A recent New York Times article on four straight guys who’ve lived together in New York for the past 18 years set off a barrage of criticism and defensiveness in the comments and around the Internet. (You don’t say!) Any man who fails to marry and have children by the age of 40, the conventional wisdom goes, is in a state of “arrested development” and needs to “grow up.” Or if he’s going to insist on being single, he should at least have the decency to punish himself with loneliness. How dare he form a non-traditional family with his friends?
Okay, so I’m paraphrasing and exaggerating, but you get the idea. The narrative for single and childless women is similar, only it’s tinged more with pity than accusation. These people are seen as unfit romantic partners, career-less drifters, and worse. (And perhaps some of these specific accusations hold water for some of the men described in the article.) And yet, I hold that there’s nothing inherently wrong or immature about adult people banding together to save money and form an emotional support system.
I say this as someone who grew pretty fatalistic during the seven years I spent looking for love in NYC. (I realize I’m still pretty young, but I’m way melodramatic when it comes to dating, and up until I met my current man piece, I was trying very hard to accept the fact that I was GOING TO BE ALONE FOREVER.) That shit is not easy! Sure, you can go on OkCupid dates or whatever (provided you can deal with how depressing and dead end it can be), but there’s only so much control you can exert over when and if you meet your person. It’s not always an individual’s fault that they’re single. (Plus, a small minority of the population is aromantic/asexual.) And just because you’ve hit a certain age after which it’s considered inappropriate to have roommates (30?) doesn’t mean you stop having emotional needs. Some people are fine with living alone and hanging out with their friends from time to time, while others require more of a family-like situation. Is it better to get a one bedroom apartment (provided you can afford it) and count down the days until you find a partner to fill the other side of your bed? Or is it better to have an awesome life that makes you happy and if someone comes along, sees how great your life is, and wants to be a part of it, even better? Anything but the latter option would drive me insane.
My friends and I are a little bit younger than the guys in the article, but not by much. Most of my friends are in their 30s and still living with roommates. Mostly because we don’t have a choice, but also because we like to. I, myself, have two. As a natural extrovert who spent a lot of time alone as a kid, there’s pretty much no limit to the amount of socializing I’m willing to engage in. After a day spent writing in solitude, it’s nice to have someone to talk to, make dinner with, etc. (You do not want to know how much food I used to throw out when I was cooking for one.) We all know it’s ridiculously hard to find a person who you think is hot and want to fuck, but whom you also like hanging out with, and who has a good brain and a good heart, etc., and feels all the same things about you. But it’s also ridiculously hard to find a good roommate-friend; just because someone’s a good friend doesn’t necessarily make them good to live with, and vice versa. Is one of these things more inherently valuable than the other?
The conventional wisdom is that when a person gets older, they should stop focusing so much on their friends and start focusing on their romantic partner, but I think that’s bullshit. My boyfriend provides something special for me that none of my friends can, but I love all my people equally, albeit in different ways. I hate the idea that my love for my dude is automatically privileged over my love for my friends. We see this all the time in phrases like “it’s a good thing single women have their friends to turn to,” as if friends are some sort of backup plan. My friends are not a backup plan. My friends are my family. (My family is also my family, but like a lot of young city-dwellers these days, I don’t live near them anymore.) I might have been rolling my face off when I told my roommate/BFF that she’s the sister I never had, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I love my boyfriend, but I hate the idea that loving him could take me away from my roommates if/when we decide to move in together.
But does it have to? My friends and I have often fantasized about starting a commune where we all help raise each other’s kids. It’s mostly a joke, but could it work? Two of the people my boyfriend lives with are married to each other, and they still manage to participate in the small collective that is their home. Just because this scenario isn’t condoned by modern Western culture doesn’t mean it’s not a good one; there are a ton of historical precedents for it. Living alone is, after all, a relatively recent luxury.
Capitalist society has a funny selectivity about how much communal living it will tolerate. The prosperous nuclear family is okay, because hetero marriage is ordained by God, and also because this is a unit that buys a lot of stuff. (And despite what a Randian might tell you, children cannot raise themselves.) But anything on a larger scale than that is systematically frowned upon. Could this be because by combining resources and helping each other out, people end up buying less crap? Or could it be because it looks an uncomfortable amount like a small microcosm of communism?
I’m loathe to make any sweeping statements about human nature, because it’s impossible to know what it really is, and also because different people are different. But for many people, communal living offers benefits that living alone cannot. And in the future, as resources grow scarcer, I can only imagine we’ll move towards a more communal culture to ensure our species’ survival. But for now, I’m not going to judge a natural introvert for living like a hermit, and in return, I don’t want to be judged for living in a way that truly makes me happy. Friend love and romantic love are not mutually exclusive, otherwise I’d be fucking my friends, and I doubt my opinion on this will change as I approach the dreaded age of 40.