Society, Politics & Law

The importance of alternative household arrangements

Updated Wednesday 21st December 2011

Meg Barker reflects on how groups of people choose to live together in shared accommodation

Over the summer the Radio 4 show Thinking Allowed examined cultural shifts and changes in the home. Presenter Laurie Taylor took a number of academics, including Open University sociologists Rachel Thompson and Jacqui Gabb, into diverse homes around the country. They spoke to an extended family, a person who lived alone, and a nuclear family. I reflected, at the time, on some of the implications of these recent societal shifts for our thinking about romantic relationships. The thought-provoking episodes are still available as downloadable podcasts on the Thinking Allowed website.

Following the success of the series, Thinking Allowed are following it up with a special episode over the festive period which focuses on shared houses. This form of living arrangement differs from the extended families considered in the earlier episodes, in that the majority of people are not related to one another. Rather they are groups of people who have chosen to live together in shared accommodation.

There are many ways in which such shared living arrangements can manifest. At one end of a spectrum would be a large house where individuals or families independently rent out rooms and have little contact with one another. At the other end would be groups of people who already have close links who decide to live together. Somewhere in between would be intentional communities or communal living situations where a space is set up along certain principles and people who share those values are encouraged to join.

Of course the recent economic situation provides one important reason why there may be an increase in people looking to live in such ways. An alternative to adult children remaining at home, or retired parents moving in with adult children, is a situation where non-related adults share accommodation.

However, people may also deliberately choose such alternative forms of living for other reasons (instead of, or in addition to, this). For example, they may do so due to shared spiritual, political or ecological commitments. It is particularly common, for example, for quakers and Buddhists to set up communities, for those with commitment to eco-politics to explore sustainable ways of living where people share space, and for those committed to anarchism to live communally in order to develop their experiments in non dominant and non-hierarchical forms of relating. Another group who may or may not overlap with such groups are those who form love relationships with more than one person at a time. Some polyamorous people live together in triads, quads, or families. All of the above may, or may not, include children, and of course some people who are not romantically or sexually involved may choose to live together in order to provide mutual childcare (for example, ex-spouses or partners; or lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans [LGBT] people who keep a donor or surrogate as part of their family).

These kinds of arrangements begin to expand out what we mean by family. Writing about LGBT communities has frequently used the concept of 'families of choice' to refer to people who become close due to shared emotional and community (rather than biological) bonds. I personally prefer the term used by Armistead Maupin's wonderful character, Anna Madrigal. She referred to the group who rented rooms at her house in San Francisco as her 'logical family'. As Jacqui Gabb's own research has suggested, we may also need to expand out 'family' to encompass our relationships with companion animals and the objects with which we share our lives.

Shared living situations also complicate what is meant by home. As people move from place to place to find the people who share their values, or with whom they can live most easily, home may be more about the people (animals and objects) they are with, than about the particular four walls they are located within. Unfortunately in recent years policy and practice around renting and mortgages has often made it more, rather than less, difficult for groups of unrelated adults to share. Also stigma remains around all of the groups mentioned, particularly when unrelated adults are involved in childcare. This is despite evidence of the benefits for children of having multiple role-models, incomes and people to turn to for support.

Finally, as anyone who has done it knows, living together is not easy, and additional challenges often emerge with larger groups of people. Perhaps we could look to these forms of shared living to inform our thinking about relationship skills, conflict resolution, and community building, rather than regarding them with suspicion.


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