A man’s feelings of emotional closeness to his wife reaches a low point after they have been together for 21-30 years. Then things improve. The same is however not true for women.
(Illustration photo: Shutterstock / NTB)
Do relationships suffer from the seven-year itch?
Both men and women feel most close to their partner at the beginning of their relationship. These feelings then steadily erode, especially for women, writes Bente Træen.
People talk about how couples in trouble may be experiencing the seven-year itch. The rock band The Clash sings ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ It’s clear that some couples separate at this point in their relationships, while others work on staying together and remain partners for years.
You would think that the longer a couple has stayed together, the closer they would feel towards each other. And if there is such a thing as the seven-year itch, that would mean that couples reach bottom in their relationship at about this time. But does research provide any evidence that this is actually the case?
In the Sexual Habits Survey 2020, we explored people's emotional experience of being close to their partner in relation to how many years they had been together. Furthermore, we explored how the emotional experience of closeness with the partner was related to their sexual activity.
Men and women feel different degrees of closeness
Closeness arises through communication about feelings and the actions the couple take and experiences they share. In that sense, the duration of the relationship should be important in building a feeling of closeness. But do women who have lived with their husbands for more than 30 years feel as close to them as men who have lived with their wives for as long? The short answer to this question is no.
Both men and women feel most close to their partner at the beginning of their relationship. This feeling of closeness then declines steadily, especially for women. Women who have lived with their husbands for more than 30 years feel the least close to their partner. This suggests that the longer a woman’s life has been shared with her husband, the less likely she is to feel close to him.
A man’s experience of emotional closeness to his wife reaches a low point after being together for 21-30 years. Then things improve, and the experience of closeness increases with men who have been with their partner for more than 30 years. In fact, men in this situation will feel almost as close to their wives as they did in the early years of their relationship. So what’s going on with men who are on the verge of retirement?
The dream of unconditional love disappears
Let's look at the dynamics of long-term relationships. Over the years, people adapt to each other. However, men and women take different individual journeys even though they live under the same roof.
A woman’s journey in her relationship is that she becomes better and better at expressing her wishes. In the beginning, she would stay quiet, first and foremost to avoid conflicts and create harmony in the relationship. But this strategy may result in her feeling as if she has ‘lost herself’. Over the years, she may have gotten angry because he doesn’t seem to discern exactly what she needs — even though she has not spoken up specifically about her needs.
She interprets his lack of intuition as a sign that he doesn’t see her and her needs, and doesn’t love her, so that the dream of unconditional love disappears like dewdrops in the sun. And then, on the eve of old age, he feels almost as close to her as when they got together. She thinks this change comes too late. It comes at a time when she has in reality resigned.
Do older men become more feminine?
Perhaps men shift from being the partner who expresses what they need and want at the beginning of the relationship to the exact opposite over the years? Maybe he wants to show her affection by putting her needs at the centre of the relationship to create harmony between them?
For the man, long-term relationships can be important for talking about emotional needs, especially if he feels that this leads to greater sexual satisfaction and harmony in the relationship.
The ageing man has lower levels of testosterone. At the same time, retirement means that the couple spends more time together at home. Perhaps older men become more feminine? They become more like their spouse. This can encourage men to talk about feelings, and to express more respect and be responsive to the woman's desires. This can also make it easier for the woman to express sexual needs.
One out of two has problems with erections
After the age of 60, about one in two men has problems getting an erection. Men experience the inability to perform sexually as a loss of masculinity. The man ‘loses something of himself’. When he was younger and his ability to have an erection was at its peak, he was the one who expressed his sexual needs. But when his ability to have an erection is reduced, it weakens his self-confidence and causes him to be silent in sexual situations.
When men are silent about their sexual needs, this can actually increase the feeling of harmony in the relationship. It means both partners are equally important, which increases the feeling of closeness. The woman is given space to express herself, also sexually. She dares to express herself more freely, perhaps because she is no longer afraid of being abandoned by her partner at this stage of life.
Regardless of the duration of the relationship, the most important factor for both men's and women's experience of intimacy with their partner is how satisfied they are with their sex life. However, there are some interesting gender differences of note.
Satisfaction with genitals and weight
Among men who had lived with their partner for 7-20 years or 31 years or longer, not having had an affair was associated with a strong experience of closeness with the partner. Furthermore, it was more common to feel intimacy with their partner if the couple had intercourse more often and masturbated less. Among the men who had been with their partner for more than 30 years, the experience of closeness with the partner was also stronger among men who felt satisfied with the appearance of their genitals. This indicates pride in one's own masculinity and masculinity in old age.
Among women who had been in a relationship for 0-6 years, the frequency of intercourse was strongly linked to how close they felt with their partner. However, among women who had been with their partner for more than 30 years, being satisfied with their own weight was important in experiencing closeness to their partner. This suggests that women who are comfortable with the bodily changes that occur after menopause — where fat often accumulates around the abdomen —also have the best relationships with their husbands.
If we are to believe recent sexual habit research, the seven-year itch is a myth. Still – it’s important to remember that statistics are created by variation. For some partners, it’s probably the seven-year itch that ends the relationship.
Træen, B., & Kvalem, I. L. (2022). The longer together, the higher perception of intimacy? On the perception of emotional closeness to the partner, relationship duration and sexual activity and satisfaction in married, cohabiting or persons in registered partnerships in Norway. (Manuscript in preparation)
Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no