Because I am an only child (a result of the one child policy in China), people sometimes ask me if I was lonely growing up. Truthfully I didn’t know what loneliness was until I moved to the United States. In China, my parents and I lived in an extended family household with my maternal grandmother, eight uncles and aunts, and five cousins (each of whom were only children). The “house” was a square shaped compound with units for each family on three sides, a courtyard in the middle, and a small garden in the front. There was always an adult at home and my cousins and I visited each other’s families like they were our own. All the adults cared for every child and we always had someone to play with.
My life totally changed when I moved to the United States when I was nine. My parents lived in the suburbs and I was enrolled in a private school in the city. Each day, my father and I sat through 45 minutes of rush hour traffic to go to work and school. I was not able to walk to any activities and I had to be driven to play dates, which made them few and far between. Now that I am grown up and living in the suburbs, I find that I have the same challenges socially as I did when I was younger. People spend a lot of time working and commuting which leaves less time to establish and maintain friendships. Going out makes socializing more expensive, and encourages everyone to stay in and watch TV instead.
Our built landscapes are created to reflect the values that we hold in society. The popularity of suburbia as a place to live reflects our vision of the ideal life as a family with children in a detached single family home set apart from neighbors. We eschew public transportation in favor of SUVs, highways, and parking lots so that families can travel and do errands without coming in contact with the public. We permeate our environment with virtual entertainment and social media so that we don’t have to leave home to get recreation or social interaction.
The dream of the nuclear family comes at a high cost, emotionally and ecologically. Suburbia is incredibly expensive to maintain. Spread out developments and highways means that we spend more on transportation than almost any other country in the world. Open spaces and wildlife habitat are destroyed by low density development. We have to buy more stuff in order to maintain our individual households and fill our isolated lives [i].
Emotionally, spending a lot of time pursuing a dream partner (most of which doesn’t work out) means that we spend less time with friends and participating in community. One study shows that married people are less likely to socialize with friends and neighbors or attend events outside of the home than their single counterparts. Women especially face enormous cultural pressure to settle down and get married as they grow older. (I can’t tell you the countless hours I spend discussing romantic relationships with my female friends, but it must constitute at least 70% of my time with them.) Our pop culture is saturated with references to romantic relationships and the message that romantic love is prerequisite to happiness. In the United States, policies continue to favor marriages over other types of family structures with tax benefits, healthcare benefits, and subsidies to families with children–and even those are poorly supported. As a 2009 study exploring the stigma felt by never-married women in their late 20s to mid-30s put it: “The idealization of marriage and child rearing remains strong, pervasive, and largely unquestioned.”
But should you be lucky enough to find the one you are happy to forsake all others for, how sustainable is this really? We expect our partners to be perfectly suited to us intellectually, emotionally, and sexually. Not only is such a person extremely hard to find, but passion and excitement cannot be sustained indefinitely. Mystery and discovery give way to routine and responsibility, which are not in themselves bad except that we become static emotionally and intellectually. We resist opportunities to get to know others intimately and to learn new things from them. What was different and exciting about the other person becomes familiar and mundane. In addition, a two person partnership means that when disaster strikes, such as loss of employment, illness, divorce, or death, the surviving partner is left without support. So we have children as a means of expanding the family, which sometimes becomes the only reason that spouses stay together.
In a world of limited natural resources and rampant inequality, the image of the happy, self-sufficient nuclear family is becoming harder to maintain. Parents raising children alone without the help of extended family are often exhausted and in financial stress. Feminism (happily) means that fewer partners are willing to give up their careers for the sake of committed relationships and raising children. Twenty percent of children in the United States currently live in poverty and 40% of people on the planet live on less than $2 a day.[iv] Yet, despite the challenges faced by nuclear families, we remain wedded to the idea that coupledom is the best way to go through life.
In order to relieve the pressures on the nuclear family, societies, past and present, have always relied on extended families of some sort for support. In China and India, grandparents, uncles and aunts play a large role in raising children and taking care of the elderly. In many indigenous societies children are considered to belong to the community rather than solely to their biological parents.[v]
In the ecovillages that I visited as a graduate student, it is not the green architecture, homegrown produce, or renewable energy technologies (though many of them were very advanced in these aspects), that made them models of sustainability. Rather, it was the social structures and methods of governance that made life in these intentional communities ecological, economical, and emotionally fulfilling. At Ecovillage of Ithaca, in upstate New York, the 60+ households are divided into two neighborhoods, each of which eats meals together four nights a week, participates in game nights, hosts celebrations, and have traditions together. They meet every week to discuss neighborhood matters and all decisions are made by consensus. Not only does everyone in the village know each other’s names, but everyone takes part in each other’s lives.
At Findhorn ecovillage in Scotland, UK, the 300+ residents live in a hotel-like residence with many bedrooms but only one kitchen and one large dining room. They eat all of their meals together, do chores together in teams, and hold hands at every gathering. Everyone in the community contributes to the economic enterprise of running the ecovillage as a retreat and education center. Decisions are made by super-majority and negotiations between opposing parties. Their community is like a beehive where every individual contributes to the functioning of the whole and every individual, in theory at least, is attuned to the goal of living in harmony with each other and with the planet.
However, not everyone is lucky enough to live in an ecovillage or have extended family that they can count on. Job mobility has meant that individuals often move far away from their families to pursue opportunities, and friends move away as well. I have moved eight times to a different state in the twelve years since I graduated from high school. Fewer and fewer people settle in the places that they were raised in.
How do we then build a community? I think the answer is that for the most part we don’t. We visit our families a few times a year for the holidays and social interactions with neighbors and coworkers are superficial and scarce. Church attendance and participation in religion has declined, along with the social benefits that they provide. Volunteering and participation in public affairs have decreased. We have to work longer hours to make ends meet, and the way we live, with few public spaces and isolated in cars, makes casual encounters nearly nonexistent.
Faced with these cultural impediments, some people have found other ways of creating community. For my friend Alan, most of his everyday social interactions are with his seven housemates, who live with him in a series of row-homes that he owns and rents out. Even when he got married, he and his wife continued to live with housemates. Their joined backyard contains a vegetable garden, a chicken coup, and a hot tub. He works from home and doesn’t need to commute anywhere. Over the years, he has maintained friendships with many of the people who have lived in his houses.
Others create their own extended family by sharing intimacy with more than one romantic partner. Polyamory is a growing movement among individuals who realize that they can share intimacy with more than one partner at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. While some polyamorous families have more than two cohabiting partners, more often it is a couple with an open relationship. Kerry and Megan, a polyamorous couple that I’m acquainted with, each have their own lovers who don’t live with them. Megan is in a relationship with Chris, who is married to his own partner. Both Kerry and Megan and Chris and his partner want children but are not able to have any of their own. With the support of their spouses, Megan and Chris have decided to have a child together. They are creating a family where their child will be cared for by four parents (five, if you count Kerry’s other lover, Molly). The couples get together for holidays and have introduced each other to their respective parents. Some would say they are creating an extended family by choice rather than by blood.
For some people, polyamory helps them maintain relationships that would otherwise not thrive under the constraints of monogamy. Sam and Julia are a polyamorous couple I know that both have other lovers. “We met in our early twenties,” says Sam. “If we hadn’t opened our relationship, we’d probably be divorced by now.” He says that opening his marriage has saved it because it allowed both of them to explore other relationships, allowed them to grow emotionally, and enabled them remain committed to each other. He says that their lovers have brought new sexual energy into their lives and they have become better friends. They have more to talk about, more people to care about, and more variety in their lives while still being committed to each other and raising their child together. By being honest about their desires, people who would otherwise have to resort to infidelity or divorce can remain in relationships that they still cherish.
Children also benefit from being cared for by more loving adults. Elizabeth Sheff, a sociologist who has spent more than a decade studying polyamorous families with children, finds that children from polyamorous families tend to be confident and well adjusted. “Multiple adults provide lots of attention, greater life experience, copious support, and abundant role models for children” she says. “Pooling their resources also allows adults to have more personal time, work more flexible hours, and get more sleep because there are multiple people around to take care of the children. Parents in the study reported that they felt more patient and had more energy for their children when they were well rested and had sufficient income – all of which benefitted their children.”[vi]
Polyamory isn’t for everyone, and neither is cohousing for that matter. Many people are perfectly content in monogamous relationships and don’t have the inclination to pursue other relationships. Others have family members and friends to make them feel like they are part of a robust social network. And when done poorly, multiple relationships could just mean multiple bad relationships. But in a world where families are often long distances from each other (on separate continents in my case), where we are taught to fear our neighbors more than to care for them, and where we are told that technology, money, or the government can take care of us, polyamory, like cohousing, is another counterpoint towards more community, more shared resources, and more sustainability for all.
The environmental crisis is not only a matter of technology or policy; it is at its heart a crisis of our relations with each other. The romanticization of the nuclear family has been a primary vehicle by which modern society has encouraged more consumption and more dependence on our income to meet our basic needs. Our efforts to increase sustainability will always be limited if we focus on changing the architecture of our buildings and our cities without also altering the architecture of our social norms and cultural underpinnings. By creating community through more intimacy, authenticity, and closer living arrangements, we can build more resilience and sustainability into our own lives and the planet as a whole.
[v] For examples of societies with alternative family structures, see Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, Harper Perennial, 2011.
[vi] For an excellent resource on polyamorous families with children, see Elisabeth Sheff, The Polyamorists Next Door, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.