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The 7-Year Itch? Make It Four!


Forget that notion that relationships dissolve at the 7-year mark, says a noted anthropologist. Here’s why things can fall apart sooner (and what to do).

By Helen Fisher, Ph.D.

ost of us have heard of the 7-year itch, either in conversation or from the well-known 50s movie with Marilyn Monroe. It’s the thought that marriages are most vulnerable to unravel at the 7-year mark. As an anthropologist, I decided to take a closer look at whether this timetable truly existed… and was surprised by what I found. It seems the key breaking point for marriages occurs long before a couple has celebrated seven years together.

The ABCs of marriage
Marriage is universal across cultures. Some 90% of American men and women marry by
Divorces tend to happen around the 4-year mark…
middle age. And data gathered by the United Nations indicate that at least 90% of men and women in 97 other industrial and agricultural societies also wed; moreover, most marry one person at a time: monogamy. Yet, almost everywhere people also have social or legal procedures to untie the knot. Their reasons vary. A study of 160 societies indicates that adultery (by the wife) heads the list. And everywhere that men and women are relatively economically independent of each other, they leave unhappy marriages because they can.

So what about the timing element? Americans joke about the “7-year itch”—that after that number of years of marriage, couples get antsy to separate. Indeed, Gabriele Pauli, who recently bid to become the leader of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union party, has proposed that marriages should last only seven years, unless renewed by mutual consent. Wedlock; padlock. Could our biology play a role in the rush to freedom? And was there truly a timetable to it? To find out, I looked at data on 58 societies collected since 1947 by the Statistical Office of the United Nations. Three remarkable patterns emerged among these hundreds of millions of people, revealing when and possibly why couples separate. And they ring of evolutionary forces at work.

The breaking point for partners
Most striking, divorces peaked most often during and around the fourth year of marriage. There were variations, of course. Americans tended to divorce between the second and third year of marriage. Interestingly, this corresponds with the normal duration of intense romantic love, 18 months to 3 years. And in a Harris poll conducted at Chemistry.com, the Internet dating site, 47% of respondents said they would depart an unhappy marriage after two years, unless they had a child. In America, partners bail out when the romance wears off.

Now, the data from the United Nations revealed other patterns. First, some stats for you: 39% of divorces occurred among couples with no dependent children; 26% occurred among those with one child; 19% occurred among couples with two children; and 7% of divorces occurred among couples with three children. In short, humans tend to divorce during and around the 4-year mark; at the height of our reproductive years; and often with a single child.

Why marriages fail at 4 years
So much for the 7-year itch! As I considered this data, I developed a theory, based on how, as an anthropologist, I knew we lived a very long time ago. Women in hunting and gathering societies breastfeed
Hold hands, cuddle, and talk—that’s true intimacy.
around the clock, eat a low-fat diet and get a lot of exercise (all habits that inhibit ovulation). As a result, they tend to space their children about four years apart. Thus, the modern duration of many marriages — about four years — conforms to the traditional period between human births, four years.

This same pattern is seen in other species. Take foxes. Because a vixen’s milk is low in fat and protein, she must feed her kits constantly; and she will starve unless someone brings her food. So foxes pair in February. But when the kits leave the den in late summer, the pair bond breaks up. Among foxes, robins, and many other monogamous species, the pair-bond lasts only through the breeding season.

Understanding the 4-year itch
Perhaps human couples evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives, and both parents could bear more young with new partners, creating genetic variety in their lineages—and passing across the eons the “4-year itch.”

Does that mean many of us are wired to separate after 4 years together? Perhaps. But is this always a terrible thing? When asked why all of her marriages failed, Margaret Mead replied, “I have been married three times, and none of them was a failure.” From the Darwinian perspective, Mead was right.

Outwitting nature’s wiring
But there’s no doubt we can rise above any biological programming to break the bonds of couple-hood at the 4-year mark. Today 57% of American marriages last for life. Yes, we have whisperings of restlessness within, natural weak points in our relationships. So be vigilant, and be prepared. Do new things with your sweetheart; novelty triggers dopamine in the brain, increasing pleasure. Hold hands and cuddle to stimulate oxytocin, a brain chemical associated with trust and attachment. And talk together; that’s true intimacy to women. If you stimulate these systems regularly, you may win life’s greatest prize—a lover for eternity.


Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is research professor, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University. She is the author of Why We Love and is chief scientific advisor to www.chemistry.com.
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