New-York based writer Hannah Seligson is the author of a book, A Little Bit Married: How to Know When it’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door (to be published in August). Here, Seligson discusses what it means to be “a little bit married” and how this trend is affecting an entire generation’s perspective on love and marriage.
Q: What is the “a little bit married” trend?
A: It’s a new romantic rite of passage. It used to be first comes love, then comes marriage. Now there’s a stopgap between dating and getting married, and it’s this trend of people who date for long periods of time. One permutation of it is cohabitation, but it’s also people who don’t live together but do things that married people do, like go on each other’s family vacations, and emotionally and psychologically bank on these relationships turning into gold bands.
Q: Do you think women more often count on these relationships turning into marriage?
A: There is definitely a gender subtext to what’s happening in this relationship trend. What we found in the research – and I interviewed 100 young men and women who are going through this, as well as a number of experts – is that with cohabitation, women are more likely to see it as a precursor to marriage and men and more likely to see it as a chance to avoid schlepping their squash gear across town. One of the pitfalls of this murky state is that there isn’t always a clear sense between couples about the meaning of it. And maybe women are reading more into certain rituals than men are.
Q: Obviously we’re generalizing, but do you think that once women get locked into relationships they focus on making it work instead of focusing on whether that partner is still right?
A: I think that’s a good point. There is still a lot of pressure on women to get married, so it makes sense that they would want to move along those relationship milestones. There’s still a marital readiness gap. We know that, for men, getting married comes along with a host of breadwinner and provider expectations. A woman in an entry-level job can feel ready to get married. [And] I think there’s a lot of inertia. One of the arguments against cohabitation is that people who live together start thinking, oh, we have a couch and a dog and it’s such a pain to move out. I don’t know whether women are more prone to it than men, but it does occur.
Q: Was it a fairly common scenario that women wanted to get married and they were waiting for the guy to get on the same page?
A: That’s definitely a dynamic, and I have a chapter called “Where is This Going? The Female Proposal.” When you think about it, the marriage timetable is still very much set by the man, so there’s a huge power imbalance there. The majority of women are not getting down on one knee with a ring. The whole mechanics of this proposal process is waiting for this guy, so what you want can kind of become eclipsed.
Q: So how do you know if the relationship you’re in is the right one for you?
A: I can’t tell you that; I can only give you the guidelines. This book is about posing the questions you need to ask to help you think about it more critically.
Q: OK, so what are some of the questions you need to ask in order to determine if someone is right for you?
A: You need to think about what you want and if this person is compatible with your life goals and vision. There are so many people who break off engagements because they never talked about gender roles; maybe she wants to go live in an artists’ colony and he wants a June Cleaver housewife. You have to think about whether or not this person is going to be a good teammate, and a lot of that stems from really knowing yourself and what you want. A lot of it is also a leap of faith. But you have to look at things eyes wide open and the danger of being “a little bit married” is that you commit too soon. But you can’t make a decision about someone until you look at the good, the bad and the ugly.
Q: What did you find to be some of the key deal breakers in these couples who were a little bit married but didn’t actually make it to the alter?
A: We live in a soul mate-saturated society, and there are these sky-high expectations. This book was inspired by my being a little bit married, and my boyfriend at the time breaking up with me because he didn’t want to spend all of the money in his bank account on me and we didn’t talk on the phone until 2am. He had all of these lofty airy-fairy ideas about what love is supposed to be.
Plus, our generation is the children of baby boomers, for whom one in two marriages ended in divorce. That’s a tough legacy to be a part of.
Q: What do you think women often find out or realize too late about their mates?
A: I think they realize too late that this person had no intention to get married for another five or six years. Men don’t feel like adults until they are well on their way career-wise. Even with all of the progress women have made politically, professionally and socially, our tax returns don’t correlate as much with our readiness to get married. People make a lot of assumptions and don’t clarify what things mean. People would rather not know than ask questions. You don’t want to ask, “So where is this going?” so I try to offer some ways to broach the topic that are a little less icky. Like, “What do you see as the main markers of adulthood?” Or, if someone’s considering relocating for grad school, ask them what some of the factors are in their decision – if you’re not one of them, that’s something to think about.
Q: So I guess there’s no way to know for sure that you’re not settling for someone.
A: That is only something that an individual can answer. But most people know how they feel; they just don’t want to admit it. So what’s holding you back from admitting it? Is it social or cultural pressure to get married? Is it that you’ve invested so much? You have to hold up a mirror. Part of it is rational and part of it is a gut feeling. There is a practical side to marriage: Can you live with this person? Can you run a household with them? Do they have the same values and goals and ideas? There are a lot of people who have a great love but would make for a terrible husband and wife. Just focusing on that spark is a very one-dimensional way to look at a relationship. It’s not sustainable.