Science proves love dies (and divorce spikes) after 2 years

Guest post by Kayt Sukel, author of THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SEARCH FOR LOVE, out this week. Post a comment below to be eligible to win your free copy!

Everyone’s heard of the seven-year-itch—the idea that after seven years together, the shine comes off a relationship and couples “itch” to separate. But neuroscience has found that the itch really hits at the two-year mark – the point at which the biological mojo of the affair fades, and the divorce rates spike.

This shocked me. After all, my own marriage ended after seven years, as did many of my friends’. I always wondered: What is it about this idea of the seven-year-itch (beyond the fun and kitschy Marilyn Monroe film of the same name) that we cling to so?

And does science support the assumption that seven years marks a critical make-or-break point for relationships?

In a word: No.

Statistics show that Americans, on average, actually tend to divorce between the second and third year of marriage—way too soon for our old friend, the seven-year-itch. And what’s fascinating about this, is that recent neurobiological and psychological research keeps demonstrating that two years seems to be a magic number when it comes to love.

For decades, neuroscientists have tried to find some way to characterize passionate love—to figure out what kinds of biological changes explain our extreme changes in focus, attention, mood, energy and general smug annoyingness when we fall fast and hard. Donatella Marazziti, a neuroscientist at the University of Pisa, in Italy, focused her research on hormones. Seems like a sensible place to start, right? After all, if there is anything more pervasive than the idea of the seven-year-itch, it’s that we’re slaves to our hormones. When Marazziti and her colleagues looked at hormone levels in individuals who were passionately in love, they found something striking: heightened levels of testosterone in women and decreased levels of testosterone in men. They also saw increased levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. Marazziti suggested that these hormone changes represented changes that were happening in the body and the brain to help form a loving bond. But, when Marazziti tested these same individuals two years later, all of the hormones returned to baseline, whether or not they were still in a relationship.

A second study by another group of neuroscientists measured changes in neurotrophins as people fell in love. Neurotrophins are often called “brain fertilizer,” as these proteins help neurons develop, specialize and live longer, promoting learning and memory, much in the same way that fertilizer helps plants to grow. The researchers found that one type of nerve growth factor skyrocketed with the intensity of new love. But once again, levels dropped back to normal after two years.

A new group of psychological studies has also come up with the number two. American and European researchers followed 1700 people for the first 15 years of their marriages. They found that newlyweds initially enjoyed a big boost of happiness. But guess what happens in two years? You guessed it— all that those giddy emotions returned to normal, regardless of relationship status.

Taken together, this “two year” research has led scientists to suggest that it takes about two years to formulate a solid bond between two people. That these changes in brain chemicals (that lead to all those crazy-in-love feelings) are necessary to alter your brain circuitry so you attach to your mate. It makes sense. It wouldn’t be advantageous for it to last forever—I mean, love can pack a hell of a crazy wallop. We’re distracted, soley focused on our lover and can be really irritating. If crazy-love lasted more than those two years, our friends would dump us, our bosses would fire us and the world economy would be on the brink of collapse.

But does this mean that all love relationships are doomed to fail—and only after just two years? Should we just give it all notion of lasting relationships? No, of course not—even now, more than half of American marriages go the distance. In fact neuroimaging studies demonstrate that people who claim to be passionately in love with long-term partners show the same brain signatures as those newly in love—even after decades together. But what this research does show us is that love is a dynamic, changeable thing. Our biology, in concert with our environment, is designed to love, love and love again. We shouldn’t expect every single affair, every single relationship to take the same path and end up in the same place. That’s not the way our biology works works. And not only is that okay, but something that is totally natural.

Kayt and her son.

Kayt and her son.

Kayt Sukel is a wealthy single mommy and the author of THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SEARCH FOR LOVE. While researching her book, she got herself off in an fMRI. When she’s not trying to learn more about the brain in love, Kayt is wondering how so many LEGOs ended up in her bed. It’s just as much of a mystery.

Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

10 thoughts on “Science proves love dies (and divorce spikes) after 2 years

  1. I want one. Awesome post! As a recently re-married and former single mama I am relieved at the conclusion that our bodies adapt and our relationships change and evolve into stronger forms of love.

    Seth and I are just under the two year mark but still very, very much in love. Having three children between the two of us brought us down to reality very quickly. I think that helped make us stronger.

    1. Ms. Single Mama – Where do you get that our bodies “evolve into different forms of love?” The article is saying that love DIES. If you’re happily RE-married, what happened to the love in your first marriage? This post sounds to me like someone selling themselves a bill of goods and trying to justify some sort of earlier betrayal of a former spouse. If I’m wrong, I apologize. But, your response to this article seems at best to be confusing and convoluted.

      You seem to be trying to reassure yourself that your current marriage won’t eventually break up, which it still very well could. You say yourself that your marriage is still below the two year mark and the whole article is about HOW LOVE ENDS AFTER TWO YEARS.

      In terms of most marriages going the distance – look at the statistics on “gray divorce”. It has exploded. This suggests to me that a lot of people have been miserable in marriage for a long time, then finally divorce. Of the marriages that stay together, how many do so in ACTUAL happiness? My guess is very few. Lots of people out there act happy while hiding from the world how their marriages have basically disintegrated. Additionally, lots of people are having adulterous affairs, which renders a marriage nothing more than a fake and phony mockery.

      1. Interesting theory you have—and probably correct. I had a patient once when I was 38. I never married as I never bought it. Especially in today’s combat field known as matrimony. She was 75 years old. I asked her how many in her generation did she think were truly happily married? She had divorced around early fifties as many of her friends did as well as the 1980s suddenly allowed it as norm.

        She told me 70%. Wow 70% that’s pretty good—maybe I’m wrong I thought. No, she said 70% were miserable in marriage. Of all the people she knew. And that 70% were the ones who remained after the rampant divorces of the 1980s.

        So well over 70% in her opinion are failed marriages just staying together for convenience.

        I’m now 48. All but one friend is divorced, two lasted in their forties and the other was unfaithful many times (the one who stayed together). Regret I’m not married? I ain’t crying in my beer about it. I thank God every day I’m single.

  2. Thought-provoking post… I’m recently divorced and venturing back into the dating scene, so this info is quite timely! I’ve heard that one should give a relationship 18 months before making any long-term decisions (e.g., moving in together, marriage)…seems like the new benchmark should be 2 years!

  3. I wonder, though — you report the divorce rate spikes two years into marriage, but most couples have been together at least several years before the wedding. Relevant?

    1. Definitely relevant.

      It’s interesting–some anthropologists have argued that love lasts as long as it takes to make and raise a baby into childhood.

      But again, for me, what’s interesting about all these numbers is that they show that love doesn’t have to follow one path. That we have the biological capacity to love, love and love again. I like that.

  4. My hub and I lived together for 5 years prior to getting married. During that period we learned a lot about each other. If I were to get married a second time, I’d do the very same thing.

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