The Seven-Year Itch and the Joy of Lifelong Marriage
German politician Gabriele Pauli shocked her conservative party and sent waves through news outlets worldwide when she proposed in September 2007 that marriage should only last seven years.
Described at the time as “Bavaria’s most glamorous politician,” the 50-year-old, twice-divorced, motorcycle-riding Pauli campaigned for party head, in part, with the hopes of institutionalizing what some have called “the seven-year itch.” Her plan was that marriages would automatically dissolve after seven years, at which point the spouses could renew their union or go along on their own merry ways. Pauli did not win in her bid for party leadership.
The “seven-year itch” is a widely recognized psychological term suggesting the seven-year mark as a common time when spouses sense they have drifted away from each other and desire to explore other romantic interests. It’s also the title of an iconic 1955 motion picture, which popularized the phrase in relation to marriage.
Or did the film create the idea altogether? The script, which would sound like relatively tame theater today, teetered on the edge of scandalous 60 years ago. It was about a married man who, after sending his wife and son away to Maine for the summer, discovers an attractive single lady (played by Marilyn Monroe) has moved into his building. At first he resists his desires to flirt, but soon he initiates toward her, though ultimately she rejects his overtures.
Following the movie’s success, the idea of a “seven-year itch” caught traction in a culture of no-fault divorce and became a convenient excuse for boredom with monogamy. Subsequent research claimed initially that such a seven-year itch was confirmed by the data, but more thorough investigation eventually pointed to four years, then other research to twelve years, then still more to three years. Increasingly, the studies are finding there’s no magic number at all, and the number seven, as well as any kind of typical point of “itch,” has just been a myth for decades.
As Long As We Both Shall Live
On June 29, 2007, just a few months before Pauli was announcing her idea in Germany, my wife and I stood before our pastor, our friends, and our family — and most importantly, before our God — and vowed to each other,
. . . I will be faithful to you
In plenty and in want,
In joy and in sorrow,
In sickness and in health,
To love and to cherish,
As long as we both shall live.
As long as we both shall live. No exceptions. No out-clauses. Not just in plenty, joy, and health, but also in want, sorrow, and sickness. No allowances for any seven-year itches or any other excuse. We left father and mother, covenanted to become one flesh (Genesis 2:24), and have taken Jesus’s words with utter seriousness, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). Neither of us would say that marriage has been easy, but here seven years in, we can say it’s a glorious thing that there are no outs but death.
For Being Ourselves and Fighting Our Sin
The stresses, strains, tensions, and pains of marriage caught both of us off guard early on. Our dating was so peaceful — too peaceful, it turned out — and engagement only had a few speed bumps. But once we were both all in, both fully believing this was our unbending commitment till death, with no loopholes or exegetical outs, then, with the conditionality of dating and engagement aside, and the unconditionality of covenantal marriage now in place, we were finally free to be our real selves. Which was such a good thing, though it soon got a little messy.
But these were good messes to make, ones we desperately needed (and still need). All along, the mess had been inside us (and still is), in our selfish and sinful hearts, and the real cleaning couldn’t begin happening until it was out in the open. We both previously had Christian roommates and disciplers who had pressed on our own sin and pushed us toward Jesus. But something about this lifelong covenant — something about knowing that the gig with this one roommate is till death do us part — forced us to speak up about the quirks, idiosyncrasies, and sins we otherwise could have ignored for a few months or a couple years.
As two rescued sinners, banking on Jesus for eternal redemption and for increasing redemption here in this life, we didn’t want to keep everything at surface level. We wanted to truly know each other, and become our true selves in Christ, not just the best face we could put on before marriage. We could have tried living on and on with a façade of harmony, and never strained to go deeper, and experienced only the thin joy that comes from keeping everything at the surface. But we wanted more (we still want more). We wanted greater joy. We wanted fuller satisfaction. We wanted the greater pleasure that comes only on the other side of pain and difficulty. We wanted the better relationship that comes only after things first get worse. And marriage with no exits but death has forced the issue.
For Witnessing to the World
But not only is “as long as we both shall live” better for us and for our children (much could be said about that), but we’re better able to witness to the world. The world is full of relationships with strings attached. In some of those, like employment, conditions are good and necessary. But when every relationship is fraught with conditions, it can feel like there’s no rest for the weary.
The world needs to see in Christian marriages a pointer to the Savior who, without conditions, chose to set his love on his bride, the church (Ephesians 1:4–6), and through thick and thin, with all her failures and unfaithfulnesses, continues working to “sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26–27).
When the exceptions and conditions are gone at the most fundamental level, a man must learn to “love his wife as himself” (Ephesians 5:33) and discover the joy of Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” In the covenant, we can no more leave behind the reality of our marriage than we can abandon our own bodies. “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28).
Seven years is a relatively short time, but we’re far enough in at this point to celebrate with some substance that we’re in this for the long haul. Here at our seventh anniversary, we’ve tasted enough of the benefits, not without the difficulties, to be grateful that we’re walking this path of covenantal marriage without any exceptions and outs, as long as we both shall live.
Resources on marriage from John Piper: