Let’s play a game of association.
What thoughts and images come to mind when you see the number seven? Make a mental list on your own for 5 seconds before continuing on.
Seven days of the week.
“Lucky” number sevens on a slot machine.
Multiples of seven measure how we keep track of the score of football games.
God rested on the seventh day.
The forgiveness Jesus requires is seven times seventy-seven.
“God’s number” is seven. (More accurately, it’s a number that represents perfect completion).
Or perhaps your brain works like mine, and one of the associations for the number seven is the film Seven Years in Tibet, which sticks out as a bizarre early casting role of a young Brad Pitt serving as a tutor to the young Dalai Lama. Which one of these things is not like the other?
Certainly, the number seven holds a significant place in the thought-world of the Hebrew Bible, as it holds a cyclical importance for ancient Israel’s farming, religious, and economic rhythms. To what degree the biblical imagination influenced another cycle discerned by modern wisdom remains uncertain, but the truth is that cycles of seven mark the major moments of our lives and marriages.
The wider culture sometimes refers to this phenomenon as the seven year itch. I, for one, always assumed this term only applied to situations where one spouse pursues an extramarital affair to “scratch an itch.” Surely, this is one painful and tragic consequence of this experience, and it’s not to be taken lightly, but the reality of the cyclical nature of life and marriage, or rather, an ignorance of it, might actually be what drives the path towards affairs, divorces, and a more subtle–but often equally destructive–“drifting apart.”
So, what causes the cycle of the seven year itch?
WHAT IS “THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH”?
The first person that tuned me into this phenomenon of the seven year itch was my mentor, and the recently retired Grace Community Church Pastor of Care and Counsel, Tim Siemens. Several years ago, Tim told a small circle of younger church staff members at a Christmas party, all on the verge or at 7 years of marriage, to be aware of the disruptions that this season could bring. Merry Christmas, Tim!
Within a year, I was tapped to lead the ministry to married couples and soon-to-be-marrieds at Grace, so I followed up. Tim explained to me that in his experience of counseling and pastoring what I would assume to be thousands of couples in his over thirty five years of ministry, every 5 to 7 years tends to be when the issues start to pop up and require addressing in EVERY MARRIAGE. Not just the first 7 years of marriage either, EVERY SEVEN YEARS.
It seems too simple, right? Granted, the issues that plague some marriages are greater than others, but even small disruptions can lead to big hurts when we measure marriages over decades. But seriously, does each marriage really face challenges every seven years?
Tim challenged me just to think about what is happening at years 7, 14, and 21 in the lives of most married people. Let’s break it down.
At or around year 7, most married people are having, thinking about, or struggling to have children. I am a little bit biased towards the difficulty of this stage since I am currently living it, but this is the only one where you’re subjected to the torture of sleep deprivation at the hands of tiny humans that we love. (I think they call the phenomenon of hostages falling in love with their captors “Stockholm Syndrome”). But it’s hard, and loyalties can become divided. It is a major test, even more so when the test involves the absence of children through infertility or other forms of wait for a season of life to arrive which “everyone else” seems to be sharing except for you and your spouse.
The season of the second cycle of seven, around year 14, often also holds challenges around parenting, but also typically increased responsibility and stress in one’s career. The hours might get longer in the office, and the time to connect as husbands and wives stretches thin. Busyness and lack of time plague this season of marriage.
On the other end of the time spectrum, oftentimes, is the season of year 21. Kids are usually starting to find independence in this season, and might even be preparing to, or already heading off to college. Careers might be more consistent and predictable, also returning some previously lost time. Suddenly, one has to decide whether they still even like their spouse after all these years of battle and simply putting your head down and grinding it out.
Years 28, 35, 42, and so on will all bring different challenges of their own, many times with some of these cycles being repeated with the arrival of in-laws and grandchildren. So, in short, Tim taught me, and many others over the years, that there can be some anticipating when challenges might occur within a marriage. And as the great sage, GI Joe, once said, “Knowing is half the battle.”
HOW CAN WE COMBAT THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH?
Another Pastor Tim, Tim Keller, has often quipped that even though he and his wife have been married to each other for more than 40 years, he hasn’t been married to just one woman, but 4 or 5 different women. We change. And we should change as people, especially as followers of Christ. But being disciples doesn’t mean our lives are constantly-rising graphs towards maturity. Regression is part of the journey towards redemption.
You and I are married to people who will change, and not always for the better. That goes for you, and for myself, too.
The only hope and constant we have is Christ, the one who Scripture proclaims to be “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” (Hebrews 13:8). He can be the constant in a marriage between two inconsistent people.
The bedrock of Christian marriage is the model Christ sets as the bridegroom to his bride, the Church (see Ephesians 5), but even that redemptive love story is a process. The victory over sin and brokenness has been decided, but the game clock still awaits its final victory-bell. Your marriage is a story of hard-fought redemption.
The wisdom of the seven year cycles has helped inform the way Grace Marriagesministers to and serves married and soon-to-be-married couples in central Maryland. So, we prepare premarital couples and newly marrieds for this reality coming down the pike, and then we help couples respond in these seasons of disturbance through re|engage and other enrichment workshops and periodic events. If you’ve been married for 7 years and haven’t participated in re|engage, we’d certainly recommend it.
Even if you think things are OK, be proactive. We’re all works in progress, as are our marriages!