Living With Strangers: How to Set Up Good Roommate Relationships

Getting ready for a college roommate may be especially hard if you've never had to share a roomLearning to live with your college roommate can be major — especially if you’ve never had to share a room before!

Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory was totally on to something with his Roommate Agreement. The college roommate situation is challenging, even in the best of circumstances. Living with another human can be difficult. (If you have siblings, you already knew this.) Add in getting used to a new person, plus the stress of college, all in a tiny space, and you have a recipe for conflict.

They say, “familiarity breeds contempt.” At this point, you may have had just enough time together to learn what really irritates you about each other — even if you had a promising start.

First and foremost, you need to accept that this one of the biggest changes of your life. Next, and just as important, you need to realize your roommate is in the exact same place.

You can find a thousand different books and blog posts for getting along with your roommate, which is why we’re keeping this list short and sweet. (But speaking of books — we happen to love The Naked Roommate as a primer/cautionary tale.)

Two things to remember:

1. You are the adults now. Your parents are not around to referee — and they shouldn’t be. When situations come up, you and your roommate are going to have to use grownup conflict resolution skills. This is not grade school, when you needed a teacher to tell you what to do, and it’s not like when your brother kept making THAT FACE until you yelled for Mom.

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2. You need to sit down and agree to some reasonable ground rules. This way, you’re starting any future conflict discussion from common ground.

Good communication between college roommates and starting from common ground can go a long way toward keeping little irritations from blowing up into big deals.

Calm communication can be like magic in defusing a volatile situation. Straighten your shoulders, maturely address the situation, and find a compromise. Remember that compromise usually means you have to give some, too. Be gently honest about things that bother you, and be honest with yourself, too — think about what it’s like from your roommate’s perspective.

Five things to discuss:

If you didn’t already set ground rules at the beginning, it’s not too late. You both have a vested interest in making your roommate relationship work. But before your ground rules discussion, set the first, most important rule: No eye-rolling. (See also: no derisive snorts, no yelling, no name-calling, etc.) Acknowledge that you can disagree on something without getting agitated, and give your word to each other that, when you have a serious college roommate talk, it will be mature. If you’re going to resolve problems, you’ll need to have reasonable discussions in a judgement-free (and sarcasm-free) zone.

1. Alone time. This is one of the toughest adjustments when living with a new person. If you’re the more social one, try to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone thrives on company. If you’re used to having time to yourself, you need some coping strategies for not having it as much as you used to. It can be a shock when you realize that you sometimes need to leave your place to be alone.

This is closely related to another huge roommate conflict catalyst:  always having the significant other in the room. This is something you must discuss, whichever side of the equation you are on. Adjusting to living with another person is hard enough without adding in the girlfriend or boyfriend — or, for that matter, a group of friends — constantly hanging around. This doesn’t mean you can’t have people over. You just need to decide how much is enough, and how much is too much.

2. Together time. You may not be best friends with your college roommate — despite what television and movies show — and that’s really o.k. (BTW, the other Hollywood extreme, psychotic stalker roommate, is completely unlikely to happen, too, which is more than o.k.)

You may be on one end of the political spectrum while your roommate is the complete opposite. You may be a die-hard friend of the environment and your roommate has the carbon footprint of a 1972 Buick. If you don’t share common interests, you can still live cordially and amicably with your roommate so long as boundaries are set and respected.

You don’t have to be joined at the hip, but you can still be friendly. Try to spend some good times together, too. You might as well — after all, you do live together!

3. Your room is small. You probably already noticed that. Do not clutter up the shared space with a bunch of bulky stuff that your roommate is forever tripping over. Every.Single.Day. This includes shoes, book bags, and the giant stuffed animal that should maybe go home during winter break.

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4. Mornings. They can be hectic, and people aren’t always in the best of moods. How you work these out can make or break the relationship. (Marriage, too, but that’s a whole different topic.) If you have an early class and your roommate gets to sleep in, try not to turn on the overhead lights and slam every door and drawer in the place.

5. Smells. Think about these. Please. Know that an air freshener is not a fix-all, and spraying your clothes with an odor spray isn’t all that great. What if one of you happens to be sensitive to those deodorizer smells? And we don’t think we have to spell out that you also need to be thoughtful about other, er, less intentional smells. Frequent showers and keeping your dirty socks laundered (and corralled in a non-pungent way in the meantime) will go a long way toward favorable roommate relations. Oh, and check your shoes. Do they need an airing out? A blast of odor-killer spray? Burial at sea?

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Learning to live with another person is actually an important life lesson, one that will serve you beyond your college years. You will learn, if you haven’t already, that a great deal of your college education isn’t going to come to you in a classroom.

If all else fails:

College roommate conflicts do arise, and most can be solved with good communication between reasonable parties; however, do know that red flags and toxic situations should definitely be addressed.

If you find your living situation is truly untenable, or if you feel unsafe or that your academics are being greatly affected, go to your resident advisor (or another trusted administrator) for help.

Know your options. Universities consider you adults and want you to resolve your own issues, but rest assured they will have information available for you if you simply cannot live in your current situation. Check your college’s residential life web pages.

Further reading:

The 5 Biggest Misconceptions About Your College Roommate Freshman Year

The 3 Things You’ll Really Miss About Your College Roommate

How to Be a Good Roommate

10 Tips for a Good Roommate Relationship

5 Quick Tips for Getting Along With Roommates

Do you have a roommate tip or story to share?


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