When you live in a cohousing complex, you choose to share space. One member reflects on what she's learned about being a good neighbor.

Red and white birdhouse
Credit: Sam Kaplan

Twenty years ago, when I was 28, my husband and I helped start a cohousing community in Oakland, California. We had lived in shared rentals since college, even after our marriage. It had not only made chores easier, but also sparked supportive friendships. So we were delighted when we found a group of folks at our new church who also longed to interact more intentionally with others in their community. We developed a condominium complex from the ground up with five other families and moved in three years later.

Cohousing—in which a group of people come together to deliberately create a neighborhood, both physical and relational—is a small movement but one that’s been on the rise. Right now, there are 168 established communities in the U.S., with 140 in the early planning stages (acquiring land, finding members), according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. Most consist of apartments, townhomes, and houses built around a common area that may include laundry and usually a kitchen and dining area for regular events. In my community, we gather for two meals a week and meet for monthly “yard parties” to maintain our communal outdoor spaces. We make decisions together as a co-op would.

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It’s certainly true that we’ve chosen a way of life that many would not. It’s also true that cohousing has taught us to skillfully deal with others. Because let’s face it: No matter how you live, you still have to get along with your neighbors. Here are five hard-won lessons we’ve learned.

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The problem is…me?

It’s far easier to judge others’ behavior than to consider one’s own, a truth I realized soon after moving into our community. I was incensed when Neighbor A forgot to take the trash cans to the curb, when Neighbor B took too long to get rid of stuff she had stashed under the stairs, and when Neighbor C left a pen in the dryer.

But over time I began to remind myself of things I’d done. Thinking they were weeds, I ripped out new plants a fellow cohouser had put in the garden. I’d said insensitive things at meetings. I sometimes find myself thinking, Why do I live with these jerks? Then it dawns on me: Oh, I can be a jerk too.

Acknowledging this tendency toward judgment and taking the bigger view—we all mess up sometimes—have also helped me cope better in a variety of situations outside my community, from long lines at the supermarket to that one irritating coworker.

Respect others’ values

One evening, I arrived at a community meeting full of righteous indignation: In my mind, our communication about rescheduling an upcoming meeting had been inefficient. All those emails going nowhere! No one taking responsibility for closing the loop! And why were we trying to adjust the meeting time anyway?

As we talked, it became clear we were operating under different priorities. My neighbor Cheryl Gärlick had suggested changing the meeting time so that people could go to a concert some neighbors were giving the same night. What I’d interpreted as a disorganized process, she’d seen as a way to support our creative efforts.

“It was a classic example of how we all have different ways of approaching an issue, and if we don’t take that into account, there’s conflict,” Gärlick says.

We ended up rescheduling the meeting so both goals could be accomplished, and I was reminded that a key part of relationship harmony is an awareness of others.

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Find common ground

Living well with your neighbors means everyone is a friend, right? Not necessarily. You can work effectively with others without making everyone a buddy. During my years in cohousing, I’ve had the opportunity to practice this again and again. When one of our renters threw a fit after I’d reorganized the storage in our common house—accusing me of thoughtlessly throwing out books she’d been saving—I had to work hard not to react in a way that would have made the situation worse.

“We’re typically attracted to people who are like us,” says development consultant Kathryn McCamant, who along with architect Charles Durrett, her husband at the time, helped introduce the concept of cohousing to the U.S. in the 1980s. “But it’s worth trying to cultivate an appreciation for those we wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward. The person who tends to drive you crazy could also be the one who never forgets to water the garden.”

Tackle problems directly

When it comes to neighbor relations, we often feel like tamping down our frustration when there’s a problem. But sometimes exasperation can help groups find solutions. This was a lesson our community learned the hard way.

After about 10 years of living together, we discovered that some of us were behind on our monthly homeowners’ dues—by thousands of dollars. Many of us were sapped by the demands of raising children. It was a victory to manage a shower in a day, much less track dues deposits. Those who had been paying were understandably angry at those who hadn’t. The situation could have splintered our community, but we found a way to audit ourselves and settle up. How? Through many meetings, during which we decided that working together was easier than breaking apart.

With big conflicts, it can be helpful to bring in a third party, such as a mediator who holds the various perspectives on a disagreement while the group hashes it out. Call an expert when it’s clear you can’t be impartial.

Ronnie Rosenbaum, a mediator and facilitator based in Golden, Colorado, who specializes in cohousing and family issues, works with clients to identify the problem, ensure community members feel their concerns have been heard, and help them move from taking sides to finding common ground. She uses tools like communication agreements that outline ways to hold discussions respectfully. And she emphasizes the importance of making time for the process. “Don’t just meet at the mailbox,” she says. “Set a time and place to discuss the issue.”

Let in joy

Sure, dealing with other people can be frustrating. But the rewards are great: After years of living together, my community has an ease and a closeness in our relationships that make life better, richer, and more interesting. This ease comes not just from working through conflicts but also from witnessing one another face challenges, like major illnesses and the vicissitudes of parenting. Acknowledging the ways in which the hard work of living together pays off keeps us going.

On a recent sunny afternoon I found myself sitting with six of my neighbors around the courtyard picnic table, sharing wine and cheese and joking about our kids. In that moment I felt grateful for this life I’ve chosen.

As McCamant says, this growth happens when we share our lives with others. “We just don’t mature in isolation,” she says. “We mature in relationships with others.”