Safety Precautions

Research shows that one in four Americans doesn’t have even one person they feel they can confide in. More people than ever report feeling lonely. This can leave some people vulnerable to being taken advantage of when they meet people who seem to be generous and caring. Even people with the best of intentions can end up putting you in a difficult situation that they didn’t intend to, sometimes due to unclear communication. In addition to the tips in the Next Steps page, read the following precautions if they apply to you.

Getting to Know Group Members

  • If you have met several times and feel you have good compatibility, try a group weekend project or trip together to get a sense of each other’s habits and reactions to challenging situations, with each of you bringing along someone else you know well.
  • Decide on regular times and formats to discuss how it’s going—both good and bad—and to make decisions. Otherwise, unresolved issues can build up and create resentment. 
  • Communicate openly and avoid making assumptions. It’s easy to put off difficult conversations by telling yourself that you need to first establish rapport first. The Gottman Institute’s 5:1 ratio may be a helpful guide. Their research found that for maintaining relationships during times of conflict, each negative interaction should be balanced by at least five positive. They also found that if there were almost no negative interactions, a relationship was less likely to last, because it signaled that difficulties were being swept under the rug. During times of conflict there should be at least one negative interaction (such as questioning intent or avoiding closeness), for every 11 positive, because the alternative is that conflict doesn’t get resolved except by leaving the relationship. Unasked questions can create misunderstandings. Consider creating your meeting agendas with one challenging topic for each five that seem to be easy to discuss. In a less formal meeting, you might agree to spend a set amount of time discussing a topic you disagree on.
  • Our consultants can help you work thru challenging issues.

Cohousing with Shared Living Space

  • Whether renting or long-term leasing, make clear written agreements and get legal advice about any non-standard arrangement before money is exchanged.  
  • If you are considering sharing a living space, don’t sign a lease together until you’ve tried out a week in each others’ space to see if your lifestyles are as compatible as they seem. See https://www.coabode.org/resources/ebook
  • Try renting together for a year before you get serious about buying property together. People can be on their best behavior for quite a while, but after a year, you’ll likely have seen the not-so-impressive sides of each other as well.

Purchasing Together

After you’ve formed a solid group with similar ideas for co-housing, see the Consultants page for possible realtors or legal consultants in your area who have experience in HOAs or joint property ownership. It is important to ensure your legal agreements are consistent with local laws and your financial and work contributions are recorded. Always keep your own duplicate of contracts and records. When filing business documents, fill out and send the documents together with your partner(s)/group to ensure all names are on the forms. This sounds obvious, but people have been cheated out of their business by sending someone to file forms who changed the names before filing.

Evaluating Established Intentional Communities

It is easy for intentional communities to fall briefly into typical organizational dysfunctions such as in-groups and out-groups, bullying, and gossip. What’s more important is to determine whether those dysfunctions are constant. If you look on other sites for established intentional communities, carefully evaluate their governance structure and membership structure, and google them for reviews. Find out the number of residents that have been there long term. Ask for at least two references or long term community members to talk to. Ask them what the challenges are. Look online for records of disputes and lawsuits.

Avoiding Scammers

  • Many people interested in living in community are generous and trusting. If you are that type, check in with some street-savvy family members or friends who can help you evaluate any offers you may receive or offers you may want to extend. We all have blind spots. 
  • Use the chat function on this website until you feel comfortable sharing other information such as your profile on social media sites. 
  • Checking a Facebook page can help you verify that the other has a long history of relationships, not a made-up persona. 
  • Make sure the information sharing happens on both sides.
  • If and when you decide to share contact information, offer and ask for references. Get a friend to help you contact references if you feel nervous about it. Do an online search to see if the references seem to be reputable.
  • Keep yourself safe by taking it slow to build trust gradually.
  • When joining an ICmatch group, make sure you are allowed to be part of decision-making processes after a brief introductory period.
  • Sometimes even well-intentioned people are scammers. Some can be unconscious that they are taking advantage of the vulnerability of people with little recourse when informal agreements are not honored. Sometimes community mediators will take on a pro-bono case. If those you are dealing with are not willing to meet with a free or low-cost mediator to work out a disagreement, it’s probably best to cut your losses and move on.
  • Read up on narcissistic behavior. Remember that no one is all bad or all good. Even well-meaning people can display these attributes at times.  

How Intentional Communities Get a Bad Reputation

What are the biggest similarities between healthy intentional communities and cults or “scams”?

  • Both have idealism around shared values that are held as a cause worth sacrificing for, but in cults, people are pressured and manipulated to act against their individual best interests.
  • Both have members that are generous and don’t expect an exact reciprocal exchange for each contribution, but in healthy ICs, the expectations and rules around finances are agreed to up front.
  • Both have members that make financial contributions based on lofty visions, but in healthy ICs, there are clear and legally binding contracts, while members of cults often trust blindly that it will all work out based on good intentions, then feel cheated and disillusioned later.

There are longstanding intentional communities whose clear and fair governance allows them to practice their mission with conviction, without becoming cult-like. Unfortunately, intentional communities are often judged by their worst examples. Many people expect that intentional communities are cultish, because many have been. The following questions can help you get clear on the expectations of a group and steer clear of cults. These are based largely on Lalich’s (2020) more comprehensive list online.

9 Ways to Identify a Cult-like Situation

  1. How are people who left the group treated? What is said about them? Will the group give you names of people who left?
  2. Are former members willing to speak about their experiences? How do they evaluate their time with the group and leader?
  3. What is the process for filing complaints? Is there a feedback process that is honored?
  4. Is there a fair process for managing financial transactions? Are there lawsuits?
  5. Are your questions answered directly? Are you told to listen to your heart and not your head? Are you told that you are too new, too uninformed, too nosy, or there isn’t time to answer?
  6. Is there a leader who appears to be the ultimate authority and spokesperson? Are there checks and balances to hold the leader accountable? Are other points of view seen as invalid?
  7. What kind of commitment is expected in time, money, and lifestyle changes?
  8. Is there some information that you are told not to share with outsiders?
  9. Is there information that you’re told you can’t get until you’re a member of the group or reached a certain level? (para. 2)

Reference: Lalich, J. (2020). Characteristics associated with cults. http://cultresearch.org/help/characteristics-associated-with-cults/

Recommended Reading

  • https://www.microsolidarity.cc/congregating/cults
  • https://www.ic.org/does-community-heal-trauma-or-reproduce-it-challenges-for-abuse-survivors-living-in-community/
  • https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10538712.2011.591364