Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

Click this banner to see the entire section.

January 2nd, 2011

Are You A Little Bit Married?

How to know if it's time to walk down the aisle or go your separate ways



Matt, 29, and his girlfriend, Kelly, 28, have been dating for four years and living together for two. They were both raised Catholic, attend Church occasionally, and joke about “living in sin” and being “semi-married.” Kelly told me she was OK moving in with Matt because she just assumed that this was a step in the right direction — toward real marriage. But in the last few months, each time she’s brought up the future in some oblique way, Matt has dodged the issue. “I talk to his parents all the time. We spend most holidays together,” she said. “But I’m just not sure where this is going right now, and I’m beginning to get worried.”

Sound familiar?

Back in the day, love led to marriage. Now, for too many couples, sex evolves into love, which leads to about a decade of being “a little bit married” — the long-term, exclusive relationships that we’ve created as a waypoint on the road to adulthood. In a well-researched and cleverly written pop-sociology self-help book, A Little Bit Married, author and journalist Hannah Seligson explains this new demographic trend.

The vast majority of young adults want to get married — and that’s certainly true of young-adult Catholics. But as we navigate our twenties and early thirties, building careers and searching for soul mates, we delay that goal — yet still want to experience intimate relationships. We think of these long-term relationships as “internships” for marriage: You want to test it out, have some of the fun without all the commitment and see if it’s right for you. Maybe you’ve been dating for two years and have decided to adopt a puppy — with no official plans for the future. Or maybe the two of you are planning a housewarming party for your new apartment — with no ring exchange in sight.

Ladies, some words of advice

This kind of thinking is common among both men and women — but let’s be honest: the ladies get to the marriage idea before the guys do. Maybe it’s how we’ve been raised, or our biological clocks, or that it’s the girls that get more pressure from their families. I know there are tons of guys out there who want to make a long-term, lasting commitment (and I’d love to hear your stories!) but when it comes to long-term relationships that seem to go on and on forever with angst and uncertainty, it’s usually because the guy isn’t ready for — or is dodging — questions about marriage; not the girl.

So, ladies, if this sounds like your relationship, some words of advice:

  • After three years, it’s time to make a decision. If you want to get married and have children, spending your late twenties and early thirties with a man who turns on the PlayStation every time you bring up “the future” isn’t a great idea. Peter Pan guys — child-men who can’t commit to theater tickets next month, nonetheless a lifetime commitment to you — may not be the best mates.

    Whether you are saving sex for marriage or totally shacked up, at a certain point it’s time to make a decision: In your gut, in that place where you hear God’s voice calling you, there’s an answer. Is it time to walk down the aisle, or to go your separate ways?

    A Little Bit Married takes a light-hearted approach, weighing the pros and cons of cohabitation, advising women on how to bring up “the future” without appearing desperate or insecure, and interviewing dozens of couples and experts to get the facts on cohabitation and divorce. (Unsurprisingly, the bottom line is that living together does not help your chance of having a lasting, happy relationship.)

  • Talk to each other, people. I mean, seriously, figure out what you want and say it. One of the reasons romantic comedies frustrate me is because if the couple would clearly express how they are feeling things wouldn’t be so complicated. I had that similar anxiety reading the interviews in A Little Bit Married: Men repeatedly told Seligson they “hadn’t really thought about” marriage, kids and the future. Yes, it’s something they want to do, but “later.” This drives most women bonkers. Yet, because the ladies are too afraid to rock the boat, no one says anything. In “Are we there yet?” a news-you-can-use chapter on how to bring up the future, Seligson lays out empowered ways for women to express their feelings.

    Honest communication is so crucial — for both men and women. If you two can’t talk to each other about your feelings and thoughts about the future, it’s time to move on to a relationship in which you can express those emotions.

  • The time to talk about your faith is now — not later. In an interview, Seligson told me that for most of the “a little bit married” set, couples simply don’t talk about religion and how religious differences might play out in a future marriage. “Religion just becomes another one of those issues that ‘will work itself out'” later, she said. But by not discussing this crucial issue during what is supposed to be a trial run for marriage, couples are doing themselves a disservice. “You can both be Catholic but have polar opposite concepts of what that means in practice. You can believe it means going to confession every week, and he can think it means going to Mass on Christmas Eve,” and those differences are too important to be worked out in a slap-dash way later on.

  • Don’t move in with him until there’s a ring on your finger. Girls think living together is a sign that marriage is on the horizon, but guys don’t see it that way, according to research by Pamela Smock at the University of Michigan. The vast majority of millennial couples will live together before marriage — and that includes Catholic couples, too. That means that this disconnect in motives will cause a lot of heartache for a lot of folks along the way. And it can be avoided: You can learn his quirks and figure out his internal rhythms by spending loads of time together without giving up your apartment. Premarital sex, cohabitation and “playing house” are not necessary to learn if you’re compatible mates: Spending plenty of time together, sharing hopes, fears, dreams and good communication, however, are necessary ingredients for success.

    Plus, research clearly shows that women who live with more than one partner have double the odds of divorce in the future. And even though you might think that the relationship is leading to marriage, have you clearly talked about it? Are you sure you are both on the same page about your emotional expectations as you move your espresso machine into his kitchen? Whatever you do, please don’t “tumble into” living together — a trend Seligson explores in detail — and then shrug and decide that marriage is the next step because it’s too exhausting to think about breaking up, moving out and dating again.

While A Little Bit Married isn’t written for a Catholic audience specifically, surveys have shown that the behavior, concerns and aspirations of young-adult Catholics tends to mirror the American population as a whole. So what do you think? Are you “a little bit married”? Post your thoughts and comments below — or email me at puresex@bustedhalo.com.

Originally published February 8, 2010.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
See more articles by (214).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Lucy

    So to answer the author’s question, I’ve been “a little bit married” before. We felt married in our hearts even though it was a distance relationship. Or I did, at any rate. We didn’t live together although we did whenever I came over to visit. And boy did he do the “later” bit – big time! After some years I decided to walk away. I took too long to do it. I deeply feel the loss of years and it is hard to start over again with someone new when you have spent such a significant chunk of your life with one person. Especially if as Catholics you have kind of already committed the mortal sins of having premarital intercourse (and newsflash – we KNOW it’s a mortal sin). Maybe something about doing that makes you feel as though you are sort of informally married. It’s a kind of promise you make with your body that perhaps men and women see differently. It took so long for me to realize that this guy was just trying to see how long he could hold me off with vague promises while he took as much time as he could to actually get his life together so he could eventually commit… whenever that was to happen.

    And when it was all over, all that wasted time, all that mortal sin I heaped on myself and on him hoping for something different – that HURT.

    My experience has taught me that young men will put off real commitment for as long as possible. It’s a lack of moral fiber and I don’t know if it’s encouraged by modern society, if they are just biologically inclined to do this, or what the problem is. But as women we have to STEP UP. As this author implies. We have to be the ones to bring up the scary lifesized issues and start a real dialogue about commitment. And be the ones to be strong enough to walk out the door when we are offered only vague promises and half-steps.

  • Eliminate the negative accentuate the positive!

    Blessed are the pure of heart. We need more emphasis on the positive joyful aspects of chastity and also every young person should be taught the theory of natural family planning so that when they marry they will be relaxed and comfortable with implementing it if health or economic stresses make it necessary for them to try to limit the mother’s child bearing in a prayful and mutually unselfish manner.There are so many positives to our Cathoilic teaching of chastity. It promotes patience respect communication has no nasty side effects of sexually transmitted diseases and ensures that no child arrives into the world without 2 totally appreciative and grateful parents. As for natural family planning it improves spousal communication has no nasty side effects and has no costs involvedand best of all requires equal sacrifice.

  • Steve

    …and a quick search shows a few other examples of His desire for us to judge:

    # 1Cor. 6:2-3 Do you not know that the saints [the saved; Christians] will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
    # Prov. 3:21 My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight;
    # John 7:24 Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.
    # Jer. 22:3 Thus saith the LORD; Execute ye judgment and righteousness…
    # Phil. 1:10 so that you may be able to discern [judge] what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ…
    # Phil. 1:7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you [judge you]…

    As Christians, we are not to judge others in presuming guilt/innocence before God and whether they are going to heaven or hell. However, we ARE called to identify sin and encourage sinners to change their ways in all kindness and charity.

  • Greg

    Jason – I think “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is in the bible.

  • jim

    Good to hear that the stereotype of the Peter Pan dude is not dead! No guy WANTS to get married-girls have to trick them into it-what a great message to send. Especially since the traditional reasons for marriage for women-economic security and babies-aren’t as much of a factor these days.

  • Blake

    The article offers advice for ladies who find themselves in these types of relationships. But what advice would you propose for men?

  • Philip

    No decision IS a decision. How many times have we heard our voice echo during prayer ? That’s when we need to stop talking and listen. First, Ask God what to do. Know that the right answer will come by LISTENING to your heart and God will guide you every step of the way. Any questions?

  • Joe

    One of the reasons that I recommend this site is its practical view. This means connecting and presenting many viewpoints on a human level. The church oftentimes neglects or does not communicate the economic and social challenges facing young adults and families today. The answers are not black and white. This article maintains the root of church teaching on pre-marital relations while also dealing with the modern challenge. It speaks to how to improve the health and welfare of our relationship decisions – very difficult personal decisions. This is a well-balanced article.

  • jason

    How is it charitable and loving to lie to someone? Would it not be a lie to avoid telling someone that something is a sin if it is true? A doctor who tells his patient that he is dying is simply pointing out the obvious. No one says we should be going around seeking out people to condemn, but it seems deliberate to avoid stating the obvious in an article about cohabitating.

    We aren’t supposed to leave the judging to God, that is no where in the bible. Matthew 18 14-17. James 5 20 are pretty clear. And to answer the objection, the “cast the first stone” doesn’t fit because we’re not attempting to impose a punishment for the sin, we’re talking about calling sin sin, and not being quiet about it. Nowhere are we called to do that.

  • Nevis

    As someone who works in a Tribunal, a ceremony according to rules of the Church is no guarantee of a successful marriage either any more than living together. The true marriage is a loving commitment to a unity of life, a covenant for the totality of life, including the rearing and education of children that God gives.

  • Jenny

    Just saying that something is a sin is not judging the person, sin is sin. We all do it and it has different levels. When we fully know that somethign we engage in is wrong and it is a serious matter and we go ahead with it anyway that is mortal sin, but if a person doesn’t understand why what they are doing is wrong, even if it is a serious matter like, pre-martial sex then they are not commiting a mortal sin, but it is still wrong and not the best things to do for them. I think as Catholics today we need to call things what they are but we still need to meet people where they are at and help them understand and deepend their relationship with God so that they can make better choices.

  • Kathleen

    In the 18th c. the great UK Protestant John Wesley found most poor couples never married. G.B. Shaw satirizes the same social condition in the early 20th c. These couples, cafeteria “Catholic” & otherwise, are NOT radical: They’re returning to the illiterate slum behavior. They also lack common sense. Nor is it judgmental to say that. The laws of science or theology don’t change just because a 20-something’s hormones are acting out. Secondary issue: One NYC church has a standard stipend of $ 2,500 for what it expects to be a vast dog-and-pony show. Doesn’t ANYone marry quietly anymore, without videographers & wedding planners, just family & friends??

  • ivan tretiak

    Well this was an excellent article ! I don’t understand people who bash such articles. This article represent several couples that I know (and me). We are not all perfect ultra-religious people but we try to be as close to God as we can.

    Once again thank you for this article.

  • Virginia

    I think some of the commenters above need to realize that many young adults already *know* that the Catholic Church teaches not to live together before marriage. Clearly, though, the message of “why” it’s a bad idea is not being explained in a way that is 1) accessible, 2) convincing, 3) powerful enough to combat the [often very practical] reasons FOR moving in together. Sounds like this article and this book help get those reasons out there. Good enough for me!

    Bear in mind, too, that a letter written on this topic by a pope or a group of bishops is going to automatically turn off an entire group of people. I’m not saying it should, but it does. If you want people to see the damage that can be done by being “a little bit married,” then you shouldn’t criticize this article, which is probably reaching an entire group of readers who would never be opening the Catechism. Are we interested in results? — or are we just interested in criticizing people for “not being Catholic enough?”

    On another note: thank you, Dr. Whelan, for mentioning the couples who end up getting married because it’s just too exhausting to contemplate moving out and starting over. I’ve seen this happen, and it’s a real danger with living together. When you share the same space, you often don’t have the physical or mental distance you need to discern whether the relationship is a good one.

    Good article. Thanks.

  • Victoria

    1.) I think it might be nice to remember that this website, while run by a Catholic organization, is meant for all young spiritual seekers (aka not just for Catholics). So, Dr. Christine may be trying to reach out to everyone, not just the Catholics.
    2.) Should we be a faith that starts condemning people once we find out that they are living in “mortal sin?” Is that really what we are called to do? Shouldn’t we welcome everyone, no matter what their lifestyle? I mean, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ… aren’t they?
    3.) Mary, I completely agree with you.
    4.) Dr. Christine, thank you for another great article!

  • Mary

    I’m very surprised at the previous comments – as a 25 year old Catholic I can guarantee that almost every young person my age will have friends, family members, colleagues or even their own partners, considering living de facto. I may be a practising Catholic, but that most certainly does not mean I should start shouting out ‘mortal sin’ at those already living together. If they are not taking their faith seriously, saying ‚Äòpremarital sex is a sin and that‚Äôs it‚Äô will have no effect on their decisions. What we need is a practical argument against cohabiting before marriage, based on research and experience, and this is exactly what Dr. Christine’s article has done.

    God always wants the best for us, which is why we have been given guidelines of how not to live our lives. When we are told that sex before marriage is a sin, the Church is taking care of us, as premarital sexual relations will cause all the negative consequences that Christine has outlined- and these consequences, as well as being spiritual, are also very practical and human. We need to talk about them! I am embarrassed that Catholics can’t see that this article is so helpful for all of us who need a way to explain to our friends, regardless of their faith, to wait until marriage.

  • Claire

    I can appreciate the attempt at taking a seemingly realistic approach to a modern problem but this is way too liberal and carefree in approach, even for BH. I oversee a small youth ministry in Michigan and I think it’s a shame that I can’t reccomend this website when there are so few out there.

  • Paul Morian

    Good that a small mention of the lack of necessity for premarital sex is mentioned here but honestly, I’ve had about all I can take of reading Dr. Whelan’s sex and relationship columns on what I thought was a Catholic online magazine. Shame on you Busted Halo for being so spineless in conveying the Catholic truths about sexuality to your young demographic. I’m in my mid-twenties and this is officially the most confusing place to try and recconect with the love I once had for the Catholic faith. This indifference is posion.

  • Christy

    Wow! Yet another self-righteous & judgmental-sounding Catholic. Lisa’s attitude is the kind I find myself dealing with on a regular basis. No wonder no one wants to come back to the Catholic church. We look like a bunch of jerks. WE ARE SUPPOSED TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER & LET GOD DO THE JUDGING.

    This column brings up a good point that a lot of people haven’t seemed to grasp. My own husband had insisted that we needed to live together before we were married so we could make sure we’re compatible. (We didn’t. I held firm.) And my own sister firmly believes that if she hadn’t lived with her previous boyfriends, she’d have been trapped in terrible marriages. Now she’s trapped in one of the dead-end common-law relationships Whelan is writing about… No ring on her finger, but they’re trying to conceive. She still believes they’re going to get married someday…

  • Lisa

    Wow. Not one mention of the fact that it’s a MORTAL SIN to engage in sexual intercourse before or without the Sacrament of Marriage?

    The reasons the author mentioned are valid in a non religious, worldly sense.

    However, if any of these shack ups have the misfortune of dying before they get around to getting married, they don’t have any reason to believe they’ll will attain Purgatory, let alone Heaven.

    Are we Catholics or are we Protestants or are we like everyone else in the world? This is ridiculous. The Ten Commandents are still in effect!

powered by the Paulists