Ideal Living Arrangement?

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to imagine my ideal living arrangement, but as life changes, so do our opinions on what works for us – and doesn’t.

A few days back, the New York Times dished up a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of living alone – and how we’re reconfiguring our communities as a result.

May I suggest that what we view as the ideal living arrangement is largely based on stage in life?

Oh – and money?

Sure, some of us are more emotionally needy than others and can’t stand to live alone. But generally, our requirements for sustaining a healthy outlook and positive living situation at 25 differ from those at 50 and of course, at 75.

Not convinced? Think about it.

Living Together

In our twenties we’re young, healthy, strong, curious, and ready to take on the world. We’re not jaded – yet. At least, I know I wasn’t. We also don’t need big bucks to make it through the day.

And if we’re in love or even in lust? The extent of togetherness time is a matter of choice.

When I was in my twenties, some of my friends tried daily interaction – come to think of it, so did I – opting for cohabitation or marriage, convinced we’d found the right person or possibly because it was expected.

Either way, typically, hard-core responsibilities don’t require another adult – at least – not until there are children.

Married Life, Real Life, After Life

Once you add kids to the mix, with or without marriage, it’s all hands on deck – and likely, all dollars as well.

Long-distance relationship or traveling parent while child-rearing? It’s only a matter of time before there’s trouble in paradise, and that’s typically a bit too much space, at least for the partner on home turf.

Then there are those other pesky stones thrown at our glass houses – the challenges that drag on due to injury or illness, family issues that may lift us out of the workforce for periods of time, and subsequent difficulties climbing back into the workforce. And what about fatigue that accumulates as a natural consequence of the years – especially if the family unit crumbles?

Doesn’t the “ideal” living arrangement shift, not as a matter of personal preference so much as practicality? The need for extra hands? The financial squeeze?

Couples Living Together

Author and psychologist Bella DePaulo writes of those who are “single at heart,” exploring the many ways that individuals are opting out of traditional couplehood at various stages in life.

Many of us like the idea of being part of a couple, but the expectation of living together – day in and day out – may seem less than ideal. Does that make us “single at heart” by anyone’s definition? Must we even have such a definition?

Some of us may prefer aspects of single life, though I bristle at the “single at heart” designation which strikes me as dated. Personally, my ideal living situation at this stage is living together partially – sharing space with a man 4 or 5 days (and nights) a week, dividing the work of domestic tasks as well as the pleasures of intimacy and trust, allowing for the solitude I like and need.

Yet aging comes with practical issues that make living alone more problematic. This is where communal living of some sort offers advantages.

Marital Status Bias

The problem I have with the notion of “single at heart” is this: It implies (to me) that believing in one’s “other half” or a “soul mate” remains the pinnacle, the promised land, the fictitious destination in which we sacrifice our wholeness of self on the altar of romantic love.

The hierarchy of marital status is alive and well, and “married” remains at the top of the heap.

I don’t consider that viewing oneself as half of anything is healthy.

And isn’t it time we got over marital or romantic status as a measure of self-worth, or one status superior to another?

Seeking Space

Dr. DePaulo explains her perspective:

A study of married couples at two different points in time showed that even living together under the same roof is not what it used to be. In 2000, the couples were less likely to eat together or work on projects together than they were in 1980. They also had fewer friends in common.

Are we all just crying out for more solitude and separation?

I think not. What we are really seeking is the optimum balance of time alone and time together.

I can’t help but think that the growing need for space with or without marriage is a response to a culture that puts pressure on individuals at every turn.

We’re pressed and stressed, worried about jobs, fretting over children, getting ulcers over paying bills. We hustle through the days and nights and have to remind ourselves to breathe. If we aren’t sitting around the table eating dinner together it isn’t so much a choice as a consequence – of conflicting priorities, single parent burnout, impossible schedules – all of which sits in a larger cultural context which pits Fairy Tale Families against Harsh Social Reality.

Living Arrangements Lose Luster

At 25, single, and working – though I made little money at the time – the last thing I wanted was to live with someone – anyone. I was learning about myself and the world. I was exploring. I was thrilled to no longer have roommates, coming and going as I saw fit, meeting friends who also lived alone – most of us frugally, in our tiny, sparsely furnished apartments.

At 50, divorced, cobbling together a living, and raising kids solo, would anyone deny that options are more limited? The ideal has less to do with romance, sex, or companionship than any means to get a break from the barrage of emotional, logistical, and financial headaches.

Of course there is an emotional component as well. Who wouldn’t want a supportive, loving adult at their side?

Retirement – What Retirement?

As for the future, for millions of Americans, “retirement” is the lost dream, the hazy repose of our parents’ or grandparents’ generation.

Ours is a Brave New World: We’ve put in our 30 years, our 40 years, our 50 years working at something; we’re still scrambling to cover the basics, and wondering how in the hell we got here.

If we’re lucky, we have love or at least companionship – maybe it’s the second time around or the third; maybe it’s via an unconventional set of partners or friendships.

Or, we’re staring into the future on our own. 

Dr. DePaulo writes:

Adults approaching the end of their working years are opting out of “retirement homes” and instead creating their own communities.

And I would ask – might this be a matter of money, life after divorce, or a shaky economy – rather than preference?

Ideals and Ideology

“Ideal” is always intriguing to contemplate, and offers us the benefits of slowly shaping our paths toward something better. But I can’t help but believe that pragmatism for individuals and expediency for institutions ultimately trump ideology.

Where that leaves marriage, cohabitation, and communal living, I’m not sure. But I’d be curious to peek in on American society 50 years from now and see what has changed if anything. I wonder if traditional models will have ceded to something more fluid and more humane for every stage, or if we’ll still be fighting the same battles.