From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
More often than not, it happens. In the course of marriage, a seven-year hitch is marked by the onset of the seven-year itch, a malady unknown to dermatologists but familiar to marriage counselors and victims of the disease. Symptoms: He stops holding the door and starts pointing to it; she stops making dinner and starts making reservations; he stops calling her dear and starts calling her expensive. This can apply to anyone, from royals to regular folk. (For a look at how five American couples married the same week as Charles and Di have weathered their hitches, see page 70.) Of course, when you're dealing with royalty, the symptoms of the itch take quite a different form: Perhaps she finds lipstick on his epaulet; maybe he notices that she leaves her tiaras lying around the palace and is relying more and more frequently on caviar helper at dinner. They fight about little things, like who's going to walk the polo ponies and who dented the carriage. She's always yelling at him about why they have to spend so much time with his mother. He used to call her his little crown jewel; now he just wants to crown her.

Seven years ago the House of Windsor breathed a sigh of relief and the rest of world held its breath as Charles, then 32, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, etc., etc., and the ravishing Lady Diana Frances Spencer, 20, said, "I will." Since then, the couple's comings, goings, doings, fashions and purported fits, feuds and fights have been relentlessly chronicled at home and abroad. (For a blow-by-blow account, see the chart on page 68.) As time passed, the questions changed. "Isn't she beautiful?" "Aren't they lucky?" and "What could be more perfect?" have given way, in the last few years, to "Can this marriage be saved?" It no longer seems an issue of whether the prince and princess are in the same house together, it's whether they're in the same country together. It's not whether they're whispering sweet nothings, it's whether they're speaking. And although the marriage seems to be running more smoothly of late, pragmatism, and not romance, appears to be a dominant theme. Consider:

•Charles has spent five holidays without his family this year, including an Easter fishing expedition at Balmoral with Lady "Kanga" Tryon—reportedly an ex-flame—her husband and other chums.

•In May, Charles went on a painting holiday in Florence, where he usually stays at the house of Marchesa Bona de Frescobaldi. This time, because unfounded rumors of an affair between the two had become so persistent, Bona's brother-in-law asked the prince to find someplace else to flop.

•On the day Charles left for Italy, Diana rushed little Prince Harry to the hospital for an emergency operation for a minor hernia. She continually visited him during his week-long recuperation in London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. In fairness to Charles, he offered to return to England. Di said he didn't have to.

Arlene Kagle, a New York psychologist (and devout Anglophile) who specializes in therapy for couples, believes the evolutionary pattern of the Waleses' marriage isn't unusual. "The seven-year itch begins long before the seventh year," says Kagle. "And certainly we know that's true with Charles and Di. At some point after a couple has been married for two or three years, and the sense of joy, relief and excitement at finding someone to share your life with has waned, each person comes up against some part of the other person that they don't like and can't change. Some couples resolve all this. They change, they compromise. Sometimes the issue is postponed. When the issues are well resolved, it brings couples to an even deeper level of closeness and commitment. If they're not resolved well, they can be the seeds for divorce. Another alternative is that the couple goes in separate directions, which seems to be the case with the Prince and Princess of Wales."

As for the cause of the royal itch, scratch Diana. Most palace observers finger Charles as the culprit. "He carries on exactly as if he were a bachelor," admits one of the prince's friends. "He plays polo exactly when he wants to. He gives dinner parties for guests he chooses. He goes off on painting or culture holidays exactly when he wants."

According to some royal watchers, even the polo and the painting and the parties aren't making Charles happy. "I think he's absolutely miserable," says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine and author of a forthcoming biography, Diana. "Maybe he agonizes too much about the marriage."

Still, many close observers believe that far from trying to figure who gets custody of the castles and of Wills and Harry for the Christmas holidays, the Waleses are doing better than they were a year ago. And if they're not exactly singing Our Love Is Here to Stay, neither are they singing Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. "The marriage was based on very well analyzed thinking about the future," says Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage. "And as far as the Waleses' friends and relations are concerned, it's a far more successful marriage than they had ever dreamed possible. They see the marriage as going from strength to strength."

The couple's July 16 turnout to see Michael Jackson at Wembley Stadium gives some credence to that view. The two laughed and smiled throughout the concert, and Diana was even spotted whispering in Charles's ear during Jackson's rendition of Dirty Diana. At one point the prince actually got to his feet and swayed to the beat—a remarkable feat for a known rock dud.

"There continues to be a lot of caring and mutual respect between the couple," says a close family source, who predicts that the next five years will be a period in which Diana will mature "by leaps and bounds," thereby producing more intellectual equilibrium and marital compatibility. Ingrid Seward also sees peace in the couple's future, but not necessarily unity. "Things have leveled out," she says. "They've sort of reached a compromise. They're doing their own thing. But it's rather sad. When they got married seven years ago, people loved their being together and rather hoped that they'd always be together." Many people still do, and whether they're hoping against hope remains to be seen.

—By Joanne Kaufman, with Laura Sanderson Healy and Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey in London