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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published February 8, 2010.