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Creating A Life Together: Practical Tools To Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities
Hell is other people: 45% of marriages end in divorce, more than 90% of intentional communities fail
Of the many books I’ve read about intentional communities, the best by far is “Creating A Life Together” by Diane Leafe Christian. She is unique in that she directly confronts some of the psychological factors that doom most communities.
I have many friends whose politics are some variation of anarchism, or eco-communalism. Many of them have spent time living in intentional communities. While none of their community experiences worked out in an ideal way, they continue to have hopes that in the future they will find the right community for themselves. Many of them also believe that some kind of broad revival of community is essential for challenging capitalism and building a society that is sustainable. Many also insist that de-structuring society, making it less hierarchical, can only be done by making community stronger. I was part of these communities during my teens and 20s so I have some direct hand experience with this.
And yet, we know that even a union of two people is difficult. Of those who marry, the divorce rate remains above 40%. If it's difficult to get two people to stay together, can twenty people, or a hundred?
Many studies show that people are happier when they have strong community ties. Therefore, those living in intentional communities should be the happiest people. As such, it doesn't make sense that most people leave communities and most communities fail. But this strange paradox can perhaps be explained by way of analogy to the romantic experiences most of us have -- most of us have loved someone, and then later not loved them. Things change. Heartbreak occurs. Who we were when we said “I love you” is not who we are when we say “I cannot take this anymore.”
The marriages that tend to last are the ones where both people are honest and transparent about their hopes and fears and boundaries. Talking through all of the hard issues, before getting married, is a proven way to avoid some disappointments.
Likewise, everyone going into a community should talk over their hopes and fears and boundaries, and talk about them with great honesty. Diane Leafe Christian is unique in explaining the landmines that lurk for any community that avoids this kind of searing self-examination.
Diane Leafe Christian
Creating A Life Together, Practical Tools To Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities
Hidden expectations about community usually aren't realistic. They often take on a golden, nostalgic quality, like looking back on a paradise lost. Here's what one member of a forming community wrote about her personal vision of community:
"Like a warm embrace, a gathering of friends, laughter on a sunny day, caring and offering support in times of need, like coming home. Warm, homey, spiritually rooted, peaceful, joyous, celebratory, connected, close, respectful, emotionally honest, trusting. Home!"
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this vision. It's probably what we all want. The question is -- can we expect community to provide it?
"The fantasy of creating an 'ideal' community tends to transform a simple discussion into a magical blend of fact and fiction," writes Zev Paiss in Cohousing magazine. "Visions of community are fertile grounds for the expression and growth of long-suppressed dreams. And the opportunity to express these feelings can have an urgent quality in the early discussion stages."
Suppressed pain and hidden expectations or assumptions about community can be a prime source of structural conflict 'time bombs' that erupt weeks, months, or years later. This happens for two reasons.
First living in community cannot erase buried emotional pain. When people find that after living in community they're still yearning for something valuable and elusive (although they may not know what it is), they tend to feel angry and disappointed. Not knowing the source of their discomfort, they tend to blame the community, or other members, for it.
Second, hidden expectations about community differ widely from one group member to another. This comes up when we each think we're behaving in good community fashion but someone else is aghast at how our behavior "betrays" community ideals. Someone will express frustration, even outrage, when we've just breached an invisible rule in that person's own personal paradigm. "How can you say that? That's not community!" Or they say, "How could you do such a thing? That's not community!"
The community visioning process can offer your group an excellent opportunity to flush hidden expectations to the surface and examine them rationally.
"Don't go into all this psychology stuff," advised one experienced community friend. "It sounds like therapy talk. Community isn't about psychology. It's about neighbors learning a high level of functioning together so they can make decisions and get the work done."
I disagree. Community does involve psychology stuff -- which, in my opinion, is why roughly 90% of new communities fail. Forming a community is deeply psychological. Emotional pain and hidden expectations exert a powerful pull on people, and community founders are no exception. Put a group of people in a community visioning session, and you have dozens of different needs and expectations, known and unknown, ricocheting invisibly around the room.