Roommates are part of the college deal. As a freshman, it's basically a rite of passage that you wind up living with a stranger in a very small dorm room. As you get to know other students, you’ll be able to choose friends as roommates in your sophomore year and beyond.
Still, roommate problems can be one of the biggest issues you can have during your time at school. Living with someone who annoys you – or worse – can totally ruin your year. Not to mention the negative effects of having a bad living situation can have on your mental health.
Whether you’re rooming with a friend or stranger, there are steps you can take to navigate the roommate relationship. Even if you’re not the best of friends, you can at least respect and enjoy each other's company.
Establish roommate rules
Good roommate etiquette should be established early, and repeated as needed. Many colleges have roommate agreements, which can be a good place to start. These will change depending on whether you’re sharing a room or an apartment. Plus, you can add specific wants and needs to the basic template to make it your own.
Topics that you might address include:
- Cleaning expectations. Who does what and when?
- Sleep time. What time do you both generally go to bed and wake up? What are the rules during those times? Silence? Lights out?
- Showering or changing rules. People can have varying comforts with nudity.
- Overnight guests. Agreeing about what’s allowed and what’s not can avoid a lot of awkward situations.
- Letting your roommate know when you’ll be away. If you’re planning to stay somewhere else for the night, establish whether you need to let your roommate know. This is a safety issue.
- Rules about socializing. Are you and your roommate comfortable having friends over? How many? What about during exams?
- Music. When is it acceptable to play music loudly? When isn’t it?
- Food rules. Do you buy your food together? Separately? Do you share? If a snack belongs to your roommate, do you need to ask before you eat?
- Closet space and clothes. Just because there are two closets in your room doesn’t mean you have two closets! And if there’s just one for both of you, talk about how you’ll manage. If you’re willing to share clothes, it can be a good idea to establish an ask first policy to avoid missing items when you need them.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
Agreeing on how to communicate can actually be another really good topic to discuss when establishing your roommate agreement. Everyone has different communication styles and preferences so discussing yours and knowing your own beforehand can save you a lot of arguments simply from miscommunication.
How much the two of you should communicate is important as well. If you’re a fairly independent person, you may not want your roommate texting you every few hours to make sure you’re okay. However, if you like having someone knowing where you are and that makes you feel safe, it can be nice to have a roommate who will check in on you if you aren’t home at your usual time.
Dealing with conflict
The key to successfully dealing with conflict is to start before any arguments or disagreements happen. This means discussing and deciding what you’re going to do and how you’re going to handle any potential conflict ahead of time. This is referred to as metacommunication.
This can be a difficult and awkward subject and figuring out a way to bring it up can be hard. It’s a good idea to get it out of the way when discussing your roommate agreement. This will be a more natural way to have the conversation without quite as much awkwardness.
It can also be a good idea to address with your roommate that a certain amount of conflict is natural, normal, and nothing to be worried about, especially when handled in a mature way.
Some of the discussions to have with your roommate here are:
- Their preferred method of communication. Some people are totally fine with a text or phone call if you need to discuss something important, but others would be offended or put off. They much prefer important topics to be discussed in person.
- Find out how much you two are willing to negotiate. This means figuring out when it’s appropriate to compromise, and those things that you’re willing to negotiate (and those things you’re not). Both of you should be equally involved in this, so one person doesn’t do all the accommodating.
- Establish boundaries. One way to avoid conflict is to categorize rules as great, impassive, or not okay. So you might be great about no overnight guests, impassive (meaning you don’t care one way or another) about sharing food, and you’re not okay with sharing your clothes. While some stuff may still come up, there will be fewer accidental offenses by discussing boundaries ahead of time.
- Discuss the timing of when to bring up an issue. There are definitely times when we are more open to resolve an issue, and times we’re not. For example, if your roommate isn’t a morning person, it’s probably not a good idea to talk about the messy room the minute they wake up.
Photo by Dylan Gillis
What to do if it isn’t working out
Sometimes people are just too different and their conflicts can’t be resolved. When this happens, it can be more toxic to stay in a situation where there’s constant conflict and it’s usually best to attempt to extricate yourself.
While it can be tempting when angry to only look out for yourself, it’s important to be fair to your roommate and discuss your plan to move out with them, before taking any other steps.
If you're sharing a house or apartment, you will need to make sure you're allowed to sublet the room. If that's okay with the landlord, then you'll need to find someone who is looking for a room, and also find another place to live for yourself. The headaches and logistics in all of this might mean it's better to stay put, especially if you've only got a few months left to the end of term.
If you’re in a dorm, it's much easier. The next step is to talk to your resident director or housing department. They’ll want to discuss what’s going wrong, and the steps you’ve taken to resolve the situation. Your roommate may join in the conversation to see if a resolution can be found or if further steps can be taken.
If the conflict can’t be resolved, you may be assigned a new room or roommate. This won’t be a change that happens overnight, but within a few weeks, you should have a move out date established.