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Stanley says inertia, convenience, and financial benefit can cause a relationship between 20-somethings to drag on—for four to seven years for more than 50 percent of cohabiting couples, according to one study.
When they would otherwise have broken up, some couples resolve to get married after years of dating because they figure it's the next logical step—leading to early divorce.
"I want to have kids right away, and I know it gets harder to conceive with age," says Seals.
And Katie Gill, a 27-year-old copy editor in Arlington, Virginia, who recently landed on the market for the first time since age 20, is dating under similar constraints.
I was living in "boyfriend-land," a magical place where we shared our lives, sheltered from the harsh realities of the dating world. I was a sophisticated woman: I'd published a nonfiction book, would soon sell my first novel, and I was working on two advanced degrees. The number of unmarried cohabitating couples in the U. has exploded, from about 500,000 in 1970 to nearly 5 million today, just as the median age for a woman's first marriage has hit 26—later than ever before.
But dating for the first time turned me into an ignorant tourist in a foreign country where I didn't know the local customs. Now couples are more likely to move in together without agreeing on their life goals first.
WHEN SHE WAS 29, Aviva broke up with the man she thought was The One.
Clueless to the secret signals of the dating world, Seals had been blinking "green" all night: She latched on to the man early and engaged in intimate chitchat, ignoring everyone else. "The more you do it, the better you get." Finkel suggests women ask friends for help—yet that can bring pitfalls, too.
Naturally friendly, she laughed, joked, and smiled freely. While Moster's friends love hearing about her dating pursuits, "They get frustrated when I cry about the same problem again and again," she says.
After Jo Vann Seals, 31, a former NFL cheerleader in San Diego, divorced her husband of five years—whom she'd dated since high school—she found herself unprepared for the bar scene.
One night a man she was talking to leaned over and kissed her. "I'd never kissed anyone besides my husband," she recalls.