Sometimes I wish I fit the stereotype of the totally independent single person who does not need anyone or anything. But as much as I savor my solitude and am up for doing all sorts of things on my own, I still want companionship and emotional closeness. I want confidants and dinner companions, sounding boards and partners in whining. I want people who are happy for me when things go well and emphatic when they don’t. I like having people who have been around long enough to know the big-picture trajectory of my life and some of the day-to-day things, too.
Sometimes I don’t just want people, I need them. I moved a few years ago, and I could not have done that on my own. I once had surgery that left me unable to drive for weeks. I was immensely grateful to the family and friends who came to my rescue.
I need help with some smaller things, too. Technology, for example. I’m never going to figure out how to sweet-talk my computer when it misbehaves.
In addition to the things I can’t do on my own, there are things I could do, or could learn to do, but just don’t want to. When my screen door came unhinged, for example, I asked for help, even though I was a bit embarrassed not to deal with it myself. If I had children, I’d have even more needs.
If I were the marrying type, maybe I would look for a spouse to fulfill most of my wishes and dreams — and also repair the screen door. But I don’t want a spouse, and there’s something I need more: a personal community. The people who are there for me and I for them, for what we know we want and what we cannot even fathom we will need in the future.
This community could include friends and family, neighbors and colleagues and mentors, lovers and pets. They are even the people who are acquaintances but in a special way — as, for example, that computer whisperer who can show up and make my desktop great again.
It might sound like a lot more trouble to assemble and maintain an entire community than to find one person to be your everything. But most of us – and not just single people — are building personal communities all our lives. Those who marry, studies show, become more insular in their communities. Single people stay connected.
Still, maintaining a personal community can be difficult when you slip past those heady days of early adulthood when friends seem to be around all the time, toward the times in your life when many in your life have coupled up and cocooned. If you work from home and don’t have the easy sociability that comes with compatible colleagues, that’s an added challenge. Ditto if you are recently retired, divorced, widowed or recently moved to a new place.
I’ve found that building a personal community pays off. Sure, having an all-purpose spouse sounds efficient and can probably be great when all is well. But once your partner is miffed enough to give you the silent treatment or angry enough to leave, there goes your everything. In a study of seven kinds of personal communities, sociologists Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl found that people with diverse communities (for example, with important roles for friends and family) reported better mental health than those with restricted communities. Among the narrowest personal communities were the partner-based ones, in which “the partner is the focal point of the person’s social world, acting as confidant, provider of emotional and practical support, and constant companion.”
In the kinds of personal communities that singles are likely to have, different people can serve different roles. Ideally, no one feels overly burdened or obligated to fulfill roles that don’t suit them.
This extends to emotional support as well. Those who have different people in their lives to cheer them up when they are sad, calm them when they are anxious, and share the joy of their successes, for example, feel better about their lives than those who look to just one person to meet all their emotional needs.
Choosing just the right living arrangement can be a boon to community building, too. I spent a few years collecting single and coupled people’s fantasies of how they would love to live. A popular one was the ability to live alone but within a larger community. In such a setup, people could share their lives without giving up too much privacy or autonomy. They could enjoy a few of their meals with others (the confidants, the companions and the sounding boards) while doing their own thing the rest of the time. Among them will also be the tech wizard and the gardener, the plumber, the babysitter. Everyone does what they can.
Many people are creating their own versions of living in community. Others are flocking to existing models. In co-housing communities, for example, members have places of their own arranged around a shared space. There is also a common house with a big kitchen and dining area for communal meals, and rooms that reflect community members’ interests. The common house at Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, includes a game room, an office, an exercise room, children’s room, laundry room, workshop and two guest rooms.
Another nationwide innovation is the village movement, created to help seniors stay in their own homes. Villages are local membership organizations, offering easy access to rides and home repairs, and help with all sorts of tasks that members can no longer manage on their own. There are social components, too. D.C. already has eight villages with three others in development. This month’s social calendar in the Georgetown Village includes a book discussion, brain games, a happy hour, a coffee hour, movie night and a tour of the Hillwood Estate and Gardens.
Access to whatever you need help with, or just don’t want to do yourself, sounds magical — even with the cost of membership. And having an organization that vets the potential sources of help, and does all the organizing of social events, too, adds to the allure. With the number of unmarried Americans of all ages topping 100 million, maybe we should build more villages for singles of all ages, not just seniors.