How to Live with a Terrible Roommate
Dormitory life is a keystone of the American college experience. You head off to school and sign up for classes and then spend a full year (sometimes more) in a room where you can often touch the other bed from your own. It’s an odd way to live, and often fraught with conflict.
By the end of my freshman year, my roommate and I said less than twenty words to each other per week. We had little or nothing in common, and an unfortunate habit of annoying each other with both our habits and personality quirks. It was tense and uncomfortable.
Despite this, my dorm experience was overwhelmingly positive. So based on that (and my subsequent experiences sharing apartments and houses with both friends and strangers) here are my nine tips to life with a terrible roommate.
Recognize Your Differences
We all grow up in different homes, and therefore with different expectations. Is the TV kept on all the time? Do you turn the light off when you leave? What level of untidiness is acceptable? Can romantic interests stay overnight? Is it OK to borrow each other’s things without permission?
These are questions of expectation, and not of “right and wrong.” It’s like the culture shock of visiting a new country: your roommate lives in ways that you never imagined a “normal person” would act. Likewise, you may find that your perfectly ordinary behavior drives them crazy. Recognize your differences, and try to always keep this in mind. People are different, and as much as you can, try to allow for those differences.
Set Up Expectations
Figure out the things that are important to you, and try to set up “rules” or “agreements” early on. Frequent problem areas are:
Coming and going at night
Figure out your expectations early. Have a conversation about how often you plan to clean, or what a reasonable time is to turn the lights off at night. If you’re noise sensitive, talk through what time noise should stop at night (for example, that the roommate wears headphones for music or TV and talks to friends somewhere outside of the room).
But as you’re having these conversations, you should be reasonable, too. If you’re the noise-sensitive one, get earplugs. If you’re the late-night party animal, try to set up your room so you’ll make minimal noise when you come back. Set expectations early, and be flexible.
Communicate Early and Often
Most roommate conflicts arise from not setting clear expectations, or not communicating when a problem first arises. It’s awkward to talk about talking, but try to figure out a way that the two of you communicate best.
The general rule of thumb is to always talk in person. That’s good advice for most people, but for others it’s much easier to send emails or texts. Try to get in a habit of how you talk through issues. Some tips:
Talk through conflicts outside of your room. Find somewhere quiet and semi-private to discuss things so that you’re not in your shared space and fighting.
Don’t talk about the conflict with mutual friends. Keep a positive spin on things as much as possible—anything else can spread gossip and bad feelings fast.
Try to talk about your experience, rather than their actions.
It’s a good idea to regularly check-in to see if things are going well. Actually say “It seems like things are going pretty well here, but I wanted to check and make sure. Am I annoying you? Is there anything that’s not working?”
You can do this in person or via text. It sounds annoying and kind of weird, but it can help you spot problems early on and clear the air if there is anything that needs to be talked about.
Create Neutral Fun Activities
Try to find common ground. Join a club together. Study in the common room with mutual friends. Develop a routine that takes you out of your shared space and reinforces the relationship with shared interests.
Small annoyances are easier to overlook when you have a broader positive context.
Develop Routines Outside Your Room
No matter how good or bad your roommate situation is, everyone appreciates some space from time to time. Establish study space, hangout times, and lots of activities that make you happy and improve your life outside of your room. You’ve got the whole campus to work with.
My freshman experience was saved by spending most of my time studying, hanging out, and having fun in other people’s dorm rooms.
Ask for Help
Your residence hall and college should have staff dedicated to helping with your living experience your freshman year. If you need help, just ask for it.
Document and Report
If things get really bad or dangerous—such as finding that your roommate has illegal drugs in your dorm room or if their behavior is truly out-of-bounds or dangerous, then report the incident and document what has happened. You should not be made to feel uncomfortable in your own home.
While a certain level of conflict is almost inevitable, there are clear lines that should trigger action on your part.
Know if it’s Time to Go
There sometimes comes a point when enough is enough. If you get to an emotional place where it’s time to pull the plug on a roommate arrangement, then go ahead and do it. Try to minimize the drama but make alternate arrangements and get the heck out of Dodge.
Sometimes it’s better to let things go than to try to push on in an unwinnable situation. I managed a full year of not speaking to my freshman-year roommate, and I’m glad I stuck it out. I still felt that the room was mine, and I wasn’t overwhelmed by an unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling.
However, I have at other times decided to move out of a shared apartment because the level of passive-aggression and discomfort was so extreme it was giving me anxiety and impacting everything else in my life. It was time to go, and so off I went. Sometimes “quitting” is the right thing. If it comes to that point, pack up and get going.
Most roommate conflicts are manageable. Most rough times smooth back out, and the relationship gets back on track. I wish you all the best in your housing adventures, and hope you don’t have cause to use these tips!
(Stories and other advice are more than welcome in the comments below)