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Dirty coffee mugs are lodged in the windowsill, clothes litter the floor, and the ice cream you were planning to dig into after class is gone—again. Either someone broke into your space or you have a roommate, am I right?
Whether your life in your shared space is smooth and easy, filled with an occasional bit of trouble, or a near-daily battle of “this is not really happening,” we could all benefit from some tips on how to make (and keep) the peace with the people we live with. If you fall into that last category, you’re not alone. About half of all first-year college students struggle with roommate issues frequently or occasionally, according to 2009 research from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. And that’s significant—a stressful home situation can affect you in real ways.
- How you do in class: Roommate issues are more likely to prevent you from doing your best academic work than issues with drinking or homesickness, according to the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (Fall 2016).
How you feel: Your connection with your roommate helps shape your mental well-being and your ability to adjust at college, according to research published in 2014 in Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. College students who reported frequent roommate issues had higher stress levels than those who peacefully shared their spaces, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of American College Health. There’s also data showing that poor relationship dynamics can trigger an uptick in anxiety and depression, says Dr. Amy Canevello, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a researcher on roommate relationships.
Some of the most common complaints among roommates are things we’ve all had to deal with at some point. OK, they’re also probably things we have all done at some point, including shirking basic responsibilities (like cleaning those crusty coffee mugs), snagging snacks, and showing a lack of respect for the space and the other person in it (like that time you stayed up binging Riverdale every night for two weeks). Sound familiar?
So, rather than brushing things under the (unswept) rug, how can you set things up so you both feel comfortable bringing up what’s bugging you?
Start it off the right way
Yes, there is a right way. It includes making and sticking with a plan from day one. Here’s how:
1. Get together to discuss the details
“Research in many contexts tells us that people will be more likely to abide by rules that they themselves develop,” says Dr. Linda Stamato, co-director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. So get together and develop them. Make sure everyone chimes in on what they want for the space and agrees on the details, including what happens when rules turn into loose suggestions. Because they will.
2. Put it on paper...or Google drive
Living on campus? Your school might require that you sign a roommate agreement. Living in an apartment off campus? Yeah, you’re not off the hook either. Don’t shrug off the details here. Be clear about your expectations from the get-go. “You may think it’s obvious to clean a dish after you use it, and someone else may not. They may think it’s normal to leave a pile of dirty clothes in the corner, and someone else may find that disgusting. We are all human, so we probably will fall short on a few things once in a while, but it’s good to know that there is a standard set by each of you [that] can keep you accountable,” says Daniella C., a third-year graduate student at Emory University in Georgia and a former resident advisor.
3. Commit to communicate
Real talk: If you can figure out how to break down the awkward and talk about the stuff that bugs you early on, you’re setting yourself up for a roommate situation that works. Struggle with speaking up? Try jotting it down. “It could be helpful to make a list of your concerns that can be shared with a roommate,” says Dr. Michelle Jefferson, campus dean of students at Douglass Residential College at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Just be sure to have a plan for dealing with the concerns in person once they’ve been brought up.
What to do when stuff goes down
You nailed down the details, made the agreement, spoke up when things were on your mind—and there’s still a problem. We’ve all been there. So now what?
First, bring it up as quickly as possible. If you don’t talk about it, your frustration will fester, and that’s a loss for everyone. Here are some ways to approach it:
Keep blame out of it
Launching into a gripe session about everything your roommate has ever done wrong means they’ll probably tune you out ASAP. You’ll do better by framing a problem as something to solve together—start off by introducing the issue using “I” statements. When you start talking solutions, use “we” rather than “you.” Feeling that everyone is responsible for improving the relationship can help all of you be more responsive, Dr. Canevello says.
It seems so much easier than it actually is. Active listening means concentrating on and processing what someone is saying without simultaneously prepping your comeback. Take time to understand their words rather than blurting out the response that you spent the last five minutes crafting, Dr. Canevello says. And remember that most of us have good intentions. Just because your roommate is falling short on dish duty doesn’t mean they’re trying to intentionally set you off. We’re all doing the best we can, and it helps to keep that in mind when you hear them out.
Aim to understand
We overestimate our own contributions to keeping our living space clean (and peaceful) and simultaneously underestimate what our roommates do, according to behavioral economist Dr. Dan Ariely. And that can lead to some not-so-good feelings about the people you’re living with. Dr. Ariely explains that because we’re intimately familiar with the details of our own tasks (think about the smell of the moldy cheese you pulled out of the refrigerator drawer), we minimize the things that others do. And then we resent them for it. “The particulars of our own chores are clear to us, but we tend to view our partners’ labors only in terms of the outcomes. We discount their contributions because we understand them only superficially,” Dr. Ariely told the Wall Street Journal.
How can you fix it? Either change up your chores every now and then so you get acquainted with the details of their tasks or simply ask your roommates to share the gruesome details of their chores—step-by-step. Once you hear all about it, you may view them in a whole new light.
Come at it with compassion
OK, we’re not all going to love our roommates; it’s just life. But you can make a conscious choice to care about their well-being—and that can make a big difference in how you interact. “It changes how you construe problems and how you approach them,” Dr. Canevello says.
Roommates who had “compassionate goals,” or goals related to others’ well-being and happiness, were less stressed—and they gave and received greater support—than those whose goals focused on themselves, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010).
What to do when it’s not getting better
Sometimes you just can’t solve this stuff on your own, and that’s where your RAs, counselors, staff, faculty, and others on your team come in. Reach out to them; they’re there for you, and they know how to help. Here’s what that might look like:
A third-party mediation situation
This could be an RA, a fellow student, a staff member, your dog. (Probably not that last one, though.) An unbiased third party can listen to problems and help construct resolutions. “Using mediators allows students to surface issues that they may be uncomfortable talking about directly with the person(s) with whom they are in conflict,” Stamato says.
“Roommate issues were one of the most common issues I dealt with while I was an RA,” says Samantha E., a fourth-year student at the University of North Dakota. “Almost all of my residents who ever came to me about these types of issues were able to resolve them and form a better relationship by talking it out.”
Revisit your roommate contract
Remember that? Surprise—it’s actually helpful. If yours included things such as watch Game of Thrones every night while devouring pizza, you might want to make some changes to address the stuff that keeps coming up. Talk to your RA, other staff members, or another third-party mediator about how to make it work this time around, and agree to reference it if issues come up in the future.
Know when it’s time to bow out
Sometimes, a living situation just can’t be resolved, and you need to find new accommodations. Live on campus? Talk to your RA or resident life office about how to amicably make the switch so that everyone can live happily ever after—just not together. Live elsewhere? Read through the terms of your lease and the consequences of breaking it. You may be able to sublet your room or pay a nominal fee, both of which can be a worthy exchange for peace of mind.
Amy Canevello, PhD, assistant professor, department of psychological sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Michelle Jefferson, PhD, campus dean of students, Douglass Residential College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
Linda Stamato, PhD, co-director, the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary, Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.
Ariely, D. (2017, April 12). When chores go unappreciated. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-chores-go-unappreciated-1492017015
Crocker, J., Canevello, A., & Breines, J. G. (2010). Interpersonal goals and change in anxiety and dysphoria in first-semester college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 1009–1024. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44642305_Interpersonal_Goals_and_Change_in_Anxiety_and_Dysphoria_in_First-Semester_College_Students
Dusselier, L., Dunn, B., Wang, Y., Shelley, M. C., et al. (2005). Personal, health, academic, and environmental predictors of stress for residence hall students. Journal of American College Health, 54(1), 15–24.
Erb, S. E., Renshaw, K. D., Short, J. L., & Pollard, J. W. (2014). The importance of college roommate relationships: A review and systematic conceptualization. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(1), 43–55. Retrieved from https://mason.gmu.edu/~jshort/Erb%20Roommate%20Relationships.pdf
Ruiz, S., Sharkness, J., Kelly, K., DeAngelo, L., et al. (2010). Findings from the 2009 administration of the Your First College Year (YFYC): National aggregates. Higher Education Research Institute, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved from https://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/Reports/YFCY2009Final_January.pdf
University of Missouri. (n.d.). How to be a good roommate. Retrieved from https://reslife.missouri.edu/roommate
Washington College. (n.d.). Roommate conflict tools. Retrieved from https://www.washcoll.edu/offices/residential-life/roommate-conflict-tools.php