The magic number when magic’s gone

As pressures mount, unhappy couples still call it quits at 7 years

Melissa Day, shown with her ex-husband, Mike Crivello, and their children, said life as a family changed her perspective and played a role in her divorce. Melissa Day, shown with her ex-husband, Mike Crivello, and their children, said life as a family changed her perspective and played a role in her divorce. (Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / July 29, 2011

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For all that’s changed about marriage statistics since the 1950s - the age at which people marry has gotten older, the divorce rate has risen and fallen - one number has stayed steady: We split around the seven-year mark.

Census data released this year found that first marriages that ended in divorce lasted a median of eight years. The median time from marriage to separation: about seven years.

It’s been more than 55 years since Marilyn Monroe moved into the same apartment building as a happily married man whose wife - of seven years - happened to be away for the summer, and “The Seven Year Itch,’’ as the film was titled, is still with us. Just this month Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony announced they were divorcing, after seven years of marriage.

Why the seven-year curse?

Marriage experts - both professional observers and people who have been divorced - blame the stress of caring for young children, the accumulation of bad times, and work and family pressures, all of which tend to build to a boiling point around seven years.

“This is rarely the case of a happily married person who discovers after seven years that Marilyn Monroe has just moved in downstairs,’’ said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “Typically people who are unhappy with their marriages figure that out within the first few years and then take a few more years to get to the state of divorcing.’’

“Over time,’’ he said, “people’s flaws reveal themselves. The positives remain, but the negatives build up. It may be that after a while you realize your spouse won’t be providing for you economically as well as you want.’’

Mark Alley, 54, of Bellingham, said the stress of kids and life broke up his marriage around the seven-year mark.

“My first son was born with special needs, so that weighed heavily on our marriage,’’ he said. “I worked really hard so my wife could stay home with the boys, but she said, ‘I’d rather have you work 40 hours and make $40,000 than 80 hours and make $100,000 plus.’ But I was trying to climb the corporate ladder.’’

“In my eyes, I was doing all the right things,’’ said Alley, who left the restaurant industry and now works as a mortgage broker. “But frankly, I wasn’t listening to her.’’

Children also played a role in Melissa Day’s divorce. “Once you have children, the whole reality of where you’re going to go in life with this person as a family sets in,’’ said Day, 40, of Bellingham.

“You can’t truly know until you live with a person, and have kids with him, how it’s all going to play out,’’ she said. “It’s a totally different perspective than when you were single. My ex-husband isn’t a bad person, but he was not compatible with where I was seeing my life going.

“As a rehabilitative therapist,’’ Day added, “I know life can be very short.’’

Indeed, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, points out that most people marry in their late 20s (the median age for first marriages for men was 28.2 in 2010, and 26.1 for women, according to the US Bureau of the Census), “and at some level, if you are dissatisfied, particularly if you are a woman, you may think, ‘I need to get out before I’m too old. I’ll have more options if I’m 35 versus 45.’ ’’

Richard DeFelice, a middle-aged former businessman, said his eight-year marriage was happy at first.

“We had embraced the fact that we were opposites in terms of personality and personal preferences,’’ he said. “My ex-wife is very extroverted and I’m quite introverted.’’

But gradually conflicts arose. For example, he said, she wanted to host dinner parties; he liked to keep their home as a private refuge. “It became challenging to reach real compromise,’’ DeFelice said. “You’re tempted to try to submerge problems, but then of course, you are in a Catch-22 situation, either avoiding the issue, arguing, or giving in and doing things you don’t truly have any interest in.’’

“In the end,’’ he added, “you each sort of want the other person to adjust.’’

By this point, the seven-year itch is so well established that it has even been parodied in The Onion, a satirical newspaper. “[W]hen I look into your eyes,’’ a story reads, “I see all the things I never used to want. A big wedding. Kids. A house with a white picket fence that I’ll have to move out of in about seven years when you discover I’m sleeping with my secretary.’’

The current understanding of the phrase was popularized in 1952, when the late playwright George Axelrod used it as the title of his play.

“In the first draft, the guy had been married 10 years (as had I),’’ he told The New York Times’ William Safire in 1992, “but the title, when it came, had a natural ring to it and I changed the number of years the hero had been married accordingly.’’

But perhaps the number should have been even lower - at least according to Anthony Centore, the director of Thrive Boston Counseling and Psychotherapy.

Many couples come into his practice overwhelmed by issues unrelated to their relationship- the mortgage, the expense of private school, aging parents, child care.

“What ends up happening is that there’s not enough romance,’’ he said. “Not enough time is spent investing in their spouses, things happen like affairs and hurt feelings, and people feel betrayed and abandoned.

“Sometimes,’’ he added, “it’s a miracle they last seven years.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on twitter @bethteitell