Thursday, September 2, 2010

And When the Music Stops...

One of the main reasons people are attracted to community living is because it's a nutrient rich environment that stimulates growth. Sometimes you get more than you were looking for.

I just got this heart-wrenching letter from a friend, writing about her community's struggle to navigate the vicissitudes of a recent intimacy shake-up (names have been changed to mask the identity of the group and the individuals):

Our neighbors, Peter & Arlene, have just split up because Peter is pursuing a relationship with another community member, Mary, whose husband died a while ago. Mary is pursuing a relationship with Peter right back, and the upshot of all this is that Peter & Arlene's marriage is over. Last weekend, many of us helped to move Arlene into a rental unit in another city. Now, we are left with Peter & Mary, and we're not sure how to handle it.

Most people in the community were very shocked when they learned the news about Peter & Mary, myself included. Peter & Arlene had been married for 29 years, and Arlene had made a big effort to support Mary after her husband died.

I am writing because I wonder what we—as a community—should do, if anything. There is a lot of anger toward Peter & Mary, though most folks are pleasant toward them at meals, meetings, and other social interactions.

What do you think?

This is tough. On the one hand, it is not community business who members take as lovers, providing we're talking about the actions of consenting adults. From what you've reported, it seems that this liaison is something that both Peter and Mary want, so you'll have to live with it.

Probably uncertain is the extent to which couples want or desire help from the community to support relationships in trouble (this was something that Ma'ikwe and I explicitly thought about and included in our marriage vows: both that our relationship had a responsibility to the communities in which we lived, and that we wanted the communities to be available to us in hard times to help us get through it). To be clear, I don't blame your community for not having tackled this—few communities do—I'm just pointing out the poignancy of the ambiguity when it might have made a difference. The idea here is that intimacy remains primarily a choice among individuals, yet the group may still be a stakeholder.

But enough of my soap box, whether the members have previously discussed this dynamic or not, the community is nonetheless affected by this relationship shift (among other things, you've lost Arlene as a member), and I think it's worthwhile to get that out in the open—not for the purpose of passing judgment on Peter & Mary's choices (that's not your business), but to talk about what's hard and to clear the air.

Included might be any or all of the following: a) grieving the loss of Arlene as a member; b) perhaps expressing fears about the stability of other marriages in the community; c) maybe hearing what Peter & Mary have gone through in making the decision to get together despite Peter & Arlene's 29-year-old marriage; d) possibly others voicing fears that Peter and/or Mary may next be interested in their partner.

The point here is that intimacy shifts definitely have an impact on the group dynamic (the camaraderie, the trust, the sense of stability) and that it will ultimately be much better for everyone if there is a carefully crafted opportunity for all parties to get their feelings out in the open—instead of keeping them in the dark, where they can fester. I suggest a sharing circle format, where people speak from their hearts, and where you are not expecting to entertain proposals or to make any agreements. The object here is to be real and to simply hear each other deeply. While it may be scary, I know you can do this.

Back in 1999, I lost one of my fellow founding members in a squeeze like this, where her long-term partner chose another woman member as a new lover and she couldn't stand to stick around. It hurt like hell. While I didn't expect anything to change as a result of my feelings, it helped me to be able to express my anguish in a group setting.

I'm guessing that the trickiest part may be getting Peter & Mary to agree to attend (they may fear that it may be an invitation to a necktie party). You may have to do a little work to convince them that the point is to cleanse the wound; not to rub salt in it.

1 comment:

Madeline said...

here's a big conundrum as i see it. laird says it is not others business to pass judgment. the letter writer says many in the community "have a lot of anger" and thus judgment has already been passed. my bet is that this anger has resulted from hearing one person's side and not on a compassionate listening to both stories.

personally, my goal is to not stand or participate in judgment in such situations--or, IF i choose to judge, base it on hearing both sides (a fundamental value in our justice system which i agree with).

i m very curious as to the gender dimensions of the these judgmental dynamics in the community. are there any generalizations about which sex carries more energy for this "work?"