A Little Bit Married

How to Know When It's Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door


By Hannah Seligson

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Quiz: Are You “A Little Bit Married”?
We’ve been dating for more than a year.
I talk on the phone with his parents.
We go on vacations with each other’s families.
We’re planning to live together (or already do).
I often wonder, “Where is this going?”

Do I just wait around? How can I be sure this person is really “The One”? If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. It’s the dawning of an age when we’re not in any hurry to reach the milestones—house, spouse, and kids—that once marked adulthood, although we’d like to get there . . . soon.

In this practical, no-holds-barred guide, Hannah Seligson delivers an eye-opening look at why serial long-term relationships have become the new romantic rite of passage. From making life-changing sacrifices for your partner to dealing with doubts, Seligson explains how to make the most of this ambiguous state, including:
• What are the signs s/he’s ready for long-term commitment?
• How do you make decisions about careers, cohabitation, and religion when there isn’t a ring?
• What’s the best way to mention the “M” word to a commitment-phobe?
• How long should you stay A Little Bit Married before tying the knot . . . or moving on?

Combining expert advice with compelling anecdotes, A Little Bit Married will provide you with the roadmap you need to survive the life stage post–“Let’s Do It!” and pre–“I Do.”


To my parents,
Judy Seligson and Allan Greenberg.

In our imperfectly organised society there is no provision as yet for the young woman who claims the privileges of marriage without assuming its obligations.
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
It was somewhere between the baked ziti he made for me one very cold Tuesday night in November and a ski trip we took in January when I fell in love with Daniel. We were seniors in college, but this wasn’t the era of free love or part of the casual hook-up culture that has recently come in vogue. Daniel took me home to meet his parents, grandparents, and cousins. Seamlessly we became part of each other’s lives. His Mom used to ask when we would have children. Although marriage never came up explicitly, the signs that I imagined were culminating into making a life-long commitment were everywhere. Very quickly—between the ziti and the ski trip—Daniel told me he loved me. I had received a job offer in New York, and Daniel quickly accepted one as well. Our lives were moving in sync.
In late June of 2004, after graduation, we moved to New York. We didn’t officially live together, but my apartment became a very expensive closet. I spent the majority of the week at Daniel’s apartment, fully cementing our domestic routine: ordering in sesame chicken and scallion pancakes from Grand Sichuan and watching Hardball.
In hindsight, of course, I can appreciate that my view of the relationship was rather myopic. I was deeply embedded. Daniel and I were playing house. But that makes it sound like some charade. We were doing things that, in any other era, would have been considered a direct pathway to marriage. Today, it’s just considered practice or, as I came to call it, being A Little Bit Married. The vacations we took together, the enormous amount of time we spent with each other’s families, and the daily emotional binding and sacrifices we made for each other read—for me—as a tacit agreement that we’d do this for a few years and then get married. In my mind, there was no other interpretation. Daniel, however, ultimately did have a very different interpretation. His doubts reached a boiling point the following June. For him, there was some abstract notion of love and commitment that our relationship wasn’t meeting. It’s been said that his breakup reasoning about not wanting to spend all of his money in his bank account on me and that “we don’t stay up talking on the phone until 2 AM” were plucked directly from an episode of Dawson’s Creek.
Although at the time my breakup with Daniel felt like the most personal painful experience, it was a relationship rite of passage that the vast majority of young people today will go through. This book is an attempt to understand the atmospherics of “A Little Bit Married” as a new relationship ritual. Why are people not only dating for such long periods of time, but also making marriage-like sacrifices when they aren’t married? When is the breaking point for those of us who are A Little Bit Married? Is it after six months? A year? Three years? The one universal rule that does apply is that relationships need momentum, and a point in the future can help build and sustain that momentum. After that initial haze of falling in love, which has a shelf life of about six months, there will inevitably be questions about the future—whether it’s after a year and a half and your boyfriend casually mentions he would like to move to London for a few years, or it’s after five years and you decide to take that film job in Los Angeles that you’ve been dreaming about since college.
The dating landscape is now teeming with e-mail queries like this one: “Hello, my girlfriend and I are in search of a one bedroom apartment on the East Side.” Girlfriend, I wondered? Maybe he meant fiancée? I tried to construct their life story for a moment. He must be in his mid-thirties and getting ready to pop the question, but wants to try it out before he makes a commitment that today could easily last fifty years. I scrolled down to the bottom of his e-mail. He graduated in 2005, which, by my best estimation, put him at twenty-four years old—and he was moving in with his girlfriend.
In cities across America, apartments are littered with specimens that, even forty years ago, anthropologists would have said confirmed that a couple lived there as husband and wife. “Yeah, I lost a good half of my wardrobe and a couple hundred dollars in gadgets,” Evan, twenty-nine, said about the belongings that are now in the abyss of “things that now belong to my ex” after his relationship with his live-in girlfriend of three years petered out. Peek into the condos and homes of most twenty-something couples in a relationship today and, if they haven’t moved in officially, it sure looks like they have. Their belongings—toothbrushes, T-shirts, and iPods—will one day be considered artifacts of the early days of the twenty-first-century romantic rite of passage: the long-term relationship. Somewhere in between the commonly recognized romantic rites of passages—your first kiss, your first boyfriend or girlfriend, losing your virginity, and, of course, marriage—you now get your marriage training wheels with your first mini-marriage.
How can you be A Little Bit Married? Isn’t that as oxy-moronic as saying someone is a little bit pregnant? You would think. After interviewing over one hundred men and women who have spent at least a year in a monogamous relationship, “A Little Bit Married” was the only way to define this pervasive relationship state. These are relationships that even sixty or seventy years ago would have most likely culminated in marriage, but, because of a host of social, economic, and cultural factors that I’ll discuss in greater detail throughout this book, often do not. Although a year was the qualifying length of time to be considered “A Little Bit Married,” over half the people interviewed for this book had been dating for over two years.
An important disclaimer before we continue: The research and reporting I did for this book focuses on a small slice of the social pie. The interviewees were mostly upwardly mobile, college-educated twenty- and thirty-somethings living in urban areas. In other pockets of the country, there is a much different relationship landscape—namely the trend of marrying very early. And in other parts of the globe, like in many European countries, young people are brushing off marriage altogether. This book is not meant as a grandiose romantic state of the union. Rather, its goal is to sketch out what’s happening among people who are A Little Bit Married—a population that does not represent the socio-economic or psychographic dimensions of everyone in this cohort.
If A Little Bit Married had an avatar, it would be Prince William, heir to the British throne, and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, who have been dating for over six years. Although Britain’s betting shops put the odds on a 2009 marriage at 2:1,1 there has been no official royal press release about an upcoming engagement, bucketing them in with the millions of other couples who are just A Little Bit Married. The snarky British tabloids even dubbed her “Waitie Katie.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, I witnessed just about every friend and friend’s friend drift in and out of long-term relationships. It was everywhere I looked. That became the impetus to take the conversations from informal (you know, the ones at the brunch table about whether he should take the plunge and propose or the half-lucid mea culpa of “we are living together, but I’ll never marry someone who isn’t Jewish”) to a formal interview process. I had some loosely formed theories based on the dozens of hours I’d spent mulling over the question that was at the crux of these relationships: How do you know when it’s time to end the rehearsal and either walk down the aisle or out the door? The axis many of these mock marriages turned on was the looming question, “Do I want to marry this person?” A question that, for many A Little Bit Marrieds, takes years of rehearsal to answer.
To begin mining for answers, I had to examine what these relationships looked like in the flesh and blood, from both the male and female perspective. Were these long-term relationships different for men and women? Did these couples talk about marriage? Why were men and women staying in relationships for half of their twenties or well into their thirties if they weren’t going to marry the person? What were they hoping to discover about their partner in these prolonged years of dating? Were women of Generation Y conforming to the stereotypes of women chomping at the bit to get married while their boyfriends preferred to remain bachelors? Or was this generation turning that gender dynamic on its head? What were the challenges and benefits of being A Little Bit Married? The reporting process gave me a high-focus lens into the marital aspirations as well as romantic desires and fears of my generation. In order to sociologically and psychologically contextualize this new romantic rite of passage, the book includes insights from psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and relationship experts.
In the ensuing chapters, I’ll go into much greater detail about the many facets of being A Little Married, exploring everything from career trade-offs couples make to be in these relationships, to whether men and women view their marriage timetables differently, to what effect today’s prolonged adolescence has on our marital ambitions and whether the fear of the dating trenches keeps us A Little Bit Married long past the relationship’s expiration date, to what qualities people look for during these years of courtship.
But, for a moment, I will talk in broad strokes about what these relationships, in their best form, offer. Yes, many do not pan out to proffer life-long compatibility or children, but they do, on the other hand, tender a great learning experience, valuable ego-building, a stay against loneliness, and some lessons about how to act or not to act in a relationship. For example, Kate, twenty-seven, now single, described it like this: “Being a little married is like what I would imagine being married is like—sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s great. It’s cool being in love and fantasizing and planning for the future. It’s great not to be lonely. On the flip side, it sucks to question the character/intentions/body odor/overall compatibility of the person you are spending almost all of your free time with, and you’ve gotten yourself all occupied while something better could be behind you.” Maya, twenty-seven, who has been in and out of her long-term relationship for eight years, says: “You get to see what life would be like—it’s like an internship. Look, families and relationships are complicated, so it gives you a window into whether you want this for the rest of your life.”

First Comes Love, Then Comes A Little Bit Married
Why the Long-Term Relationship
Has Become the New
Romantic Rite of Passage
Dating is not what it was fifty years ago. Dating is
evolving into this gradual process of moving in. It
involves nights spent over at one or the other’s place.
There’s the toothbrush, then a few items of clothing.
All of a sudden, they realize they’ve moved in.
Pamela Smock, University of Michigan Institute for Social Research
“So, catch me up. What’s going on with school? Your love life?” I asked my friend Sara at our monthly girls’ night in. “School is fine,” she said, glossing over the details to get to what she really wanted to talk about: her relationship. “But I’m in a stalemate with Adam,” she confided. Her boyfriend of over a year had just dropped the bomb that he wasn’t sure if he was ready to get married. She told us, “He says he is waiting for some sign that this is right. I’m twenty-five and he is twenty-seven, shouldn’t we be moving toward marriage? And now do I just wait around for him to be ready? My time is valuable.” Right, in other centuries women gave their virginity, now the equivalent is our time. The room fell silent as everyone channeled some version of their own current or past “Adam” situation.
My grandparents went on five dates over a ten-month period before my grandfather proposed. They were happily married for forty-seven years. Nowadays, five dates is the point when you’ve friended each other on Facebook and are in the midst of a series of coy e-mail and text-message exchanges. The era in which my grandparents courted was defined by a compressed time frame—everything happened very fast. It’s the opposite today; the courtship and dating rituals have been elongated. In another not-so-distant time, to even sleep in the same bed—let alone live together as a couple—was considered an unspoken agreement to get married. But today, as Evan, twenty-nine, who has been dating his girlfriend for six years, puts it, “You can start your life without a gold band on your finger.” Marriage is no longer the big bang it was for earlier generations. There is now a huge stopgap between dating and marriage—it’s a place where young men and women are forming long-term relationships that have many similarities to marriage, yet aren’t quite. Welcome to the age of A Little Bit Married.

The Odyssey Years

In a widely circulated piece, “The Odyssey Years,” David Brooks, an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, recently pondered the new pathway to adulthood. He wrote, “There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now, there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”1 Professor Michael Kimmel, a leading researcher on men and masculinity and the author of Guyland, says his bird’s-eye view of the dating landscape is “dizzying”: “Today, I see a lot of young people leaving college and eventually they start dating and drifting in and out of a state of arrested development.”2
Are we a generation defined by the hook-up culture of casual sexual encounters? It’s true that shows like Entourage and The Hills popularize the image of singles on the prowl for a different sexual partner every night of the week. And in real life, many twenty-somethings are angsting over the protocol after a one-night stand. However, there is another storyline to Generation Y romances that sounds more like, “What should I get his mother for her birthday?” Long-term relationships are an equally common romantic state of affairs. In her “Sexplorations” column for The Columbia Spectator, student Miriam Dataksokvy documented the sex lives of her peers for two-and-a-half years. She observed that there are two ways to be romantically involved when you are in college: hooking up or intense monogamy, otherwise known as the “college marriage.”3
In fact, a Pew Research study found that about a quarter of unmarried Americans (26 percent or about 23 million adults) say they are in a committed romantic relationship4—this means that well over half of the eighteen- to-twenty-nine set are or are seeking to be coupled.5
“A Little Bit Married” is a term I coined to describe a new romantic rite of passage taking place among the urban, college-educated, under-thirty-five demographic: the long-term, unmarried relationship. Yet, despite its pervasiveness, multi-year dating for young people is terra incognita, whose terrain we are just starting to map. For Gabby, twenty-eight, the half-decade she spent dating her boyfriend was a precursor to marriage: “We had dinner with his parents, went on each other’s family vacations—we basically did all the same things that we now do now that we have a marriage license.” Robert, twenty-four, says A Little Bit Married is an apt description for his year-and-a-half relationship: “I realized I was in deep when I went to two Passover Seders with her, and I’m not even Jewish. We go on vacation, do holidays with each other’s families, and I flew across the country for one day just to be her date at a wedding.” For many, A Little Bit Married (ALBM) is a relationship pattern that they ebb in and out of for a good part of their twenties and thirties. It’s not unusual, as many ALBMs noted, to stop playing house with one partner and then move in or start seriously dating another. Serial monogamy is back, except now it comes with a dog and a shared mailing address. Jason, twenty-eight, dated his girlfriend for over two years and described their dynamic as “very domesticated.” “We were like an old married couple, except that we didn’t have rings.” Chloe, thirty-one, has been A Little Bit Married a few times in her twenties. She even went as far as talking about buying a house with one of her long-term boyfriends, stating, “You share things with the person like you are married, but you aren’t, which can be quite confusing.”

Signs You Are ALBM

The baseline ALBM definition I’ve come up with is being in a monogamous non-matrimonial relationship for at least twelve months. In practice, however, what being A Little Bit Married means varies dramatically. Maybe you and your boyfriend have lived together long enough to reach what many states would deem a legitimate common-law marriage. Or maybe you’re not living together, but are fielding questions from relatives about where you two would like to eventually settle down. Perhaps you’ve talked about honeymoons, or made geographical adjustments to accommodate the other’s career. Tara, thirty, who dated her boyfriend for four years before getting engaged, captured a prevailing theme: ALBM is all about living in the hypothetical. “When we were A Little Bit Married,” she said, “everything we talked about was qualified with an ‘if.’ It’s not the kind of conversation I would have if I were talking to my husband.”
Sure, prolonged dating is full of fun coupley things: there are anniversary dinners, vacationing together, and owning a dog. But ALBM is riddled with emotional baggage. We are giving up on dream jobs and other goals to be close to our partners. We’re settling for each other’s foibles and imperfections as if we were married. And more often than not, we’re emotionally, financially, and psychologically banking on these relationships turning into wedding invitations—when many times they don’t. The consensus from those in the throes of this life stage is this: A Little Bit Married is a gray area. And a gray area is the midwife of relationship stress.
1.My boyfriend and I have spent the last three holidays together.YES or NO
2.We live together.YES or NO
3.His parents and I talk on the phone.YES or NO
4.We’ve been on each other’s family vacations.YES or NO
5.We’re casual about using statements like, “When we get married. . . .”YES or NO
6.We talk about and plan for the future.YES or NO
7.I often wonder, “Where is this going?”YES or NO
8.If I got a great job in another city, he’d probably move for me and vice versa.YES or NO
9.I’ll be ready to get married within the next year.YES or NO
10.I don’t think my boyfriend is ready to get married anytime soon.YES or NO
For every “Yes” give yourself a point. If you scored above a six, you are one of the millions of ALBMs.
Beth, twenty-eight, says “percolating anxiety” described how she felt about the future and the meaning of the past three years that she and her boyfriend, Alex, had spent practically living together and integrating into each other’s families: Where is this going? Where is the ring? Why is he not proposing if we spend every holiday with his family or mine? She explains that, “It was difficult being in a state of unknown.” Beth recalls the many occasions she raised the question of her future with Alex: “At the time, he said he wanted to finish graduate school and then see where he was at. That was two years away. I was so baffled that he didn’t know where we were at. I definitely felt like he was putting the brakes on the whole marriage thing. I wish I had had some guidance during that period, because it was really tough.”
Nina, thirty, who has been dating her boyfriend for five years, says dating for half a decade took her by surprise: “It never occurred to me that this would be a form of a relationship . . . that I could be dating someone for this long without it being legally sanctioned by the state. Yet we definitely function like a married couple, in that we know each other’s families and live together.”
It’s a morass of confusion out there about how to swim through this life stage toward marriage and not just tread water. And, as Beth points out, it’s hard to hold back when you get deeply entrenched with someone, not to mention their friends and family. A Little Bit Married isn’t only about always having a plus-one; there are a bevy of issues with which to contend during this period of marriage-lite. Couples have to negotiate how to harmonize their career goals, how to live together and manage the problems that come with domesticating, not to mention figuring out how, or if, to take the next step—crossing the marital readiness gap. There are custody battles over the parrot or about apartments with rents that can’t be paid because the “breadwinner” isn’t ready to tie the knot. It’s a life overshadowed by the looming questions: Is this right? If it is, how do I know? You are beyond the point of being just boyfriend and girlfriend, but you aren’t married, so you exist in this constant state of limbo that even the most intrepid daters can find unsettling.
But here’s the thing: Just as there are rules for casual dating, shouldn’t there be rules—or at least guidelines—for relationships that will take up the better part of our early adulthood?

Why Is Everyone Dating for Such a Long Period of Time?

It’s now become the norm for couples to date for three, five, even ten years.6 But after a few years, people get restless. Lilly, twenty-six, who has been dating her boyfriend for three years and currently lives with him, says she’s gotten the A Little Bit Married itch: “It’s hard for me because I’m such a planner, and it feels like I have no control over when it happens.” Melanie, thirty-two, now married, says she hit her wall at five years: “At our four-year anniversary, I was kind of like, whatever, but at half a decade, I thought I was wasting my life.”
Many A Little Bit Marrieds say that while they’ve been dating, they’ve seen friends circle through a whole “life cycle”—they’ve met, gotten engaged, married, bought a house, and have had kids during the duration of the ALBM’s relationship.
Here’s a bit of context for why you and all your friends are plodding along with no imminent plans to send out save-the-date cards. Let’s start with this: The median age for a first marriage in the United States is the highest it’s ever been—27.1 for a man and 25.3 for a woman7—and it tips even higher in many cities. As people have postponed walking down the aisle, other new dating rituals—prolonged courtship and cohabitation—have become socially acceptable. In fact, the number of cohabiting couples has grown more than tenfold during the last forty years. Forty years ago, in 1970, only about 500,000 couples lived together in unwedded bliss; now, over five million opposite-sex couples in the United States live together outside of marriage.”8 A 2005 article in the Detroit News came close to calling the rise of cohabiting couples an epidemic, complete with a governmental response: “The burgeoning number of cohabiting couples—about 8 percent of American households, and most between the ages of 25 and 34—has sparked a national discussion among sociologists and researchers about the political, social and economic ramifications of so many marriage-wary people living together. It also prompted the Bush administration to push for more marriages with the Initiative for Healthy Marriage.”9 As you’ll see in the chart on page 19, there is a massive cultural shift taking place about how people go about tying the knot.


On Sale
Dec 29, 2009
Page Count
352 pages

Hannah Seligson

About the Author

Hannah Seligson is a journalist and author of New Girl on the Job, featured in USA Today, Glamour, and the New York Times. A graduate of Brown University, she lives in New York.

Learn more about this author