Living in a dorm room with a stranger is a cost-effective but potentially awkward rite of passage. Differences in cleanliness, sleep habits and personal priorities can present plenty of opportunity for conflict and tension between otherwise reasonable individuals. And then there are simply bad roommates — people who are inconsiderate, disrespectful or just plain mean. If you ask around, it's not difficult to find roommate horror stories.
Within the first few days of moving in together, roommates should sit down and draft a roommate contract. It doesn't have to be an official document, but you should settle on some house rules and make agreements about how you plan to share your space.
"Learn more about his or her living preferences, what chores and responsibilities you will share and how he or she feels about visitors," says Cohen.
By getting on the same page at the beginning of your relationship about things like how often you will clean the room, how late you will keep the lights on and how often you will have friends over, students can avoid roommate controversies later on.
If you do have conflict with your roommate, you can revisit this contract to make sure you are both following the rules and see if there are any new details that should be added or adjusted.
One of the biggest mistakes that students make when they go to college is they expect their roommate to be their best friend forever. This mentality can set you up for roommate failure.
"Instead of placing unrealistic expectations on the nature of this relationship," says Cohen, "focus on fulfilling your responsibilities as a roommate by being considerate and conscientious."
There are hundreds of thousands of college students in the U.S. alone and it is highly unlikely that your roommate is going to be your perfect match. Putting too much pressure on being best friends can make normal roommate disagreements more dramatic than they need to be. Additionally, high expectations can lead to resentment if one roommate is more interested in being close friends.
Keep your expectations low. Try easing into your relationship, staying committed to your roommate contract and meeting lots of new people.
"An individual's ability to be considerate of others and willingness to compromise are important determining factors as to whether he or she will be a good roommate or not," says Cohen.
This is the simple litmus test for whether or not you have a bad roommate on your hands. If your roommate does things that negatively impact your life without thinking, and then refuses to compromise, you may need to take active steps to improve your situation.
One approach is to reconnect. In the stress of college, it's easy for students to get wrapped-up in their own worlds and forget to think of others. Take some time to talk, go to an event or get some food with your roommate to remind them of why they should care about how their actions impact you.
"Some 'bad' roommates may just be unaware of their habits and actions and how these behaviors can have a negative impact," explains Cohen.
If your roommate repeatedly does something that negatively impacts your life, be sure to bring it up. The secret to talking through conflict with a bad roommate is calling them in, rather than calling them out. This means inviting your roommate into a conversation about how you can get along better rather than making one-sided accusations.
"Frame this as a discussion of living policies and how to be a better roommate, and avoid criticizing your roommate's current behaviors," says Cohen. "Ask him or her if there is anything he or she would like to change about your living arrangement in order to make the conversation feel more like a discussion, as oppose to a personal attack or complaint."
By calling your roommate in rather than calling them out, you can make sure they feel respected and invested in making your roommate dynamic the best it can be. By using an approachable and non-threatening tone, students can have a conversation that make both parties feel good.
If you have raised your concerns with your roommate several times and given them time to change their behavior, you may need to ask for help.
Residents assistants (RAs) often have resources that can help you work through controversy with your roommate and at some schools they can help facilitate conflict resolution.
When reaching out to an outside party, try to share the whole picture. "Be sure to address your specific concerns, the actions you have already taken, such as talking to your roommate, and potential solutions and alternatives," says Cohen. "Depending on your living situation and the housing options available on campus, it may be possible to switch rooms or move to another living space that is more aligned with your needs."
Most schools consider changing a housing situation a last-choice option. It is often easiest to work on building a better relationship with your roommate than starting from scratch with a new one. By being respectful, clear and communicative anyone can make the most of a bad roommate situation.
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