Overcoming The 3-Year Itch: How Counseling Can Help A 3-Year Relationship In Trouble

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated November 17, 2023by Regain Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact theDomestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The “three-year itch” is a term used to describe challenges that may arise in the third year of a relationship. Based on theories about the stages of love, this theory argues that relationships often end or start to experience conflict around the third year. If you’re experiencing this phenomenon, there are a few considerations to keep in mind as you decide how to move forward.

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Has Your Long-Term Relationship Grown Stale?

What Does The Three-Year Itch Look Like? 

The three-year-itch is a pop culture term taken from the seven-year itch. It is said that couples who have been together for three years may know by the three-year mark if they want to remain together or not. They may start to see incompatibilities or find themselves arguing more. For some, the three-year mark may involve less conflict. However, no studies showcase whether a relationship will last or end at the three-year mark. Relationships can encounter struggles at any point, including early on, in the middle, or at the end of a relationship. 

However, studies show that several stages of love can play out at different points in a relationship. For many couples, the first six months to a year after meeting for the first time is full of the first stage of love—often known as infatuation. In the beginning year, your brain may more actively produce “happy chemicals” like dopamine and oxytocin when around your partner. 

After the first stage ends, couples might notice more challenging aspects of their partner’s personality and habits. At first, the partners may ignore or give excuses for certain behaviors. Still, after two or three years, each person in the relationship may decide whether to live with or change those behaviors or end the relationship.  

Despite the stages of love progressing, partners can have compatible and fulfilling relationships after the three-year mark. Many individuals find ways to handle any changes around the first three years of dating that cause conflict. One way to do so is to reach out for couples counseling. 

Why Does Love Change In A Relationship? 

After going through the first few stages of love, partners may notice a drop in desire and infatuation. There may be less excitement than there was in the first few stages. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that love has disappeared. Often, love changes into a more long-term, stable type of love that allows for commitment, raising children, or deciding to spend a life together. This stage may feel dull or scary for those who struggle to connect with love that is not intense or all-encompassing.

When the “three-year itch” occurs, it may be because couples lose passion and begin to focus on personality differences, different outlooks and goals, and incompatible lifestyle quirks. They may feel they’re not a match or that the conflicts are unsurpassable. You might ask yourself the following questions when these changes occur: 

  • How would I feel if I lost my partner right now? 
  • Am I taking my relationship for granted?
  • Are these challenges in my relationship something I believe could be worked on if a friend came to me with the same concerns? 
  • Would my partner and I benefit from any changes? 
  • What would make me feel loved? 
  • Are my core values different from my partner’s? 
  • Am I ready for a long-term committed relationship? 

If you determine that you still want and care about your relationship, making changes may benefit you as you navigate a new relationship dynamic.

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What Challenges Can Occur In A Three-Year Relationship? 

Within three years of being together, a couple may be confronted with relationship challenges like conflict. You may face the following concerns if you’re in a committed three-year relationship. 

Sexual Incompatibility 

If you and your partner initially had sexual compatibility and are starting to struggle with your sex life, an underlying concern may be impacting your sexual connection. For example, past experiences, current conflicts, a lack of emotional intimacy, or misunderstandings may cause incompatibility. If you and your partner love each other but struggle to connect sexually, you might benefit from sex therapy with a trained professional. 

No Shared Interests 

It can be normal and healthy to have different interests and hobbies. However, if you have entirely different values, morals, and ideas of fun, it may be hard to connect over time. Often, at the beginning of a relationship, couples take on each other’s hobbies to learn more about each other and connect. However, over time, you might find that you prefer to partake in your own hobbies and feel frustrated or unsure of what to talk about when you and your partner are together. 

Controlling Behaviors 

After time together, partners may start to showcase controlling behaviors. Signs your partner might be acting in controlling ways can include the following: 

  • Asking you where you were when you left 
  • Wanting to track your location at all times
  • Asking you not to go to specific areas or walk in certain ways 
  • Asking you to wear different outfits or makeup 
  • Asking you not to be friends with one particular person, gender, or group of people 
  • Monitoring your social media usage, messages, and internet activity
  • Constantly asking you if you’re cheating 
  • Telling you that you “can’t” do something without consequences 
  • Threatening you if you partake in an activity they don’t want you to 

Note that these behaviors can be part of or warning signs of emotional abuse. In other cases, they may indicate a mental health concern like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or anxiety. In either case, controlling behaviors can be unhealthy and are associated with relationships ending.

Financial Disagreements 

There are many financial situations between couples. In modern society, many couples choose to have separate bank accounts and work their own jobs. Conflicts can occur if two people with different ideas about healthy financial habits come together. 

A counselor can often support couples struggling to make joint financial decisions or agree on financial responsibility. Through therapy, couples can devise compromises and decide on a financial plan that they agree on. 

Past Concerns 

Past challenges can often arise later in a relationship as couples experience more conflicts and learn more about each other. However, if past experiences are brought up only during arguments or ignored until the last minute, they may cause a rift. For example, bringing up an ex-partner during a discussion may cause jealousy, envy, or anger. Although talking about past traumatic experiences or difficulties that formed your personality or helped you grow as a person may be positive, using those experiences to hurt, demean, or ignore your partner can be unhealthy. 

Disrespect 

Disrespectful behavior can also cause a rift in a relationship. If one partner calls the other names, embarrasses them in public, openly flirts with someone else in their presence, picks arguments often, or ignores boundaries, it can be unhealthy. For many, these behaviors are a dealbreaker and can mean the end of a relationship. If disrespectful, impulsive, or unkind behaviors are frequent in a relationship, counseling may be beneficial to address them. 

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Has Your Long-Term Relationship Grown Stale?

Lying And Infidelity 

According to 100% of participants in one study, a healthy and fulfilling relationship is built on trust. If one partner is caught lying or cheating, these behaviors can cause changes in love, connection, and vulnerability. According to the study above, over 50% of couples experience infidelity, which can happen anytime. For many, reaching out to a therapist can be valuable in rebuilding trust after betrayal. However, this aspect can also mean the end of a relationship.  

Keeping Secrets 

Keeping secrets can lead to one or both partners losing trust in each other. Finding out these secrets after being together for years can cause distrust and feeling unsafe during disagreements. If secrets occur in a relationship, receiving mediation from a licensed professional may be beneficial. 

Counseling Options 

Although relationships can experience challenges at any point, many couples find that the initial stages of love wear off around the third year of being together. If you’re experiencing this phenomenon, know you’re not alone. Support is available in the form of couples counseling, and there are many formats you can try. Many couples appreciate the flexibility, affordability, and availability of online therapists. 

Online couples therapy is often a viable alternative to in-person counseling because it is cheaper and in-person therapists often cannot accept insurance for couples and groups. Online, couples can also meet from two separate locations if they are long-distance or their schedules don’t align. In addition, they can choose from phone, video, or live chat sessions to have flexibility with their provider. 

One study found that couples therapy delivered online was as effective as in-person therapy and increased mental well-being, quality of life, and relationship satisfaction in all couples participating, which lasted and increased after treatment had ended. If you’re interested in trying this form of counseling, consider signing up with a platform like Regain, which allows over 12,000 licensed relationship counselors for individuals and couples. 

Takeaway

Challenges often occur for couples after three years together due to changes in the stages of love and difficulty with incompatibility. In these cases, talking to a professional can allow couples to learn healthy coping mechanisms, communicate effectively, and learn more about each other in a safe environment.

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