My fiancé Todd and I met two years ago, when I moved to the Mt. Airy neighborhood in Philadelphia to take up residence with my cousin Clinton and his partner Jon. Eventually I moved out, then moved in with Todd, and finally Todd and I settled back in with Clinton and Jon. And so began our foray into a shared household.
Now our household is home to four humans, three dogs, three cats and an aquatic turtle named Schnitzel. I was trepidatious about moving in; I didn’t know if Todd’s and my newly-engaged bliss would prove nauseating to our house-mates, or if the little hissy-tiffs that my cousin and cousin-in-law sometimes get into would prove to be too much for us to be in the front row. Overall, things have worked out quite well.
Community-building is not just for your neighborhood or the college dorm, but can take place within a family as well. Communication, collaboration, kindness and mindfulness can create a warm and loving environment no matter the number of people or the mix of relationships.
I have learned some important lessons about habituating with not-immediate family members and keeping the peace. It’s important to be respectful of one another, even though you might feel like you can get away with more because you’re related, and these lessons help extended-family living work:
- Instead of getting mad when someone doesn’t do their dishes or hasn’t vacuumed the living room in a while (which needs to happen reeeeally often with three dogs), the best course of action is to start in on the cleaning yourself. Cleaning dissipates the anger ball, and if you’re lucky, a full-on family cleaning frenzy ensues. An hour later the house is sparkling and you can all enjoy a beer together.
- Be mindful of who’s in the shower if you’re going to do dishes or flush a toilet. Scalding makes people unhappy. Related: before you get in the shower, ask if anyone needs to use the loo.
- Offer to walk all the dogs, even if only one of them is yours. Clean up after your own pet whenever possible.
- Share your beer. But stash a couple away for your personal use in case someone else drinks the last cold one by accident.
- Extend invitations: “We’re going out for a drink, want to come?”, “We’re ordering Thai, do you guys want in?” It not only lets your house mates know that you’re thinking of them, it’s conducive to creating times when people share and converse and just spend time together – which is of the utmost importance if you’re going to enjoy the people you live with.
- Agree to disagree. Remember that no matter what your opinions are, others might have their own interesting and valid thoughts. Sharing them, discussing them, and sometimes finding areas you overlap can be informative and enjoyable when done with respect and care. For instance, Clinton and Jon are socially liberal Republicans, while Todd and I are Democrats. We enjoy our political discourse and appreciate learning about one another’s viewpoints. Not that we sit around and have high-minded talks about politics, but Clinton keeps up on politics as a matter of course, and so I can always learn something from him. He also walked me to the local polling place when I voted there for the first time, even though he knew I was voting for “the other guy.”
- Pitch in. Whether it’s shoveling snow, bringing someone else’s laundry up from the basement or making something tasty for everyone to share – even small efforts are noticed and appreciated — and usually reciprocated.
The perks are major: Having four people to split the cleaning, dog walking, and occasionally cooking lightens the load considerably. There is usually someone home, so there’s never a need to be lonely. We’re related (but not immediate family) and it keeps us from nit-picking one another too much. They buy us bulk groceries at Costco, we buy them organic food and local produce at our coop. I can’t speak for Todd, but I love the fact that much of the décor is stuff that comes from my family members (we have a habit of trading furniture when we get bored of it – consequently our current living room rocker has made appearances in both my aunt’s and mother’s houses as well). My favorite part is family game night, which arose from the day we all stayed home from work due to a blizzard and played Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. Family game night doesn’t happen on a set schedule, but whenever we’re all around and feel like enjoying some quality time together. It’s a feeling I’ve never had with roommates before.
The one-liner advice to achieve harmonious balance: just treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Like the sign in our living room says, “Love One Another.” Now, someone hand me the dust-buster.