Ladies, here's a pop quiz.
• My boyfriend and I have spent the last three holidays together.
• We live together
• His parents and I talk on the phone.
• I often wonder "Where is this going?"
• I don't think my boyfriend is ready to get married anytime soon.
Yes to any or all of the above?
Back in the day, love led to marriage. Now, sex leads into love, which evolves 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. But as we navigate our 20s and early 30s building careers and searching for soul-mates, we delay that goal -- yet still want to experience intimate relationships. Think of these long-term relationships as an "internship" 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.
If this sounds like you, some words of advice:
• After 3 years of dating, it's time to make a decision. In other centuries, women gave their virginity. Now the equivalent is our time, argues Seligson. 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 reinforce the idea that it's OK to play at marriage for a while before you actually do it. But if you want to get married and have children, spending your late 20s and early 30s 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.
• 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.
• 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. For college-educated young adults this probably won't impact divorce rates too much, but the disconnect in motives will cause a lot of heartache along the way. And it can be avoided: You can learn his quirks and figure his internal rhythms by spending a lot of time together but not actually giving up your apartment.
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.
Here's to lasting love,
Christine B. Whelan, Ph.D.
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