A few years ago, two colleagues and I submitted paperwork to the business office for a conference we attended together. The paperwork was sent back because it contained an error: All three of our documents listed the same home address.
The error wasn’t an error at all — the three of us had lived together for some time — but it was logical to confirm the address because our living arrangement is unusual. Nonrelated adults (and mothers at that) in their 30s and 40s living together by choice isn’t the norm, but I think it should be.
Maggie and I met at work 10 years ago, when she was in her late 20s and I in my early 30s, and we clicked right away. Even though we had different backgrounds ― I was the married mother of two teenage daughters while she lived in a city apartment ― we were both new English professors at monumental turning points in our lives emotionally and logistically. I was about to come out. She was moving into a new career. I ended my marriage at the same time she was making her own fresh start, and after two years of friendship, we were living together.
There was a kind of magic in the life we built together — we both loved to play and write and throw elaborate theme parties. Our friendship felt like a superpower, an impenetrable force field that protected us from the more arbitrary rules of adulthood. We kept a karaoke machine in the living room. I loved seeing her break-dance in sweatpants at 7 a.m. and chair a committee by 9 a.m. By the time I was 37, we had lived together for a few years and I knew what we had was rare.
Our friendship was and is completely platonic, though people do wonder. Through the years, we continued to pursue romantic relationships of our choice — she dated men and I dated women. But somewhere along the way, we committed ourselves to our arrangement. Our ability to cooperate and coordinate projects together is unprecedented in my life ― I felt like I had a partner in life that I hadn’t had before, not even in my marriage. After a couple of years, we moved from the small town where we worked to a larger city, and when I watched her check off items on her clipboard during apartment tours, it made me even more certain we were doing the right thing.
“I felt like I had a partner in life that I hadn’t had before, not even in my marriage.”
We’d lived together for three years when she fell in love with a new hire at work — a cautious, adorable, bearded guy with a wide nerdy streak. She explained to him that as far as living arrangements, we were a package deal. If he wanted to live together, or if they got married, I would be part of the family. I’ve given this talk to a few women I dated, and with the exception of one, it was not received well — but Matt said OK.
I’ll admit that at first I thought it was a temporary “OK.” I assumed he was saying yes for the moment and that in his mind, once they were engaged/married/enough time had passed, our desire to live together would have expired or he would have enough leverage in the relationship to make me leave. And I resented him for these imagined wrongs. The first two years he lived with us — 2015 and 2016 — were rough. I was defensive about what other people might think, so when someone mentioned how I lived with Maggie and Matt, I corrected them and said that he actually lived with us.
I don’t know what the defining moment was — the time I realized he’d entered the no-bra inner circle every woman has, or if it was when I walked into the living room at midnight and found him watching kung fu movies while casually polishing his tai chi sword, which made me laugh. I started to find him not just tolerable but endearing. Maybe what helped was that Matt adopted a dog when he first moved in, and since they have chosen not to have children and my own children are adults, the three of us raised her together, as a family.
As comfortable as I was becoming, people started to get uneasy just before the wedding. Some asked where I would be living after the wedding, as though it were impossible for us to remain as we were. Even close friends would begin sentences with a careful, “So, are you still...” and use a gesture to finish what they guessed might be too personal to ask. I’m sure they regretted asking, as inquiries were usually met with my impassioned, likely insufferable, shower-rehearsed speech about our culture’s single-minded prioritization of romantic love.
After all, since the decline of the nuclear family, libraries are well-stocked with books that aim to normalize stepparents, same-sex parents and everything in between, with the goal of assuring children that these new configurations are still a “family.”
Even so, society at large still frames families as a unit founded on romantic love. That seems a little silly, considering how few married people stay married, and it probably has the most to do with our attraction to the passion of romantic love. But friendships can be passionate, too — any history or literature major will tell you about the florid, emotionally effusive letters friends used to write to one another. They weren’t all secretly gay.
“We had to break up with our first real estate agent. ... She didn’t know what to do with me, so she would point out the separate entrance ― “perfect for you,” she’d say, as though I had expressed interest in skulking in and out of my home without notice.”
This disconnect was amplified when this summer, after two years of searching in a difficult market, we finally found a house ― a home for all three of us. Three 30-somethings as apartment-dwellers are dismissed as quirky roommates, but a house is a tangible commitment with an unwritten rule that it’s a privilege reserved for couples only.
We had to break up with our first real estate agent, who would say hopelessly outdated things like, “Here’s where the lady can keep her shoe collection, and over here is a place for the mister’s fishing poles!” She didn’t know what to do with me, so she would point out the separate entrance ― “perfect for you,” she’d say, as though I had expressed interest in skulking in and out of my home without notice.
I’ve watched doctors, neighbors, contractors and strangers try to puzzle out which of us is the hanger-on — which one is less legitimate than the others. This is accomplished through gently prodding questions, but the new house has emboldened people to conduct a rigorous verbal entrance exam.
As a strong carrier of the busybody gene, I understand. However, there are things we don’t get to ask strangers. During this move, I’ve learned this is apparently not a universal code; a parade of handymen, service providers and delivery men have freely asked about our situation as though we owed them an explanation. I walked in on the cable guy quietly asking Matt if we have “some kind of alternative lifestyle going on.” My mother wondered the same thing, and I will never forget the awful wobble in her voice when she managed to ask if we were in “some kind of love triangle?”
We weren’t. Maggie and I called each other “platonic life partners,” but only because we hadn’t figured out that what we are is family. Maybe we didn’t realize it because we were in our honeymoon period where we never fought and it was all reading each other’s poetry and making painstakingly created invitations to our next party, but it’s clear now. Or maybe I didn’t see it as family because my experience with “family” has been fraught since I was a child ― I’m estranged from my “MAGA” parents and sister, and even my positive experiences with marriage and parenting couldn’t undo the uneasiness that creeps in when the topic of family arises.
“Maggie and I called each other 'platonic life partners,' but only because we hadn’t figured out that what we are is family.”
As much as I love it, it still feels taboo — more taboo than my sexuality, surprisingly. At least people know what to expect from gay people, but as a culture, we see friendship as an expendable luxury that can easily be shed after marriage (many see it as a mandate to shed friendship after marriage). We use phrases like “just friends,” don’t recognize friendship milestones like anniversaries and act as though men don’t even need friendship. But every day there’s a new article about the loneliness epidemic, and it seems to touch every group: the elderly, men, women, millennials. Millennial and Generation Z meme-culture uses gallows humor to downplay the pain of having no friends.
Our collective mental health is a mess right now. We’re working longer hours for less pay, don’t have time to socialize, and when we do, it’s a miracle anyone can overcome their depression and anxiety long enough to leave the house. The rules say co-habitation is for young people or those who can’t afford rent on their own, but how lovely would it be if everyone came home to companions who were chosen not because of blood relation or dependency, but because they fit together as family?
It would be silly to pretend there aren’t financial benefits, as well. Most people are aware that the cost of housing now eats up a larger percentage of a household’s budget than ever before, but many people aren’t aware that there’s a serious housing crisis in the U.S. There’s a reason it took us two years to find a house — we couldn’t compete with flippers who had cash to spend on their future Airbnb or rental properties. A mortgage is far easier to pay when split three — or four, or more — ways, not to mention the shared upkeep of the house itself.
“I have communal dreams — the more the merrier, so long as everyone has a room to call their own, but with even just the three of us, the benefits are undeniable.”
I have communal dreams — the more the merrier, so long as everyone has a room to call their own, but with even just the three of us, the benefits are undeniable. Between the three of us, one is bound to be willing to make that late-night french fry run to McDonald’s, or mercy-bludgeon the injured mouse we find under the refrigerator. We’ve all developed the skills to mediate disagreements between the other two, so arguments are short-lived. Since their family obligations and vacations are not mine — and vice versa — we’ve never had to board the dog.
The arrangement is worth the slight awkwardness it engenders. We’ve spent a lot of time soothing people’s embarrassment after they made assumptions that turned out to be wrong. I’m sure some folks believe Maggie and Matt are benevolent do-gooders who have opened their home to a boarder. When I date someone new, the “package-deal” question looms in the back of my mind, along with the question of whether my satisfying home life is what keeps me so frequently single.
While our situation is unique to most people we meet, we’re hardly pioneers. Family configurations have been shifting for decades, and I expect over time, we’ll have to explain ourselves less. Last year, Maggie hit on an effective messaging method: We sent out a photo Christmas card with the three of us in coordinating colors as we wrangled our pets into momentary submission. Just a few weeks after they went out, we received a lovely cross-stitched depiction of our little smiling threesome, flanked by our pets and underscored by the caption: “The Story Avenue Family.” Perhaps we’ll see about having it made into a T-shirt — but with the caption updated for our new address.
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