On New Year’s Eve of 2008, three friends, Dennis, Amanda, and Bob (not their real names), decided that they wanted to create an intentional community. They knew each other already from an annual summer adult camp and had been friends for years. At the time, Dennis and Amanda were in their late twenties while Bob was a generation older. Springing into action, they looked for land on which they could build their future community. The land they found, after an eight-to-nine-month search, is in southern Vermont with sweeping views of New Hampshire to the east. They purchased the 65 acres, and Dennis immediately set to work felling trees to both clear the land and mill the wood for the house.
Building the House
Dennis, an architect, designed the six-bedroom, two-story house. Each bedroom has a private bathroom and a private entrance through a door to an extensive two-floor balcony. There are two very large common areas. On the first floor, the common area is equipped with couches, chairs, a large TV, and a fabulous masonry heater based on a Scandinavian design. The heater separates the kitchen from this area. It’s a normal kitchen but the mudroom/pantry houses two additional refrigerators. Built in a post and beam construction, much of the wood came from the land. Upstairs is another large common room with the same view, also furnished with table and couches. The house took a year to build.
Fourteen Years Later
On the day I interviewed Dennis about his house, he met me at the door with the information that things had changed. Amanda, her husband, and their two children had moved out five days previously. The decision has been made to sell the building, with Bob going to live near Amanda, while Dennis would build his own house on the land that he would receive as part of the breakup. Life had brought changes to the original vision. They all remain friends.
Over the time in the house, Dennis got married, had a son, and later was divorced. Amanda married Peter and then had two children. That’s a lot of major changes in the life of the house! Add to that the fact that the building hadn’t been designed for children. Dennis has reconfigured his room so that he has created a bedroom for his son. But before they moved out, Amanda, Peter and their two children had one bedroom.
Finances were an issue. Though the house was built for a community of six, they were unsuccessful in bringing other people into their community. To earn money, they turned to Airbnb and rented rooms to help cover expenses. That stopped with the Covid-19 pandemic.
When It Worked
Dennis says. “For the first eight to nine years we had weekly house meetings. These would happen at dinnertime and we would talk through everything.” The chairperson rotated. They would discuss their accomplishments, house projects, and chores, if needed. Then there would be open time when they could talk about anything. “This worked pretty well. It was a time for bringing up nits… such as whether the kitchen sink strainer was cleaned out at the end of the day.” Then the meetings stopped happening, not as a group decision but because people got busy and didn’t find the time to make the meetings happen.
They had different ideas about the meetings. For Bob, they were very important. For Dennis, he didn’t realize how important they were until they stopped. Amanda’s husband didn’t really participate in the meetings, or as Dennis said, “He wasn’t very good at them.”
Initially, they pooled resources and shared the cost of food and meals. But then some residents started being unhappy about paying for other people’s food, which led to each resident doing their own individual meals. As this was happening, the community bought two additional refrigerators to make it easier for everyone to have individual food.
Relationships vs. Group
Dennis says, “One-on-one is one dynamic. A group is different. In the group, people were defensive and uncomfortable. So what works was to deal with day-to-day problems individually, but that can be hard to sustain.”
Dissolving the Community
In retrospect, Dennis says, “We didn’t talk about what would happen if it didn’t work out. We didn’t have clear steps to get out. It would have helped if we had.” The three founders envisioned an intentional community and lived it for almost a decade. According to Dennis, they had some great parties. I wish I had visited when it was in full swing and not as the community was unwinding. This is a story about how life happens and with it comes shifting priorities. What worked for a single young adult didn’t work so well in a marriage with two children.
Hindsight, they say, is 20/20 – it is much easier to see mistakes after the fact than when they are happening! I want to look at this as a lesson in the importance of managing group dynamics. But first, a primer.
Groups have stages. One theory says that the stages are “inclusion, control, affection.” Another theory makes four stages, “form, storm, norm, perform.” Whichever version, the first stage is forming up and figuring out who is in the group. This is a testing of the waters and figuring out who else is in the group. In the next stage, whether called “control” or “storm,” it is known that people in the groups will experience the discomfort of figuring out who is in the group, who is in charge, what is the pecking order, who is liked, and who is respected. In other words, what the roles and responsibilities are for each member of the group to one another.
When that stage is successfully managed, the group is now able to function and appreciate each person’s unique strengths, while providing and receiving constructive feedback and trusting one another. The group starts to have an identity and is cohesive. Performing is what it sounds like. The group is humming along and things are working.
Groups need a goal, a reason to be a group. Without a common goal, the group, as such, is a collection of individuals. What’s so interesting about group dynamics is that as soon as the membership of the group changes, the group is reconfigured and starts all over again. This is true if someone leaves the group or joins the group.
What Happened Here
The original group of Amanda, Bob, and Dennis was formed through years of friendship. Initially, they had the common goal of finding and building their home. I imagine that the focus on the building project gave them a common mission and served them well for the first years.
It’s interesting that they were unable to recruit long-term members to join them in the house. They had some people come, but not folks who stayed. Without knowing more details, I have two guesses about what happened. One is that the community didn’t have a good way to screen people to be sure they’d be compatible. The second is that the long-term friendships among the three founders were so well-bonded that it might have been difficult for another person to feel like they could belong in the community.
To my mind, however, the big key is Amanda and how her life changed when she met and married her husband. Though he joined the community, it’s clear from the little bits that he wasn’t invested in making the community work. I suspect that as the babies came, it became increasingly difficult to have the family life mesh with the community life. Also clear to me is that the physical space wasn’t built in a way that made it easily adaptable to accommodate couples and their children.
Did It Have to End?
Maybe, maybe not. They needed at least three people to manage the household finances but planned for six. If they had had another three people contributing, one imagines that finances would have been easier with everyone breathing easy. So, the one thread of the dissolution starts with the inability of the three founders to attract three more compatible, committed people to their vision. How did they screen people? What standards did they use? Did they have a process? When they failed the first time, did they understand why? These are the questions I have.
Another thread is the avoidance of conflict, suggested by Dennis’ comment that the group meetings were defensive and uncomfortable. Something was wrong and they didn’t find a way to fix it. We tend to think that conflict is bad, but conflict is just people rubbing against one another. We hope it will go away if we ignore it, but the human truth is that it doesn’t. It festers underneath. Being able to be honest about how one is feeling is what needs to happen. This group didn’t storm. They probably didn’t even know that storming is a known group dynamic!
Speaking The Truth
Sometimes it helps to have an outside facilitator who has no history with the group who can ask questions that help the members of the group speak their truth. If something is true, it is true. Sometimes just being able to say something allows it to dissipate. Sometimes it gives everyone the ability to respond to the truth. Often it leads to new understandings. It is possible that this community might have disbanded earlier. Certainly, the tension that Amanda must have felt as a committed founder but also as a wife and mother must have been very difficult.
Dennis commented that they didn’t talk about how someone would leave the community when they were first dreaming about it. He says it would have helped. Indeed. It’s easy to get carried away with a vision and a dream. It’s hard to look at what-ifs that are negative. Yet, it’s essential! This is one reason why we advocate for thorough conversations about any shared housing arrangement before people agree to live together. Had they wrestled then with the negative what-ifs, they would have been better equipped when these arose. Who knows? They might even have sorted out whatever it was that kept people from joining them in their intentional community.
Here’s a few more posts and perspectives on dealing with changes when home-sharing: When It’s Time To Move, Co-living and Co-owning Together, and Eyes Wide Open.
Leave a Reply