Why is connection so elusive? How can something so universally desired be so difficult to attain in a richly resourced culture like the United States? Especially, how can it be difficult among members of an intentional cohousing community?
I believe there are two elements essential for connection lacking in our broader culture, and co-housing provides 1½ of them.
The first element is time. Deep connection depends on trust and a sense of safety. Humans, like most mammals, need time to build trust. For some that time is measured in months and years of observing and interacting with another. For most of us, I believe that our willingness to trust is built in the tally of minutes and hours spent face to face coming to know each other, sometimes over months, and sometimes within a day or two. This is why many people in their 40’s and 50’s still count their college roommates as their closest friends. We never again, perhaps aside from a spouse, spend that kind of time with another person. It’s why mothers who bonded with other mothers over dozens of hours of park playdates and PTA meetings find themselves lonely after their children are grown. Our tendency to be “busy” and to spend much of our discretionary time interacting with or through devices does not allow us the actual face time needed to foster trust and safety, denying us the opportunity for deep connection.
This is one of the tremendous benefits of cohousing. The physical and social design of a cohousing community encourages time together. Moments of conversation at the mailbox add up, especially when they transform into lengthy discussions. Shared meals, work parties, and contentious discussions contribute to the time needed to build trust.
As trust is built and sense of safety grows, vulnerability becomes possible. We set aside our defenses and open ourselves to the possibility of deep connection. When that happens, and sometimes before, we stumble into the second factor that makes connection elusive in our culture.
In our culture, some essential skills needed for connection are usually lacking. We are a culture that rewards speakers more than listeners. We define power in terms of control and honor those who wield it. Most of us are never taught the skills of deep listening. We are largely unconscious of the emotional needs that dictate our own behavior. When we don’t practice deep listening and are not in tune with our emotional needs, we are unable to deeply know another and therefore are rarely deeply known.
Cohousing addresses about half of this challenge. The time we spend together gives us opportunities to practice relationship skills and we learn a good bit through trial and error. Our shared investment keeps us engaged far past the point where we might otherwise retreat, and we learn from those challenging engagements.
In addition, cohousing has a tendency to attract people who have worked at learning communication skills, people who seek connection and consciousness and people who have attended courses and adopted practices that promote closer relationship. Living among others who do this work gives us models for our own growth. Living among people who hold intention for relationship and connection makes it safer for us to do the same.
I say this addresses half of the challenge because learning “by osmosis” is slow. We built most of our foundational ways of being early in childhood years we don’t remember. Most of us did that early learning with parents that cared for us but themselves lacked the skill of deep respectful listening. Our powerful, automatic and unconscious defenses get in our way and we lack the tools to shift our experience. For most communities achieving the full promise of connection that cohousing offers will require bringing in help in this area.
The good news is that there are many resources available. Imago Relationships, Non-Violent Communication, yoga and meditation instructors, therapists, and facilitators all offer resources for cohousing communities. Music, book clubs, and consensus and sociocracy work are useful as well.
In the end, when a community is willing to work on connection and use community resources to increase their relationship skills, beautiful things can happen. Cohousing can be an idyllic dream come true.