Roommate Relationships

I've never shared a room with anyone before. What can I expect from my new roommate?

Living with a roommate is obviously different from living with your family, where you knew each other so well you didn't have to think twice about it. Then, suddenly, you come to college and are expected to share a hundred square feet of space with a total stranger, who may have a totally different background, lifestyle, and personal habits. It can sound a little intimidating, but in the back of your mind you know the experience will endow you with great things like "interpersonal skills" that will help you out long after you've turned in your key to ResLife.

You and your roommate can be very different and still have a successful roommate relationship. It is important that your expectations are realistic or you may be disappointed. Don't expect your roommate to be just like you or your friends from home. It's normal to encounter some problems. After all, it's unrealistic to expect 2 strangers who share a small space to get along all the time. Basically, getting along with a roommate involves 3 Cs: courtesy, communication, and compromise. 

What can I do to prepare for living with a roommate?

First, you have to be a good roommate yourself. Think about what you need in your personal space and what you hope to get out of the roommate relationship so you can express yourself clearly. Ask yourself what you're like to live with. How do you feel about things like sharing your belongings, playing music, privacy, or neatness? Take some time to really think about these questions. You might not consider yourself a neat freak until it's somebody else's clothes on the floor. Or you might think you don't mind loud music, until Celine Dion is blasting from your roommate's speakers.

Now that you know what you expect from the relationship, find out what your roommate's expectations are too. When you first meet, get to know each other a little bit and talk honestly about your needs. Set some basic ground rules for what goes on in the room that you can both be comfortable with. For example, maybe you'll decide that you'll use headphones for music when you're both in the room.

When something your roommate does bothers you, talk about it, instead of letting little annoyances fester into larger hostilities. Don't expect your roommate to read your mind. Maybe your roommate grew up with 3 siblings and never thought twice about asking to borrow clothes, but for you it's a big deal, even though you never said so explicitly. Assumptions like these are the root of many a misunderstanding. Remember that most people do not intentionally wish to be inconsiderate of others and what might irritate you may be totally acceptable to another (and vice versa). 

How do I prevent conflict with my new roommate?

It's that word again: Communication. Talking about things up front can save you a lot of frustration and disappointment later on. Pick a time to sit down and discuss your views on cleaning, sharing, and your individual sleeping, socializing, and study habits.

One of the biggest areas of roommate conflict is cleaning. You may be the kind of person who doesn't notice a mess until the flies are buzzing and you can't find your desk beneath the junk, but your roommate may be just the opposite. It's helpful to sit down together when you first move in and work out a schedule for what chores need to be done and how often - things like vacuuming and taking out the trash. Find a standard of "clean" you can both agree on.

Another big area of roommate conflict is sharing. Set out boundaries at the beginning about what things you're going to share. While you might be fine if your roommate rummages through your closet for the dustbuster, your roommate might see that as a huge invasion of personal space. And even if your roommate says it's fine to use their printer when you ask, they might not be okay with your using it when they're out of the room. Talk about all the potential issues, like who pays for paper and toner. And when it doubt, always ask permission. Don't just borrow the CD or eat the cookies if you haven't talked about it ahead of time.

Sleeping, socializing, and study habits
Even if you're a night owl and your roommate is an early riser, conflict doesn't have to result - but compromise will. Take some time to figure out your individual sleeping, socializing and study habits, and work out basic rules you can both agree on. Some key questions to ask are:

  • What time do you usually go to sleep and get up in the morning?

  • Can you sleep with music playing? The lights on? The windows open?

  • Can you study with the TV on? Music playing? People talking?

  • How late is too late for guests in the room? Telephone calls?

  • How do you feel about overnight guests? 

How do I resolve conflict with my roommate?

If your roommate isn't doing their part -- like they leave smelly takeout remains in the trash but never haul a bag down to the dumpster, don't fume silently around them while complaining to everyone else about what a slob they are. Talk to them. Don't wait until things build up and then explode at your unsuspecting roommate when they toss a milk carton into the overflowing trash can. This sort of "dumping" is unfair and ineffective.

  • Talk about whatever it is that bothers you as soon after it occurs as possible. First, find an appropriate time to talk with your roommate -- don't wait until they are rushing out the door for a class, and don't confront them in front of others.

  • Before you approach your roommate, ask yourself: "What is my objective in this situation? If roles were reversed, how would I want someone to approach me?" Assume that your roommate doesn't mean to cause harm or that they're not out to make your life miserable.

  • Be sure to assert yourself. Try not to sound meek and apologetic, because then they may dismiss your concerns. But try not to sound blaming and angry either, as if your roommate is a horrible person; that will make them defensive. In both your choice of words and tone of voice, strive to come across as one friendly, reasonable adult talking to another friendly, reasonable adult. You have something important you want to say, and you assume they'll listen.

  • While stating your case, make sure also to listen to your roommate and respect their point of view. Maybe they had a huge test this week and totally forgot about the trash. Or maybe you've been doing some pretty irritating things yourself that have been driving them crazy. By listening non-defensively as well as talking assertively, you create a climate for resolving conflicts. Be sure to stick to things your roommate can change - the actions, not the person.

  • And lastly, come up with a solution you're both comfortable with. Work at seeing the other person's perspective. If you're both trying to do so openly and honestly, you'll reach a fair compromise. 

Should I try to develop a close friendship with my roommate?

A lot of people assume that their first roommate will become a friend for life. But living together involves something different than friendship; it involves being able to talk and share ideas, being tolerant and able to agree on how to handle situations. What people may not realize is that talking and sharing ideas and negotiating conflicts don't require friendship. What this means is that the best roommates aren't always your best friends. It's just a fact that sometimes you don't want to spend more time outside your room with the person you spend some 10 hours a day within 10 feet of. After all, you weren't placed together on a friendship potential scale. But even if you don't walk away from the experience with a new best friend, living with and building mutual respect for someone who is different from you is valuable. 

I've tried everything to get along with my roommate, but it's still not working out. Now what?

Perhaps a third party can help. Have you asked your CC or a friend to act as a mediator? With someone else present, you and your roommate may be able to speak honestly, hear each other out and reach appropriate and acceptable agreements. If this doesn't work or you're not sure who would be a good mediator, there are other options. You can talk to a Dean of Student Life at 401.863-3800 to work through what's happening. 

Related Links

Ten Tips for Managing Conflict, Tension and Anger 
How to maintain your composure when you feel like your buttons are being pushed.

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