The changing face of single life

'Urban tribes' provide friendship and support to 20- and 30-somethings

Miles from his frenetic San Francisco life, Ethan Watters discovered a new way of looking at being single. While hanging out in the Nevada desert, he saw his tight-knit group of city friends sitting around a campfire and realized they formed a tribe - an urban tribe.

The term sounds more like the name of a store that sells chili-pepper lights and Doc Marten boots than a description of the familial groupings that Mr. Watters has observed young professionals forming after college and before marriage.

In a new book, "Urban Tribes: A generation redefines friendship, family and commitment," due out Wednesday, he outlines his ideas about clusters of friends who do everything from weekly dinners to fix-it projects together.

The author, a freelance writer in his late 30s, hopes his memoir-ish social commentary will spark conversation about the longer period of time people are spending single - to help create a picture of what it looks like to be unmarried into your 30s.

"People assume the negative: that we're wasting time, or that we're selfish, or that we're delaying marriage," says Watters in a phone interview from San Francisco. "Let's tell another story about this time of life and what its potential is."

On the whole, the book offers a more optimistic view of single life than some other entries in the genre. But "Urban Tribes" chronicles not only the benefits of mass friendship during the unmarried years, but also the drawbacks, such as a dampening of the desire to get hitched.

The author resists defining urban tribes too narrowly, but he does argue that creating such groups is something that comes naturally to humans when faced with the need for support.

He points to the rise of the hippie and gay and lesbian cultures in previous decades, for example. But unlike those groups, he suggests that today's tribes are formed by more people and for longer periods of time - which is the case with the current generation of young urbanites, who often remain single for five to 15 years after college.

Tribes can range from four to more than 100, but average about 12 to 24 people, says Watters.

He collected information from more than 1,000 people, primarily in the US, after he first presented the idea in a New York Times Magazine article in October 2001. (Watters set up a Website to facilitate discussions,

His respondents ranged fromultimate-Frisbee-playing MBAs in Boston to country-music aficionados in Austin, Texas. Those who wrote him talked about the roles members take on, such as "organizer," "advice giver," and "cynic." They described the ethnic and religious diversity in their groups, and their activities.

"We're like a bunch of Amish people," said one Seattle woman, whose comments are included in the book. "We're always helping each other out, painting houses, planting grass, fixing heaters, lending cars."

Tribes provide structure for singles' lives, writes Watters. More than taking part in just annual events and parties, the groups often have frequent "rituals," as the author calls them, like weekly dinners, book clubs, and TV nights.

Dating and marriage are popular subjects among tribe members, some of whom may be married. Such discussions often help groups bond, explains Watters, who once told his friends, "I spend more time talking about my love life with you all than I do having one."

Tribe members are aware of societal influences delaying marriage - women supporting themselves and working in careers that take longer to get established, for instance, and the desire by both genders to find not just a partner but a "soul mate."

Watters talks about both the support tribes can provide - taking on the role of parent by suggesting and approving of partners - and the hindrance they can be when members get jealous of significant others, or when they reserve their loyalty and emotion for their friends.

Pinning Watters down on whether tribes are ultimately good or bad for marriage is difficult. In his own life, both situations were present.

The author, who married a year ago and is about to become a father, says the argument can be made that while sometimes consuming all his time, the tribe also made him into better marriage material.

"The tribe life felt to me often like a strange impediment to being serious about a girlfriend," he says. But he suggests that it also helped him become a confident person, one who "could become a partner without necessarily needing the partnership to have an identity."

Ultimately, he says, the group and the romantic life don't have to be at odds: "With a certain sort of conscious effort, they don't have to battle each other."

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