Are you "a little bit married?" What to do when you're in a long-term, unmarried relationship.
A 2006 Pew Research study found that about a quarter of unmarried Americans (23 million) say they are in unmarried committed romantic relationships. A slice of this population is what I dub "a little bit married": They live together, go on each other's family vacations and own pets together, but aren't yet engaged. In my new book, A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It's Time to Walk Down The Aisle or Out the Door, I conclude that "a little bit married" (ALBM) is a recent cultural phenomenon, taking place especially among college-educated, upwardly mobile, twenty- and thirty-somethings.
ALBM is a stopgap between dating and marriage, a place where many people find themselves parked for long periods of time. As the median age for a first marriage in the United States soars to the highest it's ever been—27.1 for a man and 25.3 for a woman (and it tips even higher in many cities)—new dating rituals such as 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.
Yet despite its pervasiveness, ALBM is often the cause of relationship stress. So how do you swim through this life stage toward marriage and not just tread water? Here are some cardinal rules to help you survive being ALBM.
Be Honest with Yourself. Will you be happy if the status quo remains the same for the next two years, or if there's no clear commitment to the future? Do you even want to get married? Do you want to have children? Ask yourself what you really want from the relationship. That way you'll be able to have an honest and empowered conversation with your partner about how, when or if to take the next step. 5 Steps To Take If Your Man Hasn't Proposed
Ask the Right Questions. Yes, you can ask your partner, "Where is this going?" But that might not help you learn what you really want to know, like whether you have compatible career goals or priorities in life, and where he sees himself at 35. It's worth asking about these things so that there are no hidden deal breakers.
Set Time Frames. A lot of people want to have children sooner rather than later, so time is an especially valued commodity. Yet there's an epidemic of women out there who waste precious years of their lives hoping for a marriage proposal. If you're in any kind of hurry, you should be clear with him and with yourself about how long you'll tolerate the lack of inertia.
Beware of Free-Falling into a Living Arrangement. The story typically sounds like this: "We never really discussed moving in. It just sort of happened one day when my lease was up." Those are not ideal conditions under which to start living together. Before moving in, at the bare minimum, consider the following: Will you split the rent down the middle? What happens if one person makes significantly more money than the other? How long is the lease? What if you break up? Who would move out and how would you pay for it? Also make sure that you've talked through the issues that regulate your quality of life, like whether it'll be more frat house or Buddhist monastery and who will clean what. Move In Together, Fight-Free
Assess Your Probable Future. Keep in mind that marriage is an inexact science, but that there are some ways to assess how good a future you might have together. Consider these questions: How does s/he react to change or crisis? Can you laugh together? What is your intuition telling you? Do you feel like you're "forcing" things to work? Has your relationship gotten better over time? Do you both stay on the dance floor? How do you fight? Does your partner bring out the best in you? Do they take care of themselves?
So is ALBM just another name for relationship purgatory, a no-man's-land where couples go to rot? Not necessarily. Typically, both men and women ALBMs want to get married; they just don't have the same time frame. ALBM is the less-than-ideal substitute, like NutraSweet. So assess where you are in life, and make your future one you want.