The roommate lifestyle is an indelible part of our culture these days (think television shows like Friends and Will & Grace). In Asheville, as in much of the rest of the country, the high cost of housing drives many people to live in pairs or even larger groups. It’s become so accepted that it just seems natural.
But local writer Bill Branyon has given the matter some thought, especially in terms of how it relates to our more intimate relationships. He’s written two books—a novel and a nonfiction work—examining serial monogamy in our culture. Branyon concedes that the term quickly sends up red flags for some, who think it implies sexual infidelity. But he stresses that, in a nation with a 50 percent divorce rate and people waiting longer to get married, serial monogamy is how most of us live.
Flipping through his unpublished manuscript of The New Monogamy, Branyon notes the link between people’s tendency to have two or more intimate relationships in their lifetime and the need to find good roommates. “This is rippling all through our living arrangements,” he says. “What are you going to do when you’re single? It’s a whole lot easier to find a good roommate than to find a head-over-heels lover.”
And the benefits, says Branyon, are emotional as well as financial. That can be particularly true, he believes, in the peculiar world of platonic, male/female roommate pairs. “A lot of this is sort of a psychic balance,” he maintains, drawing on Carl Jung’s theory of the anima and animus, or female and male aspects of the psyche. “When you lose it, you feel it. That’s what you grew up with: a male and a female.”
In a previous living situation, notes Branyon, a female roommate helped him weather the emotional impact of a breakup. “It really ministered to my pain to have a woman friend there,” he recalls.
But it doesn’t all have to be such heavy going. Freed from the hang-ups that romantic relationships can stir up, says Branyon, mixed-gender roommates can fulfill different roles in the household and satisfy the need for companionship. “It’s someone to travel with and to go to the movies with,” he says.
Tarra Gorman, a 27-year-old server at the Frog Bar & Deli, agrees. “It’s also nice for them to be there when you get home and say, ‘Oh, this was my day.’” Gorman lives in an all-female house, but she sees the merits of opposite-sex roommates for people who don’t marry right away. “It’s a more gender-balanced household,” she notes, though she adds, “I’ve also typically lived with more feminine men.”
Ashlan Hendricks spends time in both worlds. The 20-year-old rents an apartment with female roommates, but she also lives with her boyfriend—who, meanwhile, shares his house with male roomies. “It helps to keep a balance of personalities,” she asserts, scanning the roommate ads in Mountain Xpress.
Living with the guys, she says, reminds her of her student days in a coed dorm at UNCA. “It was a lot better than I imagined an all-girl dorm to be,” she recalls. “Women tend to be a little more intense about their living spaces.” On the other hand, notes Hendricks, men are generally less concerned about cleanliness.
Somehow, that issue seems to keep coming up in such discussions. But fortunately for men, there appears to be some sort of trade-off. “An all-women house can be kind of catty,” says Gorman.
Both women agree, though, that when it comes to finding a reliable and fun person to live with, gender is not a deal-breaker. After all, Gorman’s current housemate is a woman she’s both traveled and lived with in the past. And as Hendricks puts it, “Good roommates are hard to find.”