The X-Year Itch
Ever heard of the 7-year itch? Popularized by a 1955 movie starring Marilyn Monroe — aptly titled The Seven Year Itch — it’s the idea that marriages are most vulnerable to unravel at the 7-year mark. I’m particularly in tune with this right now as my husband and I approach this milestone this summer, so my ears perked up when I caught part of a City Arts + Lectures talk by anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher (NPR ran it last night…you might be able to find the podcast on Stitcher).
I had never heard of Dr. Fisher until her strong, captivating voice and sharp wit came across the airwaves last night, but based on some quick research, she’s a pretty legit love expert. A biological anthropologist, she works at Rutgers and has written and spoken extensively about evolution and the future of human sex, love and marriage. And interestingly, she argues that from an evolutionary point-of-view, the 7-year itch is actually the 4-year itch. Her theory stems from the understanding that in hunter and gatherer societies, the average spacing between children was four years (due to diet, exercise, longer breastfeeding), and that to increase the genetic diversity, women often bore subsequent children with different partners. Four years later, another partner, another child. She went on to talk about monogamy phasing in once couples co-owned land and animals and houses and things that made splitting up more difficult…defaulting to longer-lasting relationships because of practicality, not biology.
Before Sean and I got married — actually the DAY before — the minister who married us gave us a critical piece of advice: “Monogamy is not a natural state. We’re not meant to be monogamous creatures. It’s a choice, and it’s a choice you need to actively work at throughout every day, month and year of your relationship.” Shell shocked, we went through with it anyway, and so far so good. But his point stuck — marriage takes work. Sometimes it feels easy, and sometimes it takes super intense hard work.
Dr. Fisher shared three short pieces of advice in the segment about how to keep our marriages strong and in tact, and I’m sharing them here exactly the way I remember them after hearing her talk. For more detail, you should probably check out her TED talk or books:
- Have sex. She talked about the importance of sex…under any and all circumstances. Her point of view on how to keep having sex — KEEP HAVING SEX. Schedule it if you need to…just make sure it doesn’t fade away.
- Stay romantic. Romance naturally fades after 18 months or so, and to keep romance alive, it’s important to keep doing new things with your partner. According to Dr. Fisher, novelty triggers dopamine in the brain — and the novelty doesn’t have to be “swinging from chandeliers” as she said in her talk last night…it can be going to a new restaurant or walking someplace instead of driving or going to the opera. Just not getting stuck in the grind.
- Stay connected. Hold hands, cuddle, fall asleep together. She said all of these things stimulate oxytocin, which is associated with trust and attachment.
There are obviously many more things that go into a marriage (communication, external stresses, kids, life goals) — it’s one of the most complex relationships we’ll ever have. But I loved Dr. Fisher’s short, sweet and memorable list of a few things we can do to steer clear of the 4-year itch, 7-year itch, anything in between and anything that lies ahead. If biology puts our marriages at risk, let’s use what we know about our biology to keep them in tact.
What do you think — evolutionary bogus or life lesson? What has been the best thing you’ve done to nurture your marriage?