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Is There A Police Career 7 Year Itch?

A question for you:  Does law enforcement have its own version of the “7 Year Itch?”

The “7 Year Itch” is a term most commonly used as a reference to that time in many relationships – and in particular to a marriage or other committed, long-term bond – where one or both people in it begin to reevaluate their commitment and whether they’ll stay together or not.  It seems to mark a time where romance has given way to routine, what initially attracted two people to each other is no longer as appealing (and may even have become annoying!), and other lifestyle and relationship options are considered by one or both partners.  In short, it’s a dangerous time in the relationship where its continued existence is questioned.

In fact, it does seem most romantic relationships are prone to this danger zone known even if there is disagreement among the experts about when it really begins (7 years?  3 years?  Or is it some other point in the relationship?).  The term “7 Year Itch” itself is not based upon any particularly scientific research… or at least not REAL research, anyway.  The etymology of the phrase indicates it may have come from a study that indicated seven years was about the time in a marriage divorces were statistically most likely to occur, and popularized as the title of a comedic George Axelrod play (and, more famously, 1955 Marilyn Monroe movie) based on the implication of that statistic.   

Anyway, to elaborate on the question we opened this article with:  Is there some reasonably predictable point in time, over the course of a cop’s career, that idealism wanes, disillusion sets in, and the “just happy to be here!” young officer goes missing forever, to be replaced by a jaded doppelganger?  Will the relationship between career and cop inevitably grow stale?

The idea of a police equivalent to the “7 Year Itch” isn’t rally new in theory (although referring to it in exactly that way may be), and has been the subject of some qualitative observation and documentation by academic theoreticians over the years.  We started to think about it a lot more in earnest after I had used the phrase during a training to describe an equivalency in police work we’ve long written and taught about:  that five or ten years down the road from hire, of all those eager and excited young cops that couldn’t wait to get to work each day and hit the street almost all of them will be unrecognizable in attitude, effort, and productivity.  Most will have developed a finely tuned cynicism.  Many will have gone through their first (and maybe even second or third) burnout, and it may have established permanent residence in their psyche.  For others, anger or depression may be daily companions.  Something changes in the heart of a cop a few years into the job, often to the detriment of personal and professional lives, and to the communities counting on engaged police officers to protect them. 

It has been suggested there may be a “life cycle” of a police career, looking similar to the representation in the following manner:

Years 1-2 of the police career… are the ROOKIE YEARS, characterized by the    newness and excitement of the job.

Years 3-7 of the police career… is the transition time from new officer to veteran,             during which the officer is still learning but also becoming “seasoned.”  During    this time the officer is assuming a professional persona and style, and has decided what aspects of law enforcement are most personally appealing and begun to seek opportunities based on that.

Years 5-12 of the police career… is the time cynicism is most likely to take root     and grow.  The officer’s earlier idealism has been whittled away, the former conviction she can “make a difference” is displaced by one that “nothing will ever change,” and very often professional aspirations have been delayed or denied,   there develops a sense of unfairness within the department, and the officer questions both her career choice and self-worth.

Years 10-20+ of the police career… is a time sometimes called “realism” in the life cycle of a police career, in that officers have been able to reconcile their earlier idealism with a more realistic outlook:  “I cannot change the world, but I can make an impact in my little corner of it”; “Crime is a constant and will never go away, but I can do my part to bring those who’d do wrong to justice”; My career may not have gone the way I’d wanted or planned, but it’s been a pretty good one and I’m proud of what I do.  I can commit to doing the best I can in the role I fill.”

Of course, sometimes the realism an officer experiences is merely coming to grips with the frustrations and shortcomings of the job in all their many forms, letting go of bitterness, and learning how to work effectively within the limits of the system.  Disappointments remain, and cynicism may still be present, but the officer has assumed a more philosophical mien.

Years 20 to End of Career… are sometimes called the retirement years.  Of course, in this period officers may have many years ahead of them before retirement but the point is really threefold:  1) Many can retire, whether they choose to or not, by virtue of their years on the job, 2) it is a time many (but certainly not all) officers begin to slow down their productivity, so much so that some acquire the label “ROAD (Retired On Active Duty) Officer,” and 3) many officers begin to consider their legacy in law enforcement and start working toward building and solidifying it.  They may seek promotion, opportunities to mentor, a representational role among their peers, or other ways to accomplish this.

The “7 Year Itch” we are speaking of falls within either the 3-7 or 5-12 year spans listed above (the times are not cut in stone, therefore the overlap).   For many officers it lasts for only a relatively short period of time - a few years, perhaps - and then the career life cycle moves on.  Others may never experience it at all.  But for some it creates bitterness lasting far more than just a few years; they may burn out fast and stay stuck, never truly realizing their potential or giving their agencies, colleagues, and community their most honest effort. 

And some just hang it up for good, leaving the profession and never looking back. 

Even if the duration is of the "7 Year Itch" is relatively short, it can still do long-term damage to a career - and to officers' personal lives.  For your peace of mind, finding ways to identify, know, and combat this period of professional restlessness and dissatisfaction can be critical.

So we return to the question we opened with:   Does law enforcement really have its own version of a “7 Year Itch”?  And then we’ll add this one:  What, if anything, can a law enforcement officer do to stave it off, or at least minimize its effects?

We welcome your thoughts and insights.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.