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The Roommate Files: How to Fix Second Semester Tension With Your Roommate

Three quarters of the year down, and you’re probably ready to be out of school — if not to be done with classes, because you’re ready for a hiatus from your roommate. (Was spring break really just last week?) Maybe she doesn’t do her dishes, or perhaps living with her means living with her boyfriend, too.

We’ve talked with Susan Fee, licensed professional counselor and author of My Roommate’s Driving Me Crazy, who says it’s not too late to come up with a little solution if you’re willing to communicate. Here Her Campus writers dish on their own roomie histories so that you can learn a) you’re not alone with horror stories and b) how to deal with them when they arise. Read through these scenarios and see if any of these sound familiar… and learn what to do.

You’ve grown apart and have different groups of friends.
“We had a lot in common, and I thought we could be friends. But when we stopped seeing each other, we felt uncomfortable even saying hi to each other in the dining hall,” Molly* says.

Fee’s take: If there’s no awkwardness, there’s really no problem: you’re just coexisting and sharing the room, but you don’t need to discuss much. You can’t ever go into a roommate situation assuming she’s going to be your friend and be your social connection. A move you can make would just be to agree to break the ice and say, “How about the two of us do something together? Do you want to catch a movie?” You don’t have to have the responsibility of trying to bridge the gap between two whole groups of friends. It’s really just one relationship between you and your roommate. And that’s a lot more manageable than trying to make sure that she likes everybody else that’s in your group of friends.

You have different sleep schedules, and it’s disruptive.
Your room is very open, without any sort of divider. And at this point, you could care less if her clothes crossed the invisible border onto your side of the room—you just wish that she’d respect your need for sleep and shut off the light so you can sleep. “My roommate stayed up ALL night, which kept me awake too,” says Juliet*. “She wouldn’t compromise about it either, so I was always falling asleep in class.”

Fee’s take: First, there’s going to have to be some give and take. Ask yourself, “What can I do to be a little more courteous?” I recognize this because I’m a total early morning person. I’d try to set up everything the night before so when I got up early I don’t bother people as much as possible. Coffee’s already set, I just have to push the button. Clothes are there. Second, you need to talk about it. You don’t need to come up with extremes like asking your roomie to never stay up late or never get up early. Acknowledge your differences. Maybe you concede on a couple mornings and not get up at the crack of dawn. And maybe she’ll agree to an earlier ‘lights out’ or choose to study at the coffee shop instead of keeping on the light.

That bed across the room has been empty every night for the past week.
“It was eerie to have my roommate’s things in our room when she wasn’t there,”
Katie* says. “She even left all her bathroom items in the room – I always wondered how she showered or brushed her teeth.” And without her being home, how are you supposed to ask her to invite your own friends or BF over, or talk to her about anything else that needs to be discussed?

Fee’s take: You have her cell phone number right? That’s one way that texting or cell phone calls bring people together rather than use it as a way to distance a relationship. Call or send a text just to let her know that you haven’t seen her lately and you have something you want to talk about. And then if she doesn’t respond, be courteous and give her a two-hour heads-up if you’re planning on having people over. That’s the best you can do. And if she ends up breaking up with her boyfriend, she’ll be back in the room all the time. You can set the boundaries and frame it as, “I want to be courteous to you,” instead of, “I really need to know when you’re going to be around.”

Your roommate has been talking about you behind your back.
Now it’s just a little more awkward when you look at her next time at the dinner table and you think to yourself, ‘How long has this been going on?’

Fee’s take: You just want to make sure that you don’t engage in an extensive conversation with the messenger; you never want a third party in the middle of a relationship. Just ask that your friend encourage your roomie to speak with you next time. Then, acknowledge your roommate. Start with a curiosity, not anger, as you don’t know for sure what was said. “I just want to let you know that if there’s anything you want to share, you can share it with me. I’m hearing a little bit that you’re uncomfortable with some stuff, and I just want to give you the opportunity to talk about it so we can work it out.” Make it clear you want to work it out, because otherwise she may think you’re just in it to point them out as a bad person.

Most likely, the person doesn’t like conflict. She may try to smokescreen your efforts and ask who ratted her out, but stress that it’s not important who said it, only if there was any truth to it. There’s a chance your roommate might not want to speak to you in person, but she’ll start posting things on Facebook or text you instead. That’s the passive-aggressive way to handle things. You need to constantly invite her to talk to you face-to-face. If you make those efforts and you’re bridge-building instead of getting angry at hers, and she denies it, that’s her problem.

Your roommate makes your dorm room look like a tornado hit it.
The room looks a little messier these days—crumbs, clumps of hair, garbage strewn throughout your shared living space. “My roommate NEVER cleaned,” Kelly* says. “She would leave dishes for weeks—so much so that none of us could eat unless we cleaned her dishes.” So maybe you cleaned it up last time, and the time before. And the time before that. Now you’re worried that it’s too late in the game for her to learn how to pick up after herself.

Fee’s take: That’s gone on for about two-thirds of the year, so there may be a little rebellion if you decide you don’t want to do all the work anymore. The life lesson to be learned: what you allow, you teach. Why wouldn’t I be a slob if someone will clean up after me all the time? Realize your contribution to the situation. You have been picking up the load and when you do that it doesn’t require other people to step up. Boycotting the mess won’t change anything. Instead, you need to address the situation in person—not by slamming dishes around to make it clear you’re doing all the work. After reaching an agreement with the roommates, only do the work that you agree to and let other people suffer their own consequences. If you do all the work, other people have no reason to participate.

Your roommate has an issue with you and has approached you, but perhaps in a roundabout way.

“One of my roommates last year wrote this long note and stuck it on the fridge, saying things like ‘I am so sick of being the only one who does anything around here… Please help me out!’” Emily* recalls. “I know for a fact that she wasn’t the only one who did those things, because I felt like I was the only one doing them! And a note was the completely wrong way to confront us about it.”

Fee’s take: Ask for face-to-face time. Say, “I saw your note on the fridge. Can we sit down together and talk about it? Even if our other roommates don’t get involved.” That says, if you’ve got an issue, what I’d appreciate is that you come and talk to me. We’re always training people how to treat us. When she does come to chat, let her share her side first. We need to let people empty out before you can share your side. Maybe you both feel the same way: “Isn’t that weird? I felt that too. I had that same feeling of being used and abused by people who weren’t pulling their weight. What do you want to do about it? How can we invite our other roommates into the conversation so then we can make a plan together?” People who do all the cleaning often come up with the plans on their own, and the other people don’t like it. The one person who thinks they’re doing such a good job coming up with the solution is actually solving the whole problem and not involving everybody for ideas and accountability and the plan fails. There’s only one person who had the buy-in to begin with. That’s the person who thought it was such a great idea. You never want to make plans for a bunch of people on your own. You want to invite everybody in and say here’s the issue, and what can we do about it together.

Little things have always annoyed you.
Maybe she plays music without headphones even when you’re obviously cramming for tomorrow’s bio exam. But when the habit first appeared, you neglected to bring it up—it wasn’t a big deal at the time. Is it too late to mention it now?

Fee’s take: You need to be honest and say, “I realize you love your music and I realize that even though it’s bothered me, I’ve not said anything all this time. This may come as a big shock to you, but I need to ask you a favor. I just can’t concentrate and study with this, so I’m wondering if we can work this out that there are some times that you can put in headphones or listen to music somewhere else so that I can study. I’m going to promise to be more honest with you from now on, because I know this is going to come as sort of a surprise.”

Her boyfriend is practically a third roommate.
Maybe he’s a good guy and all, but “it’s not okay to give your boyfriend a key to your room so he promptly walks in on your roommate while you’re changing,” Angela* says. “Absolutely awful and completely unacceptable.”

Fee’s take: The issue is between you and your roommate—not with the boyfriend—so talk when the boyfriend’s not present. Don’t make the conversation about liking him or disliking him; it needs to be about respecting privacy and what you’re going to agree on. Just say, “Let’s talk about when it’s fair to have guests over and not have guests over.” Because maybe it’s not the boyfriend—this could be a friend who hangs over all the time, too. Make some standard rules about when guests can come over, when there’s off time, and how long of a notice should be given.

Don’t see your particular dilemma here? We’ve only included a handful of sticky situations, but Fee answers more in her book, My Roommate’s Driving Me Crazy, in case you’re looking for extra help. Flip through its pages for 250 conversation starters to everyday situations.

*Names of HC writers have been changed to respect their privacy and that of their roommates.

Her Campus writers
Susan Fee, author of My Roommate’s Driving Me Crazy

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