Notes from Windward: #61

Couples and Community

Part One

Within the context of traditional Japanese culture, it is very rude and highly improper to flat out tell someone, "No!" Instead, the standard response would be something along the lines of "That would be very difficult."

At Windward, we're not willing to tell inquiring couples, "No!," but that doesn't make the task of incorporating them into the community any less difficult.

When anyone undertakes the complex adventure of community living, it's a "push me, pull me" sort of dynamic as folks endeavor to leave some things behind and move towards other things they believe they want. The more they understand about why they want to leave where they were, and why this might be where they need to go, the greater the likelihood of success. That's one of the key reasons for this website and these letters, so that people can make an informed set of choices. We're doing our part by writing this stuff, and you're doing your part by reading and thinking about it, and that's a good start.

Windward is not a group marriage, but we have "married our fortunes together" in a number of ways, and a successful, sustainable community has a lot in common with a successful, long-term marriage. Both have to deal with the long term goals and needs of the people who comprise them, and both have to weather many of the same storms.

The primary difference is that couples have the powerful "glues" of sex and children to bind them together, whereas community living has to get by on offereing more subtle advantages such as a greater degree of personal and economic freedom, and the chance to pursue personal fullfilment without sacrificing an undue amount of security. It would seem that being a couple within a community would offer the best of both worlds, but it doesn't usually work out that way. The goal of this piece is to sketch out some of what it takes to realize that potential.

One of the gateway tasks to community is for a new person to get clear about what the concept of "love" means to them. Most folks accept the premise that you can truly love only one mate at a time, and that it is also readily possible to truly love all of one's children all the time. How's that, again? I would suggest that many of the impediments to integrating a couple into community lie in the all-too-common comingling of the concepts of "love" and "desire." And that while desire can bring both a couple and a community together, it's only love that can keep them together over time.

For a community to work, there has to be a degree of love shared among the members of that community; i.e. a willingness to put the long-term welfare of another ahead of one's own short-term desires. The building of a community can be seen as an exercise in delayed gratification on a large scale, and if someone isn't able to invest in the present, they're not going to have a future in community.

As to the "lust" part, you're pretty much on your own. The intimate relationships of the adult members isn't of organizational concern, and "don't ask, don't tell" suits us just fine.

One of the key elements to the survival of a community is the degree of trust that its members can develop -- trust in the community, trust in each other and ultimately, trust in themselves. For religious communities, that's not too hard since it all boils down to a member's trust in God, but for secular communities such as Windward, the question of trust isn't that easily answered. And for what it's worth, I'd suggest that this is a good thing, as in the Heinleinian dictum of "If a man speaks of his honor, make him pay cash."

To use a sports analogy, community is an exercise in "team living." Some sports such as tennis can be played person against person, or couple against couple. Other, more involved sports are played by teams of individuals who are willing and able to work in concert towards achieving their common goal.

Now suppose that a couple grew tired of playing couples tennis, and decided that they wanted to take up some team sport such as baseball or basketball. For that to work out, they would have to be able to leave their "couple-ness" in the locker room, and play the game as individuals. Unless they can do that, they aren't going to earn the trust of their team mates.

All of the reasons why it's problematical for someone to work with their spouse in the world "out there," apply equally as well and then some within the world of community. Just as the business owner's kid has to work extra hard in order to earn the respect of co-workers and to overcome the presumption of special treatment, so too does a member of a couple within a community have to strive to insure that both members of the couple are fair and then some in their dealings with other members of the community.

It is absolutely destructive for there to be any implication that one's status within the community, or their relationship to the community, derives from their intimate relationships. Just as that's true in the workplace, it's even more true in community because of the more inclusive nature of community. However uncomfortable one might feel about a given situation at work, one can leave that situation behind at the end of the work day; in community, we don't have the distancing option, and there's more at stake in that it's easier to find a new job than it is to find a new community.

And while the understandable presumption is that "intimate" means "sexual," the reality is that it's much more complex than that. For example, four of our members are mother and daughter, a condition which gives them strong ties and notable advantages. In one case, the daughter is 17 and will soon be launching herself into the world beyond Windward, but the other came to Windward in her late twenties after her mother had been here for some five years.

In the first instance, the relationship between the daughter/member and the organization isn't much of an issue since the daughter is on an educational track, not an organizational track, and her mother is focusing a good deal of her time and resources on facilitating that work. The upshot is that there's not a lot of potential for agenda conflict there.

In the second instance, the daughter was a person who was a candidate for our transitional program in her own right, and came under those conditions with her mother's blessing. [note: any participant has the right to veto the participation, or even the visit, of any of their kin or a former spouse.] The history of their relationship was such that the mother had amply demonstrated her ability to hold her daughter accountable for the conduct which had caused her to become homeless, and there was good reason to believe that the daughter was ready to take her life in a more positive direction.

I'm quite pleased to report that this is indeed what happened, and that mother and daughter have both become key members of the community. But still, there is an ongoing need for each of them to demonstrate that their birth relationship does not take precedence within the context of community. It's a bit frustrating for each of us to have to repeatedly prove certain things, but that's part of the growth process.

New people don't know the track record, and need to see things with their own eyes before they'll truly believe. There's a line in The Wedding Song that asks, "Can you believe in something that you've never seen before?," and that is one of the questions unlying the process of building community. In an age when the extended family, the active church community and the involved neighborhood are all relics of the past, most people have never seen and experienced a working community, and while they know that there's something important missing from their lives, that's a very different thing than being able to trust in the hope that a given community of choice is the right vessel for that hope, and that they can become a full and valued participant.

Continued in Part Two