United States to China to Finland. Despite social and cultural differences, psychologists and sociologists found that many divorces occurred between the first 5 and 8 years. Why? Is there any psychological factor that could explain it?
From stages of stability to phases of change in life
The explanation, at least in part, must be sought in the way we evolve at the individual level. In the late 60s, psychologist Daniel J. Levinson began a multi-year study to understand the different phases of life we go through. He discovered that there is a kind of universal progression in adulthood that manifests itself quite faithfully in most people.
He confirmed that there are transitional or change periods, which usually last between 4 or 5 years and that serve to connect the elements of the past life with the structure of the future life. They are bridges or overlapping zones towards periods of greater stability.
He also found that subsequent periods of stability last between 6 and 8 years. In these phases we commit, put down roots and pursue the objectives we had set during the change phase. Curiously, this period of stability coincides with the average duration of many marriages, marking the beginning of the crisis of the seventh year.
From the “honeymoon” to the routine of coexistence
Relationships also go through different stages. At first, we all go through the phase of falling in love where we see everything rosy. During that “honeymoon” we are convinced that the other is our half and we do not notice his/her defects since love is blind, literally.
During this stage, the relationship is characterized by a high level of satisfaction. However, very soon both have to start putting their feet on the ground and negotiate day to day life. The couple must establish – explicitly and/or implicitly – the rules and routines that will provide some stability, order and security. This way you won’t have to continually negotiate all the details, like who takes out the trash, how often you have dinner with your parents, or who you spend Christmas with.
It should be noted that some couples never overcome this stage. They argue continually because they cannot match their expectations or mesh their lifestyles. In fact, studies suggest that marital satisfaction decreases significantly after the first year, which is mainly due to the friction and conflicts generated by living together.
Research carried out at the University of Liverpool found that most models agree that from the age of 5 to 7 there is a greater risk of divorce, which decreases as time passes, as can be seen in the image that appears below.
Other couples manage to overcome that first obstacle by establishing a relatively satisfactory routine for both that keeps the relationship afloat. However, once those habits are established, after five, six or usually seven years, that same routine can become unbearable for one or even both people.
Signs of seventh-year crisis in a couple
Every couple and every person is different, but there usually comes a time when someone begins to question the rules, habits, and routines that have been established in the relationship. There comes a time when things that were working don’t seem to fit. What was effective becomes tedious.
The seventh year crisis refers precisely to that sensation of feeling trapped in the life we have created. We begin to realize that what we previously liked about our partner – or what we didn’t pay attention to – now drives us crazy.
The person we previously perceived as reliable, committed and firm may now seem rigid and inflexible. On the other hand, the person we considered spontaneous, fun and authentic may begin to seem thoughtless or even dramatic. We begin to see the partner, the relationship and the lifestyle built with different eyes, a more critical look.
These dissatisfactions and frustrations begin to be expressed through increasingly heated arguments or emotional distancing. Some people may even experience a kind of alienation since they do not recognize themselves in that relationship nor do they identify with their lifestyle.
It is also likely that one of the two will have an extramarital affair, which in this phase acts more like an escape valve from a situation that can be psychologically suffocating. The question that comes to mind most in the midst of the seventh year crisis is: “What am I doing here?”
Break up or distance yourself? That is the question
At a certain point, the feeling that the relationship is not working becomes compelling. The relationship no longer meets our expectations or needs, so we can begin to consider the possibility of starting over. If the dissatisfaction is very intense and the relationship does not change, the most common thing is to take the path of divorce.
However, not all couples take that path.
In other cases, instead of discussing or reconsidering the direction the relationship has taken, people simply distance themselves. They do everything they can to avoid the unpleasant emotions they experience and quiet the doubts that consume them in an attempt to maintain the status quo.
This strategy is more common when, despite the fact that emotional needs are unsatisfied, both parties feel relatively comfortable with the lifestyle they have established. Some couples resort to different distractions to avoid having to talk about their problems, such as taking care of children, progressing at work, or attending soccer games or Zumba and yoga classes.
By being busy, they avoid addressing the elephant in the room. However, this way they end up becoming two strangers under the same roof. In those cases, although the marriage is still officially valid, it has really ended.
How to avoid or overcome the crisis of the seventh year?
In reality, the seventh year crisis is not a sentence. This crisis, which can occur at any time throughout the marriage, is because we all change, so if the relationship remains static, it will no longer satisfy our needs.
The challenge is to pay attention to the relationship and the other person, making sure we are changing together, so that we can continue to look in the same direction. The loving bond must be taken care of every day. Nothing should be taken for granted.
And if you have already begun to experience the crisis of the seventh year, it is advisable that before considering divorce to start over – and probably make the same mistakes – you talk to your partner about what you are feeling. You may find that you feel the same way. Talking about what happens to you will allow you to restructure your goals, way of relating or lifestyle so that it better fits with the new life stage you are going through.
Taibbi, R. (2023) Why So Many Marriages End After 8 Years. En: Psychology Today.
Xu, Q. et. Al. (2016) Is the «seven-year itch» real? – a study on the changing divorce pattern in Chinese marriages. The Journal of Chinese Sociology; 3(17): 10.1186.
Kulu H (June 2014) Marriage duration and divorce: the seven-year itch or a lifelong itch?. Demography (Review); 51 (3): 881–893.
Lavner, J. A., & Bradbury, T. N. (2010). Patterns of change in marital satisfaction over the newlywed years. Journal of Marriage and Family; 72: 1171-1187.
Levinson, D. J. (1986). A conception of adult development. American Psychologist; 41(1): 3–13.