Is There Such a Thing as The Seven-Year Itch?

We speak to Dr Anjali Chhabria and Dr Harish Shetty about the trials and travails of marriage menders

Published: Jun 5, 2010
Is There Such a Thing as The Seven-Year Itch?
Image: Vidyanand Kamat

How much does a role of a marriage counsellor overlap with that of a sexologist?
AC: Most counsellors are aware of sexual disorders; once the cause is understood — psychological or physiological — action can be decided. A lot of couples have difficulty in having satisfying sexual relations due to psychological causes, which can be handled by a counsellor. But physiological problems such as impotency need to be handled by a sexologist.
HS: At times the issues may be clouded and the cause and effect may be not linear. Emotional issues may paralyse the hips, and vice versa. On some occasions the sex doc may refer the couple for emotional issues.

Does being a counsellor make you feel depressed about the institution of marriage?
AC: On a human level, over-exposure may upset you when you see how adjustment and tolerance levels have deteriorated. But the good part is that we end up learning out of more experiences.
HS: I do not believe very strongly in the formal institution of marriage and always have felt that love, when nurtured leads to peace between partners married formally or otherwise. The holy books play a very small part. I also believe that love can have birth growth and death. Also rebirth sometimes.

What is the most unusual case you've come across?
HS: When the couple had 4 people involved. The man had a lover, the wife also had one. Both of them fought, abused each other, yet they lived with each other and did not seek divorce.
AC: Each case has different problems that might be perceived differently by people on the other side.

What is the most common problem you encounter?
AC: Extra-marital affairs. Tolerance levels are low, people act on impulse. The other problem is non-compatibility due to personality styles, again highlighted by low adjustment levels.
HS: The collapse of all communication, where mundane issues, like who will face the wrath of the school teacher, lead to blows. Loss of communication also results in couples abusing each other on Facebook and hiding each others laptops and wallets.

Is it true that Indian men are reluctant to visit a counsellor?
AC: Definitely. But it has improved noticeably recently too. We do have men coming in alone, where their wives may not be ready for counselling.
HS: The family priest is our fiercest competitor. The godforsaken guru steals the flock and those who get tired of the queue at these places land up with us. Yet the younger guys treat us like a modern-age baba and a grandfather.

How often do you manage to convince a couple to stay together and not part ways?
HS: My job is about helping the couple think about what is good for them. If they want to live together, then we work out issues slowly. If they want to part, I help them to do it with little collateral damage, especially to kids and the pets.
AC: We have been quite successful in helping couples resolving issues with each other but it may be difficult to put it into figures. The success rate also depends on the couple as to how much do they desire and put in to make the counseling work.

How common is pre-marriage counselling?
AC: Sadly, not as common as marriage counselling. It’s human nature to run for help when the damage is done. Not too many believe in precautionary measures; they think, why would we need help when everything’s fine. But, this may be a mistake. Marriage involves two people moving from an individual life to a combined bond. It is better when a couple understands it before entering the bond.
HS: It’s rare, though the Catholic Church makes it mandatory (they call it ‘marriage encounter’). The most popular pre-marriage counsellors are close friends. Relatives give valuable tips on tackling in-laws!

Typically what is the duration that it takes to resolve an issue?
HS: Depends upon the therapists, the couples, and the commitment to resolve things. Some therapists see couples across their life times till either the therapist or the clients kick the bucket. Some have a revolving door policy: move on fast. Some have a middle path: confrontational therapies with conciliatory techniques in a mix..
AC: The duration cannot be fixed and may vary from couple to couple and from situation to situation.

Do you have people walking into your clinic alone?
AC: Many walk in alone as their partners feel it is not necessary; sometimes they may not even be aware how the other partner is feeling.
HS: Often, we try and get the spouse through different means. Or tackle one and help them cope/deal or help get out of the marriage

How long into a marriage, typically, do problems surface?
AC: Problems can surface any time. For some, the initial stage, with adjustments with the family, house, etcetera, for others, it may surface even after 30 years of marriage, where one of the partners tires of problems piling up.
HS: Nowadays it is fast — almost in a years time — but people walk in to our rooms after 50 years too. Problems have been longstanding but the courage only came up now.

What is the one thing to keep in mind while getting married?
HS: That love is agonisingly beautiful, and agony is inevitable. Love can never be restricted to numbers but romance needs to be restricted to one.
AC: What one may need to do be sure about is the marriage and the partner before entering the institution. Only then will one be mentally ready to face new experiences and challenges with their partner. Respect and trust for the spouse is something important one may need to keep in mind as only then can a marriage work with efforts put in by both.

Where do marriage counsellors go when their marriages are in trouble?
AC: Just as self-medication is harmful for doctors, self-help may not work for counsellors. Help from another professional is necessary. When one is going through a problem, it’s difficult to be objective and non-judgmental; that’s the main reasons couples are not be able to resolve problems.
HS: To their own colleagues. Or they hit the bar.

Are relatives like in-laws and siblings often involved in the counselling?
HS: Yes. Sometimes they are a pain and attempt back-seat driving. They may be scared of the power structures shifting when a partner gets empowered. ‘Make my daughter assertive to blast her husband but not to assert her rights in her maike.’ Most of the time, the significant others can be an ally in the healing process,
AC: Sometimes, when its difficult to decide whether what the couple say about each other is actually how they describe it to be, a third person’s observation may be needed and required. This is when the in-laws or siblings are involved. They may also be involved when we need to understand the personalities of the couples before marriage. And they may also be called if the couple has issues due to the relatives.

How real is the seven-year itch?
HS: Within one year and maximum three years if care is not taken
AC: This may not be true as such as we see couples even after a 20 year old marriage having trouble and seeking counseling after so many years of being together. The seven-year itch may be more of a myth.

Do psychologists fall in love with their patients?
AC: Not if they’re highly professional.
HS: Yes they can. Identifying it early and sharing the same with a colleague arrests the process.

Are “irreconcilable differences” a reality? Or is it just unwillingness to communicate?
AC: It can be just another term for not being willing to work things out. All problems can be resolved if both the partners have the willingness and openness to work on things.
HS: Yes there are irreconcilable differences that may have no explanation. At times, nothing works right from Day One. Some spend money on ‘ghee smoke’ generated by affluent scholarly priests, others redo their houses with vastu experts in the hope of rocking orgasms of the mind and body, but still fail. The only thing then is to give theme both the names of honest lawyers.

Pregnancy is a trying time for a couple; how can they best deal with it?
AC: For some, pregnancy is the time they get closer, as they are excited to share this new experience and give life to a baby which a part of both of them. For others, it is the time they drift apart; the wife’s hormonal may cause her to have mood swings which some husbands find difficult to cope with, so they detach emotionally, even have affairs. To deal with pregnancy, they need to realise it is an experience both partners are going to be dealing with . Both have to take responsibility equally and work things out with patience.
HS: By feeling the womb, the movements and the heartbeats of the mother and child. By gently having sex. By the husband being next to the wife during the pains and the puking bouts, not chatting with ex-girlfriends or spending nights out at daru parties.

Do apply your work principles in your own life?
AC: Yes, work offers a lot of experience and insight into various problems which help us deal with personal problems better. Work definitely teaches us being more patient and seeing things from all perspectives rather than one, which always works well for any relationship.
HS: I am not immune to the issues I treat and heal. As a fallible human, I seek answers from friends and colleagues.

(Coordinated by Divya Subramaniam)

(This story appears in the 18 June, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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