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The ‘seven-year itch’ – married couples tend to divorce after seven years

Made famous by the 1955 movie starring Marilyn Monroe, the 'seven year itch' refers to the perceived tendency for couples to become disenchanted with their relationships after seven years. We are sometimes asked if there is any evidence of this in divorce statistics.

Unfortunately, divorce statistics are not very useful for examining this myth. In New Zealand, a couple can divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable difference after being separated for at least two years. We don't have information on how long couples are separated before formally dissolving their marriage, or how long they were together prior to marriage. Some couples may be separated for much longer than two years before divorcing, and some may separate but never divorce. Also, the 'seven year itch' does not necessarily have to be ‘scratched’ – couples may feel dissatisfied, but this may not result in a broken relationship.

Given these limitations, we now ask: is there an increase in divorces after nine years of marriage (that is, seven years for the 'itch' to kick in, plus two years of separation)? Only a relatively small proportion of the couples who divorced in 1999–2011 did so before their third anniversary (that is to say, their marriage faltered within the first year). Statistics suggest marriages are most at risk in their second and third years, as evident by a peak in divorces at four years of marriage. The proportion of married couples divorcing declines steadily after that. About 30 percent divorced after their third anniversary but before their ninth. This suggests that the 'itching' starts well before seven years.

Graph, Distribution of divorces by length of marriage, 1999 to 2011.

Based on marriages registered in 1990–99, the greatest growth in the proportion of marriages ending in divorce occurs between four and seven years. So, divorce statistics do not support a seven year itch, but indicate an earlier start to a decline in the satisfaction with a marriage.

However, as we have explained, divorce statistics do not give a complete picture of marital health. Other research may reveal more. For example, a survey of 500 couples carried out by Professor Lawrence Kurdek found that couples experienced a decline in the quality of their marriage in the first four years, before stabilising and then declining again around year seven. (See The ties that unbind for more information.) While this research is consistent with the early disenchantment suggested by the divorce data, it also supports a seventh year decline. Therefore we cannot dismiss the seven year itch entirely.

Conclusion

This myth is undetermined.

For your information

Marriages, civil unions, and divorces 
Contains links to information about marriage, civil unions, and divorce, including data, reports, and articles.

Published 22 June 2012, based on information previously published on 12 March 2010.

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