For the first few decades of our lives, most of us live with other humans and barely give it another thought. In our earliest years, we could not survive without them. In our late teens or early adult years, life is different for us than it was for our parents or grandparents – it could be many more years before we marry, if we marry at all. Sharing a place with friends is a rather ordinary thing to do.
After a while, though, sharing is a choice. Many who have lived alone for a good long time – either as part of their lifelong singlehood or as a sequel to divorce or widowhood – become accustomed to their own place and their own space. The question of whether you have what it takes to live with another human then becomes a totally reasonable one.
As part of my new book project on the ways that people (especially single people) are living now, I have been interviewing people and reading personal accounts of innovative ways of living. In My House, Our House, three Baby Boomer women tell the story of how they decided to leave homes of their own, move in together, and live together for nearly a decade and counting.
When they were in their 50s, Karen Bush, Louise Machinist, and Jean McQuillin began fantasizing about retiring together in a spacious home they would share. Then they took a step beyond fanciful musings and started comparing their wishes and goals. They were even more compatible than they had imagined. So Karen and Jean popped the question: Why not now?
The joy of having three perspectives in one book is that each reader will probably find one particular person with whom they identify the most. For me, it was Louise, who reacted to the proposal to move in together immediately (instead of waiting for retirement) with the thought, “But I really LIKE living alone!”
If you read the book, pay attention to your own emotional reactions throughout. The women discuss so many of the experiences of sharing, from the small, practical things to the big psychological issues. Notice what makes you smile and what makes you anxious.
Toward the end of the book, the women pose a series of “how would you feel / what would you do if…” questions. Here’s one that got to me:
“After a long week at work, you are relaxing in the family room doing a jigsaw puzzle, while watching a football game. You hear one of your housemates start to clean out and reorganize the storage area.”
I know my own first reactions: I’d want to continue what I was doing (though it would not be football games or crossword puzzles) but I would also feel guilty if I did not offer to put my own stuff aside and help. My second reaction would be to wish I were still living on my own.
Could I get past reactions like that?
How about this one:
“A mutual friend of everyone in the house invites just one of you to go to dinner and a movie”
And can three people really live together without one of them feeling less included than the other two?
In another telling section of the book, the women described what they are, what they are not, and what they do and do not expect. For example:
- We are not a marriage.
- We are not a family.
- We are close friends.
- We do not expect to meet one another’s personal needs for happiness or companionship.
- We do not expect to be dependent on one another, although we can totally depend on one another.
What is this new relationship that the three of them share?
“We have become more than friends – close to being family without the obligations. Rather like three sisters who get along, enjoy one another’s company, yet go their own ways.”
In the context of our matrimanical society, in which spouses and romantic partners often love the idea of depending on each other and meeting each other’s needs for happiness and companionship, I wondered whether these women’s non-expectations about those things would strike some as off-putting. (They did not strike me that way.) I especially appreciated the women’s observations about the consequences of those non-expectations:
“It’s more personally fulfilling to participate in any kind of cooperative living arrangement when you don’t expect other people to meet your physical or emotional needs.
“When you aren’t focused on getting your own needs met, generosity of spirit and caring connections grown and flourish all around.”
Fishing friends image available from Shutterstock.