I did a reading from Shedders in Vancouver last weekend to a group of people interested in a lively and sociable retirement. The group had gathered a few questions in advance, for the Q&A, which were fielded to me to mull over.
They were stimulating questions, mostly about co-housing, and may form the basis of some future blog posts. But one of my favourites was this simple plea: “Could you give us a written-down list of criteria to use in choosing housemates?”
The question generated a flashback. I was lying in bed in a hotel room in Strasbourg, Austria. It was early morning; I was 30 and tired of travelling. Suddenly, for the first time, I had the thought: I’d like a husband to go home to. As is the way with daydreams, a picture and a story slowly emerged. He was tall, of course, clever with words, penetratingly insightful and played first violin with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When I got up, I wrote down a checklist.
The interesting thing is, I generated him. Within six months I was back in Canada, in relationship and committed to spending a life together. For better or worse, he’d been a systems analyst with IBM and didn’t know a violin from a viola, but he did have a good sense of humour, a sense of deep respect for me and all humanity, an idealistic streak and a good brain. These were the core items on my list.
So back to the question at hand. Choosing friends is one thing, choosing partners quite another. The impermanence of friendship means we can seek out large doses of variety and challenge, and walk away if the shine wears off. But making a long-term commitment bound in strong financial chains? – that bears some objective appraisal.
On reflection, here’s my checklist:
1. A willingness to communicate
The kind of people I’ve always liked having around me, as friends, workmates and partners, have all had this trait in common. They’ll be straight with me. They’re willing to say what’s on their mind, and to hear what’s on mine. I can’t imagine living with someone who couldn’t push through their reserve; where I had to constantly second-guess their reaction. That’s just crazy-making.
Of course, I need to have this willingness as well. It’s not always easy for me, just as it’s not always easy for my housemates. But push comes to shove, I’m willing and they’re willing to communicate. About the hard stuff.
2. Transparent about money
Talking about money is tricky. But just as it would be remiss to walk into a marriage without knowing what your partner is carrying in the way of assets and debts, you don’t want to walk into a co-household without having a pretty good idea of what the liabilities are. At the very least, you need to know that your would-be partner is capable of carrying their share of upcoming and ongoing expenses.
We Shedders have similar retirement “portfolios”. There’s a decent chance that we can all hit the pearly gates without being impacted by each others’ financial shortfalls.
At this point I should give a nod to trust. “Trust” is too esoteric for me to include as a criterion, but, especially as it relates to finance, it’s important. I’ve just had the thought that, as Rick has managed the money in our family for at least the last ten years, I have no first-hand clue where we stand. I could explain our finances to you, but it would be a matter of telling you what Rick has told me. What if he’s been playing for-real poker online while I’m having a nap in the afternoon, and has whittled our savings down to the bone? There is a big element of trust that is essential to our relationship (and my sanity).
A word about beneficiary agreements, which occur when one partner is wealthy, has the big house, and doesn’t give a fig if his/her partners carry their weight or not. There may well be possible psychological dangers in that arrangement, but if everybody‘s clear and happy – and willing to communicate – why not?
3. Respect for each other’s core values
We Shedders are an opinionated lot, each of us wielding different values. I occasionally have the thought: “What a strange way to feel about something!” But there’s no doubt we have similar core values. We believe in kindliness, we believe in making a light footprint on our acreage and our planet, we believe in the value of learning, we believe in accepting people as they are.
So if some of our political or spiritual or aesthetic views are strange and unusual to one another, it’s not core. These differences make for lively conversation – but for the six of us, these aren’t deal-breakers.
That’s my responsibility: know my deal-breakers.
4. Know each other deeply
Because the Shedders are old friends, we’re often asked how important it is that co-housemates know each for a long time.
I’m not sure of the answer to that question, but I do believe two things. Firstly you, need to have been around each other long enough that you’re past the infatuation stage, where everything someone does is cute. And secondly, I think you need to have seen someone at their BEST and their WORST before you move in with them. You need to hear yourself say, “Wow, that is an amazing human being who will contribute forever to my life!” And you need to say, “Wow. So that’s what lurks under all the gleamy creamy stuff,” followed by, “and I can live with that.”
Of course, the flipside is that you have to be willing to show your partners your best and your worst.
Perhaps ask each other: What’s the worst thing you ever did? What made you the saddest? When were you mean? It’s dangerous, irritating and disappointing when you first encounter the Dark Side after the ink is dry. (“They should have told me this about themselves!”). Better to know early about the tears and the tantrums, and be sure that those facets don’t deeply matter.
5. Have something to contribute
You should have the experience of profiting from each other’s strengths. You want people around you who are going to bring out your best, who will keep you on track as you get old and cranky. It’s easy just to like someone and want to live with them, but I think it’s key that you can look at them and identify where they’re going to challenge you to be who you really want to be.
This requires that you have something to contribute as well, as none of us wants to be a sponge who absorbs and never gives back. (That may well be all of our fate some day, so we should build up credit now while we can.)
It should be noted that my checklist defining the ideal husband has altered a bit over the years. Some traits became less important, others have emerged as critical. The same will no doubt be true regarding my housemates. But for today, that’s my list.
Shedders (over there on the other side of the world as you are at the moment), what do you think? What would you add?
And all you other co-housemates (or would-be ones), what are the core items on your list?