I’ve had a full cast of roommates over the past 10 years. I’ve lived with men, women, friends, Craigslist people, siblings, strangers.
And here’s what I’ve learned: we all have quirks, we all have pet peeves and we are all a little difficult to live with.
With more and more millennials getting married later, renting rather than buying and earning a lower annual salary compared to prior generations, it’s no surprise that lots of us are living with roommates.
Because of that, it’s good to keep in mind how much our living situations can impact our overall well-being. One study suggests that your first-year college roommate can have an effect on your weight, your mood, your grades and your drinking habits.
Being a roommate requires you to be considerate, reflective and understanding. These are some of the best ways I’ve learned to make sure a living situation is the best it can be for everyone.
When you first move in, set boundaries and expectations.
When I lived in three- and four-person apartments, my roommates and I came up with a system for taking out garbage, buying toilet paper and paper towels and paying bills.
We pulled names from a hat to establish who would put the bills in their name and we used an app for payment. We also discussed what expenses would and wouldn’t be shared (home decorations, for example, weren’t shared, but all household necessities were).
“Find a way to have a thoughtful conversation at the start of your roommate relationship when things are exciting and new,” said therapist Ginger Houghton, owner of Bright Spot Counseling in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. “Make sure to touch on high-drama areas like overnight visits, dishes in the sink, expenses and an exit plan if the living situation isn’t working out as you had imagined.”
If, over time, the system isn’t working, set up another meeting and revamp your rules. Don’t be afraid to speak up about what you want, what’s not working and what you would like to see change, but always remain respectful of your roommates.
“Look for ways to soften your complaints. For instance, turn ‘You make too much noise’ into ‘It’s hard for me to sleep when it’s noisy at night. Could we figure out a set quiet time?’” said Ashleigh Edelstein, licensed marriage and family therapist associate at Austin Psychotherapy Services.
“If they bring something up and you disagree or feel upset, try not to get defensive or fire back with your own complaints.”
Nobody likes dealing with a difficult roommate — dirty dishes, late payments, late nights, disrespectful comments.
But before you start pointing fingers, look at your own habits and behaviors. Do you avoid taking out the trash? Is your significant other staying over most nights and not contributing?
Edelstein suggested asking yourself these four questions:
If you answered “yes,” I’m sorry to say it, but you’re likely the “difficult one.”
But even if you’re a great roommate, you probably have things you could work on — like hanging up your jacket or turning off the lights when you leave a room or remembering to throw away your expired food from the fridge.
Katie Ineich, a 31-year-old in St. Louis, has lived with the same roommate, who she met at work, for three-and-a-half years.
“Our roommate relationship works because we both bring different things to the table, and we actually enjoy hanging out and spending time together,” Ineich said. “She’ll cook and I’ll clean,” for example.
Despite their successful roommate pairing, Ineich knows there are things she could do better.
“I could improve in getting my roommate the utilities payments sooner,” she said. “They’re all in her name, and it can slip my mind sometimes.”
We all forget things. We all get busy. Recognizing our downfalls as a roommate (however minor) is the first step in addressing them.
Ineich believes communication and respect are the keys to a successful roommate dynamic — and I agree. Lack of communication can lead to passive aggression, frustration, awkward tension, disrespect and general discomfort.
“I’ve had roommates who have been really good friends leave me awkward notes (and) Post-its, and they could have just talked to me,” Ineich said.
Keeping the peace isn’t easy — especially when you’re living with strangers who aren’t as forgiving or with friends who you don’t want to confront and upset. But the longer you go without talking about issues, the more they’ll build up — and I’ve seen some great friends break up over a bad living situation.
“Part of being a good roommate is knowing what we want and need to be happy in our space,” Houghton said. “The other part is knowing and be mindful of what our roommate needs and wants in a space.”
The best way to figure this out is to observe your roommates’ habits.
I noticed that one of my roommates would leave her dishes for hours after eating, but she would take out the trash as soon as it was full.
Another roommate would forget to lock the door when he arrived home but would always wash his dishes as soon as he finished cooking.
Everyone’s priorities are different, and if you can pinpoint your priorities and your roommate’s, you can figure out how to work together to achieve the shared goal of living comfortably.
Don’t forget the importance of privacy.
“If you’re struggling to find a way to feel at home amongst roommates, try setting up an area that feels like home to you,” Houghton said.
This is something I always did. My bedroom was my sanctuary in every apartment I lived in. I always made sure I had a door lock, I always decorated my room to best fit my preferences — this is where I felt most comfortable.
I also told my roommates up front that I’m an introvert who enjoys solitude, so they never felt that I was dodging them, being disrespectful or avoiding conversation.
Sharing a space with someone is difficult, no matter how well you know them or like them. Make it work by being honest, understanding, observant and willing to confront your own flaws.