January 14, 2010


A Little Bit Married: How to Know When it’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door. By Hannah Seligson. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Living in sin. Shacking up. Cohabiting. Sharing space. Being in a long-term relationship. Trial marriage. The words for being more than “friends with benefits” but less than “a married couple” have changed – evolved, even – but the state of uncertainty associated with being neither single nor legally bound has not changed much at all. It’s just that now it gets chronicled in Facebook postings, Twitter tweets, and books such as A Little Bit Married. Hannah Seligson, author of New Girl on the Job, seems to feel she is also a new girl on the sociological scene, having stumbled (in part through her own ALBM experience) on a major social trend. Or does she think that? She says being “a little bit married” is “a relationship rite of passage that the vast majority of young people today will go through,” and talks about “contextualiz[ing] this new romantic rite of passage” – but she also says her research “focuses on a small slice of the social pie [consisting of] mostly upwardly mobile, college-educated twenty- and thirty-somethings living in urban areas.” Indeed, she admits that her findings likely do not apply to non-urban areas in the United States, to Europe, or elsewhere in the world.

     In other words, Seligson has written a book by, for and about herself and people a lot like her.

     There is nothing inherently wrong with this – Seligson and her compatriots are probably more likely to buy books in the first place (or read them on the latest trendy electronic device) than, say, residents of lower-income rural areas. The question is whether Seligson has anything worthwhile to say, whether to her peer group or to those trying to understand it. And the answer is – sometimes. Some of her advice is straightforward and unexceptionable: “Dial down your expectations of a potential husband or wife so that they mirror reality, not an avatar you create on Second Life or some fantasy Facebook profile.” And some of her post-feminist logic is compelling: “It’s time to have a ring reckoning. …Let’s think radically for a moment about this tradition that has its roots in a time when women were light years behind where they are today socially, economically, and politically. Women are no longer property that needs to be marked or bought. The ring, very literally, becomes a symbol of the power imbalance.”

     But other elements of A Little Bit Married are less effectively presented. Seligson simply asserts as fact that “despite all of the advances women have made, the marital-readiness factor is less tied to their earnings potential. …Conversely, men see marriage as signing into an institution that not only says ‘Till death do us part,’ but is also a declaration of ‘I must provide.’” Says who, other than Seligson herself? And the glibness of some of her advice (such as “the ‘DTR’ – Define The Relationship talk”) is grating, all the more so when she tries to intellectualize by citing (in the case of the DTR) “Maslow’s hierarchy – that famous pyramid that ranks human needs.”

     The most useful element of Seligson’s book is her discussion of how to decide whether the person you are living with is “the One.” (To be accurate, she should call him or her “the One for now,” but A Little Bit Married is not about being a large bit divorced.) In this section, Seligson combines criteria that by their nature are personal and not measurable (“What is your intuition telling you?”) with ones that make a great deal of sense in evaluating any relationship, ALBM or not (“Can you laugh together?” “On the whole, is your relationship getting better over time?"). Seligson’s chapter on how to break up – which contains a variety of comments from academia and the blogosphere – is also useful, although some of the ideas are far easier to consider in theory than to put into practice (“Do divide the stuff, but don’t be petty”). In all, A Little Bit Married is a once-over-lightly look at a phenomenon affecting a small subgroup of people of a certain age, education level and temperament. It is far from revelatory, and far from exhaustive even within its limited sphere; but for people who are in the group about which Seligson writes, it provides solidarity and more than a little bit of good advice.

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