"That's not the community I'd ever live in!"
The man in the back of the room was upset, and walked out. We were just 45 minutes into my workshop-consultation for his cohousing community. Clearly, what I'd said so far had upset him.
The six-year-old community had called me in as a consultant because they wanted help in resolving some of their long-standing conflicts. In this first hour I was going over some of the basics of "structural conflict." I believe a community can eliminate certain kinds of conflict if they have certain key "structures" in place: A clear, shared Mission & Purpose. A fair, participatory decision-making method (and if it's consensus, that new people get trained in it before they use it). A clear process for informing and orienting incoming members. Clear agreements in writing (and a method, such as Agreement Binders and a Decision Log, whereby everyone could look up policies and approved decisions anytime).
The man in the back was offended; his view of community wasn't marred by such down-to-earth practical tips.
I later learned he was a professor of anthropology at a local college. He frequently insisted over dinner that their group would only be a true community if they became more like an indigenous tribe . . . with a shared creation myth, traditional tribal roles, tribal elders, shared parenting, frequent rituals, a sacred sense of their traditional culture, and so on.
Egads! How unrealistic can you get!
This man had joined the community with firm ideas of what a community "should be," and no amount of actually living in with distinctly 21st-century neighbors had loosened his adamant grip.
In the same group was a woman who had formerly lived for about 20 years in a spiritual community. She acutely missed the shared bond of a shared spiritual viewpoint, the sense that "together we're helping spiritualize the world." Nothing like that was happening in her cohousing community: people would talk about regular day-to-day concerns around the neighborhood, and those few residents with spiritual inclinations differed from one another: a Vipasana Buddhist, a Catholic, a yoga practitioner, and so on.
Both residents were disappointed with their cohousing community, and sad that it wasn't functioning like they'd hoped it would.
In his "Getting Real about Finding Community" posting on June 4th in the "Suggest a Forum Topic" in the Forum section of this Topic Room, Craig wrote, "In some cases, (people) have built such high expectations and put the 'ideal community' up on so high a pedestal that no real-world cohousing community can ever measure up."
I go into this topic at some length in a section, "Hidden Expectations and Structural Conflict" in my book Creating a Life Together. Here are some excerpts from that section:
"Most people drawn to community have expectations or assumptions about what “community” means. They believe they know why they want to live in community, and what they’ll expect to find there.
"Some expectations . . . arise from painful experiences from the past and focus on emotional states the person hopes to feel in community—connection, inclusion, acceptance. Past emotional pain can motivate people toward community because at some level they believe community will provide what’s missing from their lives. “Missing” factors that propel people toward community can include affection, acceptance, inclusion, and emotional safety. This can involve conscious loss and known expectations—“It’s going to be like a warm and loving family”— as well as unfelt pain and unconscious expectations (“… and I will be totally loved and accepted, finally!”)
"Hidden expectations about community usually aren’t realistic. They often take on a golden, nostalgic quality, like looking back on a paradise lost. . . .
"Suppressed pain and hidden expectations or assumptions about community can be a prime source of structural conflict “time bombs” that erupt weeks, months, or years later. This happens for two reasons.
"First, living in community cannot erase buried emotional pain. When people find that after living in community they’re still yearning for something valuable and elusive (although they may not know what it is), they tend to feel angry and disappointed. Not knowing the source of their discomfort, they tend to blame the community, or other members, for it.
"Second, hidden expectations about community differ widely from one group member to another. This comes up when we each think we’re behaving in good community fashion but someone else is aghast at how our behavior “betrays” community ideals. Someone will express frustration, even outrage, when we’ve just breached an invisible rule in that person’s own personal paradigm. “How can you say that? That’s not community!” Or, “How could you do such a thing? That’s not community!”
For more about Creating a Life Together http://www.dianaleafechristian.org/creating.html
Why go into all of this? Craig puts it well:
He writes in his June 4th post: "Cohousing communities — which often do have their feet squarely on the ground — do not generally aspire to being Utopian communities. Recall that one definition of Utopia includes the idea that it is an "unrealistic ideal that is impossible to achieve."
"Would you rather long and search for an ideal which is not obtainable - or enjoy one of the best lifestyles and ways of living available to us? If you really, truly want to live in community — get real.
• Accept that those of us living here have baggage and are quite imperfect human beings.
• Accept that our communities have flaws, that they are real.
• Accept that any given cohousing community will not be a perfect fit for you.
• Accept that living in a cohousing community will not be as good as you might think - if you do tend to wear rose-colored glasses.
"On the other hand, you can know that most of us in Cohousing aspire to quality lives and are, generally, doing the best we can."
What do you want to experience in the cohousing community you join?
I want your expectations to be realistic so you won't be disappointed!
The best way, in my opinion, to get a realistic assessment of life in cohousing is to learn as much about cohousing as you can before and during your search.
1. Talk to every cohouser you meet. Ask them about their experiences.
2. Take cohousing bus tours. The next two in northern California are on August 9th and October 25th. http://www.cohousing.org/node/917
3. Read Cohousing magazine!
4. Read Dave Wann's book about life in cohousing: Reinventing Community: Stories from the Walkways of Cohousing (Fulcrum Publishing, 2005). (
5. And there's my own book about researching, visiting, evaluating, and joining community: Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community It's about cohousing too! http://www.dianaleafechristian.org/finding_community.html
6. Best of all . . . attend the annual National Cohousing Conference next June in Seattle!
And please leave a blog entry here with your ideas, insights, or personal stories about unrealistic expectations – and realities – of living in cohousing!
—Diana Leafe Christian, 7/17/08