When something itches, my dear sir, the natural tendency is to scratch. — Dr. Brubaker in The Seven Year Itch
Are you getting itchy?” I asked.
“Why, are you?” David countered.
“Hey, that’s not an answer,” I said, slapping my man on the arm to let him know I was serious...sort of. As our seventh anniversary approaches, I’ve been concerned about this whole “seven year itch,” that wandering-eye malady that entered our vernacular by way of a Marilyn Monroe movie made back when my parents were babies. The idea is that after seven years with the same partner, a man’s urge to stray wells up within him, often leading to bad behavior. (Apparently, in the ’50s, no woman would be so crass as to allow her genitals to make relationship decisions.)
Even though I knew the number was arbitrary — that it was based on some fictional character’s fictional statistics — I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When someone warns of a rank odor, the human response, however imprudent, is to take a big ol’ whiff. So it was that I found myself questioning every detail of my bond with David.
I’d never been in a position to experience the consequences of a long-term relationship — before I met David, my longest romantic affair had lasted five months, and I’d never referred to any guy as my “boyfriend.” I’ve never been in love with anyone else, and therefore never have I been in the situation, as David has, of feeling one’s love for another diminish over time.
I’ve seen how people can grow apart — I’ve known adulterers and the miserably married, the latter of which is the suckier position. At least when dealing with adultery, the situation is comprehensible in that there is an identifiable perpetrator upon whom a good amount of the blame may be laid — the one who does the cheating is evil. But how do people deal when the spark fizzles? When there is no good or bad in the equation, just “it’s there” or “it’s not there”?
I asked David what it was like to fall out of love. “It’s the natural progression of maturing,” he explained. “Nobody when they get older acts like they did when they were 18. People who were once fun, wild, and carefree become serious grown-ups. It’s like a fire burning down to embers and then dying out. It doesn’t always happen — some people are able to remain in love despite their changes — but often people wake up one morning to realize, ‘Maybe we’re friends, but not much more than that.’”
“Okay, we agree that we’re still in love, right?” I asked, then giggled to make it seem as if I knew the answer was yes, even though a part of me feared it might not be.
“Of course we are,” said David, narrowing his eyes as if that would help him to get a better look inside my head.
“Right, of course,” I said, with no small amount of relief. “So, what I’m saying is, why don’t we have the itch? Why do other people get it? Why did you get it before but not now?”
David sat forward in his chair and silently pondered my questions. Before he could answer, I said, “Well, I accept not everyone gets the itch...you know, think of the ‘couples.’” Every so often, David and I take a moment, while on a walk or sharing a glass of wine, to name those people we know to be in healthy, happy, and thus inspiring long-term relationships. The list always includes John and Sue (friends of my family), Susan and Diane (my aunts), and most recently Tom and Beth (friends). “So, why do they work out? Because they change together instead of change apart?” I furrowed my brow and sat back, an indication that I was finally ready to shut up and hear David’s thoughts on the matter.
“It could be a lot of things,” David said, again going silent for a moment because, unlike me, he thinks before he speaks. “For example, when people are dating, they’re having fun together — going out for dinner, dancing, wooing each other. After being together for a while, people fall into a routine. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh sure, everyone’s like that at first — it’s expected. But I could never keep up that level of charm.’”
“People don’t feel like they have to work for what they’ve already got,” I said.
“Exactly,” David said. “People get into a rut. They become bored with each other. Then there are life-changing transitions, like having children. It’s fine if both parties enjoy the transition to parenthood, but instead of embracing parenthood, some people just see their stylish house become a messy, toy-filled playpen and their hot spouse become Mommy or Daddy. When your partner is always distracted, not paying much attention to you, no longer sexy, overly serious, naggy… Then, say, at work or whatever, someone fun, new, and mysterious is giving them attention. I can see how it happens.”
In the silence that followed, I imagined David was also thinking of the few people we know who have acted on such temptation. In each situation, the cheating party, bored or irritated with his or her spouse, had hooked up with a coworker.
“So, why aren’t we bored with each other?” I asked.
“I can think of lots of reasons,” David said, smiling.
“For one, we didn’t go through any life-changing experiences, like suddenly having a family to raise, or major career changes — well, there was yours, but it brought us closer together instead of pulling us apart. When we met, I was a photographer, and I still am. We spend a lot of time together every day, and that’s relatively stress-free time, whether we’re playing a few rounds of Scrabble while taking a break from work, watching movies, cuddling in bed. We can mix it up and be spontaneous. Partly because of your work, we do a lot of weird and different stuff together — we’re constantly experiencing new things, which keeps it fresh.” I smiled, nodding along in appreciation for each of the truths David spoke.
“Plus, I was already old when we met,” David continued. “I wasn’t some immature kid in my 20s. Chances are, a person isn’t going to change that much after a certain age.”
“You forgot the most important reason,” I said. David raised his brows in expectation.
“Communication. So many people are afraid to share their thoughts with their partners for fear of a negative reaction, so they end up suppressing their emotions or not being honest about their feelings. You and me, we talk about everything openly, and I can’t remember either one of us ever throwing out accusations.”
I was beginning to like this exercise of questioning why our relationship worked instead of wondering if it didn’t. “You know what else I’ve been curious about?” I said in a playful tone. “Is exactly what it is about each other we find so attractive. You go first.”