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Shacking up isn't what it used to be

April, 2009

Living together involves different priorities at different stages of life. On my return trip from visiting my daughter and her fiancé in their Manhattan shack-up, I couldn’t help but marvel that they consider 400 square feet “home.” Our needs become so different when youthful exuberance is tempered by experience!

At a senior stage, couples take more note of the financial and practical aspects of sharing a home. Contrary to the building stage that our children share, incomes have often reached their peak and must then be fairly delineated. When these incomes are not in sync, complicated power struggles and disappointments can surface. Moreover, concerns around “what if’s” begin to complicate estate planning. Loyalties need to be defined.

Alec and Glenda are a case in point: When Alec moved into Glenda’s condo both sets of their children were pleased that their parents had found partners. However, when Glenda unexpectedly passed away, her heirs, victimized by a job loss and the chain effects of a recession, counted on the sale of the condo to help them through. Alec’s children, on the other hand, had strong feelings about their elderly father being evicted from a home he had lived in for the past few years. Although this had been discussed in a pre-nup agreement, no one expected the surge of emotion that began to surface.

Although money matters are the most evident breeding ground for conflict, the psychological aspects of living with a partner come with the ghosts of previous relationships. Old loves as well as old hurts leave invisible scars and expectations. To that effect, by the time we reach mid-life, many of us have had to live alone. Although many do not begin by welcoming this notion, some of us have learned to love our own space. With the confidence of self-acceptance and a sense of mastery, we have experienced the pleasure of answering to no one. There can be a comfort in freedom: dancing with our mirrors, reading through the night or sharing a container of ice cream with our pets. And, ironically, women who had previously weighed more heavily towards couplehood, evolve into the majority of people who like single life.

In my experience, something happens to the sex roles as we age. Rarely stereotyped as the nesters, the homebodies or the spokesmodels for togetherness, men begin to access more of their neediness as they age. Those who had been married find it more difficult to take physical and emotional care of themselves when they lose a spouse. And, with time, men also become more sentimental. They begin to tolerate more closeness, and suddenly they want to come to the supermarket.

Women, on the other hand, tend to become more pragmatic and independent. Many have moved away from sentimentality to simple appreciation of a book of coupons and central air conditioning. Obviously, nature is still searching for a way to bring all this into sync. In other words, both partners might not be in the same state of readiness to give up their independence,with flips and flops of attitudes.

At every stage, however, moving in together involves mutual responsibilities. It might involve conquering ghosts of old expectations. It always implies augmenting and growing, but at a certain point it also sneaks a peek at inevitable losses. Whereas my daughter’s generation makes future plans that can luxuriate in time,more mature couples need to live in the moment, all the while remaining mindful of impending limitations. To share this with a partner involves a tremendous leap of faith. It involves a sense of respect for another person’s basic character. And it is not always adorned by romance.

All this being said, there is a special bond that comes with joining into one home. The notion of a “we” can continue to offer a sense of emotional and psycho-social stability. It is the endorsement of high mutual regard. It is also a testament to the human spirit and the generosity of commitment. And it’s just plain good for one’s health.

But it wouldn’t be fair to end this article without mention of the fact that moving in together is not necessarily limited to a man and a woman. Alternate arrangements involve equally challenging, sometimes unanticipated adjustments. More and more people are sharing living quarters with friends. Many of us house elderly parents. And there are always children who come and go, often bringing a constellation of grandchildren and “significant others” too complex to document. This might be a sign of our times, of our changing family life structures or of our increased longevity, but it always impacts on who joins whom at the breakfast table.

The decision of whether or not to live together is basic testimony that we’ve lived in colour. Our capacity to share our lives and the choices therein is the material that creates our stories. And never before has a generation been so alive with tales to tell.



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