It’s a Friday night in early September, and a man I’ve become involved with wants to hang out. For the last week, I’ve been staying in the apartment of my ex. It’s been over three years since he and I separated after six years together, and we’ve settled into that kind of friendship where we can talk about our most embarrassing romantic misfires openly. He also happens to know me better than most people on the planet and has offered to let me use this apartment — which was once our apartment — while he’s away at Burning Man. He knows I can’t stand living with roommates, and that having my own space is, at all times, a preferred state of existing.
The man I’ve become involved with is also in the throes of a separation. Neither of us could afford to keep the homes we once shared with our partners after our respective separations. While going through the trauma of breaking up, we were simultaneously thrown back into the other traumas — the ones that come with inhabiting tiny New York City apartments with strangers.
We spend that night watching Netflix and eating ice cream and popcorn in the living room. This, I think, is the life — the shape one would want: meeting a boy you like, curling up on the couch in sweatpants and watching movies, the interruptions of others far away.
But it isn’t the life I have, and isn’t one that — as an online media editor in one of the most expensive cities on earth, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt — I will have the luxury of living any time soon.
I am 38 years old.
I’m not alone, though. As cities continue to draw new arrivals, housing increasingly becomes a privilege. And the privilege of living without roommates is one that fewer and fewer are capable of affording. According to The Atlantic, in 2015, 25 percent of American adults lived with roommates who were not romantic partners or family members. In major cities like New York, that number climbs to 40 percent, and is even higher in Los Angeles, according to research compiled by StreetEasy and The Atlantic. As rent continues to skyrocket — and as housing stocks are filled by luxury properties, micro-apartments, and co-living developments — the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon.
So we are left to forge our lives in shared spaces. We have conversations with potential new roommates — often complete strangers — about their cleanliness, sleep schedules, work schedules, bathroom habits, time spent socializing, alcohol and drug use, financial solvency, credit scores, and everything else that should really be no one’s business but your own. All of this is material by which we judge the people with whom we are forced to live and is akin to screening a potential partner on a dating app. I once went to a mixer for an open room that was more of hipster group interview. We all spent the night one-upping each other with our credentials: myself, the travel writer, competing with a miniature violinist, a painter with representation in Tokyo, and so on. Cheap cans of beer were passed among those who drank, sparkling water for those of us who didn’t, as we tried to ace the audition.
All of the regular invasions of privacy aside, it’s perhaps having a significant other that is the most fraught to navigate in the context of roommates and shared living situations. This ranges from pure logistics — our tiny apartments aren’t exactly equipped to take on more people than already call them home — to more overtly uncomfortable situations (noisy sex, fights between lovers, and so on). The toll that this can take on getting to know someone — a situation already packed with stressors and complexities for many of us — is significant.
To be fair, having roommates can have psychological benefits. “Co-living could potentially be one solution to generating new meaningful social connections,” says Itai Palti, a fellow at the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health and founder of the Conscious Cities movement. “These connections are already very important to our wellbeing, and the decreasing frequency with which we make them means they will become even more crucial.” In other words, roommates can present an opportunity to sidestep potential feelings of loneliness and isolation that may arise from living alone. These kinds of relationships can also, on a basic level, prime us for sharing our lives (and space) with a romantic partner.
The companionship of roommates is also important as shifts in urban design make our abilities to forge intimate bonds with people more complicated. Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” observed in the 1950s and ’60s that public spaces were being dismantled. Shops and cafes vacated previously lively blocks; old businesses were priced out; long-time residents were evicted and replaced by transient residents; and massive residential towers replaced brownstones. This trend hasn’t stopped, and these changes translate to isolation, loneliness, and crime. They also impact how we date.
It is the opposite of shocking that myself and my friends — all in our late 30s and early 40s — are still deeply embedded in a way of life that looks like college.
Today, we use trendy design and gimmicks to gloss over a lack of truly private space. For instance, maybe one night you’re kicking it with a handsome guy and having a great time. After dinner, you find yourself at his apartment, which is in the WeLive building in Lower Manhattan. It has a game room, cold brew and beer on tap, lounges, and a terrace with hot tubs. Fun? Yes. Absolutely. But then you step into his incredibly stylish apartment to find his bed separated by only a curtain. As you two undress, and you giggle nervously, you can hear the two roommates just around the corner in the living area, the curtain doing little to create distance between him, you, and anything else.
This scenario is hardly rare. Thousands of co-living units are opening across the country, where your love life is governed by rules not far off of ones you might have encountered as a college student — with a capitalist twist. Regulations range from nightly fees for visitors to limits on the number of overnight guests you might have based on your room size. There are even community managers who bear noticeable similarities to college RAs.
Shared apartments aren’t the only way that growing cities hinder our ability to find love. Economic factors also play a significant role. Take, for instance a study conducted by WalletHub on the best and worst cities for singles. On this list, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago all scored incredibly high on metrics ranking the number of singles and the volume of things to do. But they ranked in the bottom 5 percent for “Economics.” So while singles have theoretical access to restaurants, cafes, bars, and theaters, they don’t necessarily have the means to pay for them. When more and more people find themselves with less space and minimal disposable income, dating becomes a problem.
Further compounding the problem is the fact that workers in these cities are pouring themselves into longer and longer hours. According to Gallup and the Washington Post, work weeks for salaried full-time employees crest above 50 hours per week. And commutes to those jobs continue to eat more and more time every year, especially in the nation’s biggest cities, like New York and Washington D.C. This further taxes the time available to balance personal needs (like going to the gym, grocery shopping, cleaning, and doctor’s appointments) with non-work obligations, friends, and attempting to date.
The result of all this? We opt for dorm-like living situations, continue to drown in student loan debt, and earn stagnant wages throughout our 20s and 30s. Or, to put it another way, it is the opposite of shocking that myself and my friends — all in our late 30s and early 40s — are still deeply embedded in a way of life that looks like college.
The spaces we once reserved for serendipity and chance in our lives are disappearing. When we lose these, we also lose part of what what makes both love and cities feel so magical. There is some hope for cities though: The Conscious Cities movement as well as The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health are advancing agendas in urban planning to mitigate the current trend toward social isolation.
Since most of us aren’t urban planners, though, we must make do in our current worlds. Adapting the behaviors of seasoned travelers into our everyday lives may be part of the solution. Psychologists know that travel unleashes inhibitions for a variety of reasons, allowing us to more wholly enjoy new experiences, including meeting new people on both platonic and romantic levels.
We can replicate that physiological excitement in the cities we call home by making a few simple choices. Instead of going on dates in familiar or habitual places, opt for mutually unknown restaurants or cultural venues. Additionally, we need to get more comfortable speaking to people we don’t know. In a series of experiments conducted at the University of Chicago, researchers found that humans routinely believe that connecting with strangers will cause discomfort or displeasure, but that, in reality, the opposite is true. Both tactics can help us combat the isolating nature of today’s city life.
We can also work to establish clear boundaries and a measure of control over our routines (think: disconnecting from work emails, having open conversations with roommates about our S.O.s, and building time for activities that involve getting to know new people). These are the basics, really — the stuff we learn about living with and navigating life among others as we grow up. As the chance for finding love evaporates in cities, though, it’s our own mission to find a reason to still love these places and to find love within in them, too.