Living happily ever after is a myth… There’s no such thing as a “perfect” relationship without any ‘speedbumps’, and all couples have ups and downs that they have to work through. But what happens when it all goes REALLY wrong?

Is the 7-year-itch a real thing? Do long-term relationships really have an expiry date, or can they survive the 7-year-crisis and come out stronger?

According to marriage and divorce statistics from Stats SA, South African women are most likely to get married for the first time at age 31, while men usually tie the knot at 34. The data shows that 45% of divorces take place within the first 10 years. The majority of divorces (27.2%) happen between 5 and 9 years of marriage. Couples whose marriages lasted over 14 years were far less likely to divorce after that.

Interestingly, more women (51%) initiate divorce than men. Fewer than 7% of divorces are initiated by the couple together. The data also showed that white women (58%) were more likely to initiate divorce proceedings than black women (45%).

What’s the deal with 7 years?

The stats prove that the first 10 years are critical. They will most likely determine the longevity of the relationship.

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So what’s the deal with the 7-year-itch? Where did it come from?

The Seven Year Itch is a 1952 three-act play written by George Axelrod. It was adapted for film in 1955 and starred Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. This is most likely when the phrase entered the public mindset, and became known as the period when couples become dissatisfied or “uncomfortable” in their relationships.

Over time, the phrase has also become associated with other long-term commitments. People feel a “7-year-itch” when it comes to their careers, their homes, or where their life is at in general.

According to Michael Kallenbach, a couples therapist with consulting rooms in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, “the 7-year-itch is something to be on the lookout for.  It might not be seven years, but many couples start to think when they have young children to bring up whether this is what they signed up for. Naturally, relationships change when children come along and all the pressures that this brings with it.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. According to Kallenbach, the milestone can be an opportunity for couples to form new goals and commitments to their relationship. “I have heard of couples who want to renew their vows at the seven year mark.”

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Is it personal?

Like a “mid-life crisis” the “itch” may be a personal struggle with a work or living situation that seems all-consuming, and a long-term partner is an easy target to blame for the dissatisfaction.

“One party can be unhappy and discontent at his or her workplace and then bring the problems home only to find there isn’t a sympathetic ear available,” says Kallenbach. “It’s difficult for a spouse to always be supportive and understanding, but when couples need help and it’s not available, that’s where it can get difficult.”

All relationships go through ups and downs

The honeymoon phase at the beginning of a relationship, complete with ‘butterflies’ and exciting physical passion is not sustainable. That doesn’t mean that all relationships eventually get stale, or stuck in a rut, and couples just have to accept it. Instead of throwing it all away, filing for divorce, and starting again from scratch, this can be an opportunity for change WITHIN your relationship.

Whether this happens at five years, seven years, or ten, it’s a critical phase where you and your partner have the chance to to redefine your roles, “remodel” your relationship and create a new, more mature (but still exciting!) future with the person you’ve chosen to share life with.

“It is absolutely normal for the ‘honeymoon’ feeling to fade,” says relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist, Leandie Buys. “Just remember, it does not mean that you have fallen out of love or that your decision to spend your life with this person was the wrong one. However, to fix the situation, you first have to understand how you came to where you are now.”

“In counselling, I find that the better a couple comes to know each other, the more they ‘let themselves go’, and the more they start behaving badly. Getting comfortable around each other is great, but it becomes a problem when there’s an unspoken rule, which says ‘we do not need to put in effort anymore’. This may eventually be seen by your partner as saying: ‘You are not worth the effort anymore.’ That is where the danger lies.”

Older couples who have regular sex are happier and healthier – Research

Like a home, relationships take time and energy and resources to maintain

Every now and then, you need to “remodel” your home or your relationship to suit your current needs.

Does this sound familiar:

At the beginning of your relationship, it was just you and your partner. During the dating phase, you shared your hopes and dreams with each other, and you were both committed to making them all come true!

During the dating phase, you shared your hopes and dreams with each other, and you were both committed to making them all come true!

Then you tied the knot, and had some kids, and your careers took off, and you bought a house, and you ticked all the boxes that you thought you needed to, but now you and your partner feel like strangers living in the same house and your entire life feels like it’s stuck in a rut.

What happened?

What happened to the dreams? What happened to the connection between you two? Have you fallen out of love, or do you just need to invest some time and energy back into your relationship? Can you relight the spark?

“The most important thing for couples is to talk to each other and listen carefully to what the other person has to say,” says Kallenbach. “Couples often say they are not heard by the other party. It is extremely important to communicate with each other and find the time to talk, however busy your lives are.  If you are unable to work out a solution to your relationship, then couples therapy should be considered.”

Warning signs to look out for:

1.     Taking each other for granted

When you start to ‘expect’ things from your partner without acknowledging the effort that they put in, you might be on shaky ground. Never forget to appreciate the small things – like when your partner makes you coffee in the morning, or fetches the kids after school. And don’t forget to reciprocate with some effort from your side. You don’t have to book a holiday in Mauritius to ‘wow’ your partner. Just do something small that you know will make them happy.

2.     Not spending quality time together (living separate lives)

Once kids come along, or careers take off, our partners no longer feel like a priority. While we may still love them just as much as when we first started dating, we might not spare the time to say so, or to show them. This is why it’s critical to add a date night to your calendar at least twice a month. A kid-free, technology-free time where you and your partner can catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Turn your cell phones off, and really engage with each other.

Schedule your sex life – Reigniting the intimacy in your relationship

3.     Not resolving conflicts effectively

You know those little arguments that keep popping up, that you have over and over and over again, and never seem to get resolved? These are the little things that eat away at relationships and eventually snowball into ‘big things’. It’s important to face these conflicts, identify what is really behind the issue, and ‘fix’ it before it becomes overwhelming.

Your partner might not understand WHY this action frustrates you so much.

For example: Your partner might leave their dirty socks on the floor.

You see this as disrespectful, since you are the one who ends up picking them up. Your partner might not understand WHY this action frustrates you so much. They might think you’re just being ‘OCD’. But knowing that you feel disrespected may help give them a different perspective.

4.     Not communicating about the things that are making you feel dissatisfied

Communication is the key to all relationships. There’s a reason that all relationship experts agree on this!

It’s the only way for each partner to know how the other is really feeling. Even if you’re worried about ‘offending’ your partner, or starting an argument, it is important to voice your concerns about things that are making you feel dissatisfied in your relationship.

There are effective ways of communicating your feelings to help your partner better understand your perspective. If you and your partner are struggling with this, it would be helpful to see a counsellor who can help you learn to “fight fairly” and resolve these conflicts.

While the 7-year-itch may be a ‘real thing’, it doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship. It can be the “new, improved” version of your old relationship. It’s up to you and your partner to decide.