We’ve all heard the stories about couples who drift apart, claiming to have some sort of wedge between them or just plain getting bored. Over the years we have come to know the phrase “the seven year itch” to mean the milestone in a marriage where one, or both persons, become complacent, bored, drift away or, sometimes, worse… infidelity. Most of us know people who are in this state right now, or can think of at least one couple who has been through it, either successfully navigating the troubled waters or allowing something terrible to happen and having their relationship to dissolve as a result of it. I’d like to take some time to focus on the dangers in this place, and give you some tools to avoid it as well as reclaiming that closeness that some might think is just gone.
I have been talking to a lot of people who have been divorced or are going through a divorce currently. I have also talked to a lot of couples who have been married for longer than I have been alive. I have written many articles about marriage, some delightful and some very difficult. No two marriages are alike, but many have the same pitfalls and danger zones. It looks like, from my findings, most marriages go through a very difficult time somewhere between 15 and 17 years of marriage. That is the average that I have discovered, it is not scientific, just my own benchmark from my findings. Some hit that point much earlier, and some never do!
So what happens at that point? Where does the spark go?
I think it boils down to a few simple factors:
Our lives as human beings often become routine. We focus on work, kids, bills, future, taking care of the house and eating. The things that often suffer as a result of our busy routines are marriage and our relationship with God (we’ll talk about God later in the article). Routines are not always a bad thing, but they can make it far too easy to slip into a rut.
When we stop talking to each other about the real parts of life, we start to lose that valuable connection. Perhaps it’s due to some frustration with our spouse, or something we just can’t get past. No matter what the cause might be, the effect is distance, and distance is dangerous.
When we are bored, we look for distractions. We watch football, we go out places with our friends, join clubs, play golf, shop and do anything we can to avoid the confrontation or discussion of our growing distance. Although it is perfectly healthy to have these pastimes, using them to fill the holes in our marriages is the opposite of what we should be doing.
I am going to reveal a secret that will get me in big trouble with my friends. Men are afraid to talk about difficult topics. There, I said it (OK, maybe you knew that already). Often times our wives will perceive this to be apathy, boredom or complacency. The reality is that we fear the confrontation of emotion and pain and the avoidance of these conversations perpetuates the growing problem.
So what happens when we realize there is a growing distance in our relationship? What do we do?
Let’s go back and talk about the metaphor in factor number 1, taking care of the house. Most of us do not wait until the house is being condemned to fix it do we? No, typically if there is a leak we fix it, or if there are shingles missing, we replace them. If the toilet won’t stop running, we replace the parts inside and all is well. Our marriages are much like this in that we need to make sure we find the leaks and fix them before they get out of hand. Why don’t we? See above factors, and understand that there is much less fear of confrontation in fixing a toilet than talking to your spouse about why you are not as close as you used to be.
It is much easier to reclaim the gap in a relationship if it is identified early. It is never too late however. If the house is beyond repair, another can be built on the same foundation. It’s a lot more work, but it is possible. OK, enough with the metaphors.
One thing that I found as a consistent fact in every 20 year plus marriage that I have examined is that every couple has had at least one period of difficulty, complacency or what we are calling “the itch”. No one is immune apparently, but how they deal with it is key.
One couple explained that they barely spoke for 3 years. That is a long time to not connect with your spouse, and is an extreme example. The good news here is that, after a number of years sleeping in different parts of the house and having basically lead separate lives, they are closer than they ever were before “the itch”. They attribute this to God, honoring their commitment to each other, patience and just plain hard work when they decided to do something about it. They have been married for 52 years.
Another couple had a life changing event that brought them back to the closeness they once cherished. One spouse was diagnosed with cancer. While this is a tragic example, it is also one that has a clear lesson to be learned. How do we react when we realize that the one person we swore to love and cherish above all others may be taken from us? I cannot fathom that pain, nor can my wife.
Don’t wait for something bad to happen that drives you farther apart, or a tragedy to bring you back together. Don’t put the ownership on someone else to take the first step. Do something, and do it fast.
Take these few suggestions:
1. Do something together. Find a babysitter and go do something that neither of you have ever done. See a rodeo, race go karts, go fishing, play mini-golf, go to one of those paint it yourself pottery places, eat sushi or just go for a picnic in the park. Just do it.
2. Hug and talk. I said before that is hard to argue when you are hugging. Take hug breaks from whatever busy routine you are in the middle of. It becomes habit forming.
3. Stop saying “I”. There is no more “I”, there is only “we”. If I need something, then it is something we need to discuss. We need to talk about our love and making it a priority.
4. Pray, worship and pray some more. God is our superglue. No matter what hills and valleys we encounter in our relationships, God is always there to keep us plugging along. Read a couples devotional together, one chapter every night. You will be surprised how much you will learn about each other and discuss as a result. Try it, then see if you can say I was wrong.
5. Reprioritize your life. We are only here for a short time. I know that I will always want one more day with my wife, no matter how long we are together, no matter what. Make your spouse your priority every day and for life. Hold on to what you love, and make that your new routine.
So you see the factors that keep us from facing the truth and the difficult conversations. We know the dangers that we face in these situations, and we know how to avoid them. Talk to each other about how you feel, and what you need. Don’t be afraid of the difficult subjects, embrace them. Some of us need a little excitement to bring us back. Take a trip together. If you can’t budget an exotic vacation, find a small bed and breakfast to go to. Do something that breaks your routine and puts your relationship with your spouse first. Remember, before there was everything else around you, there was the two of you. Get back to basics with these lessons before it gets any worse, and remember it is never too late to do something about it. As with many things, just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.