Before Aaron and I got married, we had talked about living together with friends after we got married.* I had lived with friends for all of my adult life so far, and had mostly loved it. I didn’t really want to close the door on that part of life. We also both believe in the growth, intimacy and friendship that can come from exposing our lives to a trusted few and we thought that living together with the intention of sharing life on a deeper level would be one way to do that. We decided then that it wasn’t the right time for pursuing it, but the idea of moving in with friends buzzed round my head and our conversations intermittently throughout that year.
After a year of married life in London, we moved to the tropics together, to a very rural community in the mountains. Among other things, we were going to be learning from and participating with a small team who were setting up a primary school in this community.
Despite our previous conversations, when we were emailing about the set-up for life abroad, one of our only prerequisites was to have a little space to ourselves. I think we felt that, as committed as we are to living in community, living with other people should probably be a little more intentional than “let’s move in with five other adults and a baby we’ve never met before because we’re not sure where else we’ll live, even though we are fairly newly married, likely to be in some form of culture shock and both need a lot of our own space in the most normal of circumstances.” In the end, we agreed to share a kitchen, bathroom and living spaces with teammates, but asked for two private rooms for ourselves – a bedroom, and a place to relax, work and hang out. We felt we’d probably need an oasis since we’d be losing all things familiar as well as access to all our support networks overnight. It’s probably worth noting that we were going somewhere we’d never been, to work with people we’d never met, in an extremely rural area with no communication technology except an old school radio link to another rural village. No internet, no phones, and no postal service for miles. So when I say that we were were losing access to all our support networks, it’s no exaggeration.
For all sorts of legitimate reasons, nothing was available for us to live in when we arrived and so we did end up moving in with the three other families on the team, supposedly for two to three weeks while our own house was built. By that point, we had been three months on the road, so our small bedroom All To Ourselves felt like an oasis in its own right and we were more than happy with the set up. Three weeks stretched into three months and thus we found ourselves living “in community” sooner in our marriage than we had expected or planned. The following are some reflections on the experience.**
Perhaps the most striking thing of all to me was that we were living in a social world where living together was nothing unusual. I’m not the first to say it, but it bears repeating: if we think cross-culturally and cross-historically, the idea of a newly married couple sharing a house with other people isn’t radical, or even notable, at all. If Aaron and I had grown up, met and married in any number of other cultures or contexts we wouldn’t have even questioned living with relatives or friends. I know that many in the UK and America share houses too, but among my friends it was unusual for married couples, and the very few who did it were breaking the norm. People mostly chose to move in with friends for the sake of deeper relationships, or pulling together for some ’cause,’ or they moved in with parents or friends for financial reasons.
In our new home in the mountains, it was different. Nearly all men, including married men, share sleeping ‘houses’ with each other and they visit their wives as desired. Wives often have their own ‘house’ to sleep in, but it was a very rare lady who slept there alone. Most had mothers, children, other relatives and frequent visitors sharing the one room space for sleep. This is not due to poverty – there were resources for building more houses – it is just a different way of arranging residence. Aaron and I were actually teased for wanting to share a room with each other!
Consequently, there was no homelessness or starvation because of course there is always room for one more (or several hundred more, if it’s a funeral). There isn’t any paid accommodation because visitors are put up without question. We frequently had people staying with us who we had never met before and who we didn’t know were coming. Everyone knows everyone else’s business (and drama, and kinship relations, and financial situation) so there is no such thing as privacy. There is also no such thing as elderly people who are separated from their family for their last years of life, a single person who loses their friendships because everyone else got married, a new mum who is isolated because she had a baby, or anyone who sits home alone because they have no where to go and no one to talk to. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a social Utopia by any stretch of the imagination, but there are things to be learned.
For us personally, moving in with three other families we’d never met before was the perfect way to learn about living with others. We weren’t expecting this home or this team to be the Answer to All The Dreams, nor for it to be some sort of Uber Community by which we’d change the world. We weren’t moving in with friends, but with strangers who became friends, so our expectations weren’t based on prior relationships. We hadn’t dramatised and revised and discussed the whole thing to death before we arrived – in fact we hadn’t had any contact at all.
So we rocked up, were introduced, were taught how to make wet wood flame and were penned into the various rotas. We learned to whisper our personal moments while simultaneously accepting that a single piece of plywood separating each family’s bedroom was unlikely to keep any conversations a private affair. We learned to get up at 5am and go to bed at 8pm (perhaps most radical of all for those who know me!) and fit our priorities into the priorities of the group, even though we sometimes disagreed. We pooled our food, and learned to communicate openly when we needed something that wasn’t happening (like, you know, eating protein occasionally). Perhaps most importantly of all, we learned that living together doesn’t automatically mean community. It doesn’t automatically mean sharing life. To actually share life, and open up your internal world to others, especially those you live with, is – and remains – a conscious act of the will, choosing to be vulnerable, to make the effort even though we’re all exhausted, and to be honest even though it will probably cause conflict.
That’s the big difference between living with others and living in community. Living in community, to me, means living with people you are sharing life with – it means a certain level of exposure and vulnerability. Living with others just means sharing a space and hopefully relating well (though not necessarily intimately) within it. What was great about this experience for us was that we were somewhere where “living with others” is simply no big deal – it’s what everyone does – so we were expected to just get on with it, and you know what? We did. And it was totally fine.
But we were a team, too, and we all wanted to go beyond just living together, to actually being a community. It’s really hard, and it surprised me to find it’s even harder when living together, to open up. Maybe that’s because you’ve got nowhere to escape to, perhaps because every day household life and work so easily becomes the default topic of conversation. Living together doesn’t make community. Trust makes community, and building that trust takes time and effort and conflict. It takes pain, and failure too, sometimes. Even though we lived together really well and remarkably easily, our community was always a work in progress. Community is always a work in progress.
We learned that living in community, or living in team, which was a synonymous phrase for us at the time, meant a lot of the things we thought it would in our dreaming days. It meant sitting round a fire with friends from wildly different backgrounds and laughing our heads off together at funny stories . It meant having people you know have got your back. It meant sharing food, and burdens, and purpose, and on the really brave days, tears. It meant there was always a group to make the decisions with, and there was a group to bear the burdens of bad decisions together too. Living in community meant filling in for each other. It meant having a team mate look you straight in the eye and tell you the hard truths. It means the baby on the team never wanted for babysitters, and the singles, marrieds and parents on the team didn’t get divided off into isolated social worlds. It meant staying up at night praying for your friends’ marriage struggles and spending the next day talking with them, trying to carry the hope for family that they just didn’t have the strength to bear that day. It meant you fed my chickens and I supplied salt in your moment of need. It resulted in dodgy videos of our shared life with multilingual soundtracks in the background. It meant something to invite others into and an astronomically increased capacity for hospitality. We were cooking for 8 anyway, so what’s 12? Sure, we can share a bed tonight, so he can stay over. It meant making memories as we shared in the adventure of life together. It meant really having friends, friends who wanted to know us, and friends who accepted us when we let our guard down.
But it was often hard, and not in the glorious ways that make good stories – just in boring, mundane, “really, we’re still doing this?” ways. Because living in community also means so much stuff that isn’t in the magazine-style fantasies we flip through in our dreaming daze. There’s that hazy picture of everyone eating around the fire, but where’s the picture of coming home early from the work you were actually quite enjoying to cook – and wash up – for so many people? There’s that picture of live-in babysitting for your baby, but where’s the picture of your baby getting woken up again by yet another person shouting, playing music or simply teaching class in the next-door room at an inopportune moment. There’s the picture of thrashing out vision together in team meetings, but where is the picture of the pain that comes from not being able to go to that holiday/weekend/wedding because you can’t let the team down that week. There’s the picture of one person filling in for another as we plod on, but where is the picture of tearing one’s hair out: if I don’t get an hour on my own today SOMEONE IS GOING TO PAY!
And there is also the really heart-breaking stuff…realising that someone’s marriage can crumble in front of you even though you’re doing everything you can to support them. Realising that someone can just walk away from the team, the community, their professed values. Realising that you can live alongside people every day without them letting you into their heart. Realising that you can let your guard down, but you can’t make someone let their’s down. Realising that not everyone is going to make wise choices all the time, and sometimes, I’m not, and that is going to affect everyone.
I often (daily?!) got fed up of being on a shared schedule and just wanted to be independent. I got fed up of cooking for 8-10 people four times a week and sometimes just want to get on with my own stuff, my own agenda, my own ideas. I got fed up of having team activities sprung on me when I had plans! I got tired of trying to communicate with people from a different culture and different language with different set of expectations.
But I know, too, that I learned tons, was humbled, and was supported in ways that can’t be counted. I didn’t, for instance, get fed up of reliance on a water system that someone else maintained. I didn’t get fed up of friends who fed our pigs for us when we overslept. I didn’t get fed up of encouraging words when I was down, or of banter, or of the admiration our team-mates inspired in me. I didn’t get fed up of cultural insights that saved me weeks of misunderstanding.
I know that shared life is more sustainable than individual life and can’t imagine how hard it would have been to do our time abroad on our own.
I think I grew in ways that will change me for the long term. I spent time learning to understand others, to provide and receive support in ways that don’t come naturally to me, and to do things for others’ sake and not my own. I learned to communicate, and also to submit – a necessary part of being part of something bigger than yourself. I actually had to live out the reality of professed beliefs…beliefs like empowering local leaders instead of doing everything myself. I learned what’s possible when you work together, but also that if you’re going to live like that you have to know how to set boundaries and be assertive. There were plenty of times we ended up knowing a bit more of what was going on with each other than we each would have chosen to disclose, just because of the proximity, but the times when we were really able to open up to each other by choice, because of trust, and connect relationally made it worth it all.
I guess we learned, at the end of the day, through our struggles and successes, to be a team.
* I wrote much of this essay while Aaron and I were living abroad during our second year of marriage. It’s focused on living in community while married, because that’s the context I experienced this in, and because I always lived with friends before I was married. I have never lived in a house on my own for more than a few weeks. However, as I explore in this piece, I don’t think living with other people is the same thing as living “in community” and I really hope these reflections don’t feel in any way exclusive to people who aren’t married.
** I wrote most of these reflections whilst I was still in the midst of it, but I have edited them for clarity (and to put them in the past tense) since.
Image by Rachel Hughes Shah