First dorm. First apartment. First home. These may seem like entirely different situations, but there are a surprising number of parallels between dorm life and post-college life when it comes to sharing a roof with a roommate, housemate, partner — people who use the same dishes, keep their special milk stowed away in the refrigerator and have keys to the front door.
For many, college offers the first extended opportunity in sharing living space with another person. By following some ground rules, sharing a dorm room should be easier and keep thoughts of moving out at bay. These are lessons that can be as valuable as the ones learned in a classroom.
Respect each other
Andrea Yusim Meltzer is in the business of finding compatible roommates. As CEO of Skokie-based online roommate matching service Compatibility, Meltzer has seen the fallout when people live together, no matter how well matched they seem.
To ensure a smooth living situation with someone you know well or just met, she stresses mutual respect. Issues such as inviting friends over or borrowing your roommate’s personal belongings without asking first need to be addressed.
“These things seem like no-brainers,” she said, but are common culprits in breaking down a roommate relationship. “Once you’ve disrespected a person it leaves a real bad taste.”
Establishing expectations about these topics will serve as insurance to maintaining a smoother relationship.
Harlan Cohen, who covers roomie travails in his book, “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College,” agrees — but adds a caveat. Before you assume the worst of someone, he said, keep an open mind. If your roommate is eating your food, for instance, he suggests finding out if the person might be having money problems.
“Find out what’s going on in their life,” he said. “It’s better to check in before making accusations.”
Write it out
Cohen suggested creating a contract to hammer out priorities and expectations. Then, when a difficult situation arrives, housemates will have already discussed how to tackle the issue.
Have an honest conversation about what household life will be like. Discuss your habits and pet peeves, and maybe your deal breakers, too — ahead of time, if possible, when there’s less pressure. Roommates should speak up about how often they want the bathroom cleaned, how long dirty dishes can stay in the sink and, when applicable, bill paying and cleaning schedules.
“If you talk about it, it won’t be explosive,” he said.
Cohen believes contracts work for romantic partners, too.
Look in the mirror
Flipping the roommate focus onto yourself is Cohen’s ultimate suggestion. He emphasized that the No. 1 question you need to ask yourself is: “Are you the roommate from hell?”
Cohen stressed that in roomie conflicts, it’s typical for one person to start by blaming the other. Instead, you might want to ask yourself, “What did you do, and how did everyone react?”
It’s also possible that your expectations are unreasonable. This was the case for Saavedra Lewis, now an application analyst at Fieldglass, a software company in Chicago. Lewis said she was in for a shock her first year of college, sharing an apartment with three roommates.
“I grew up with strict cleaning rules and expectations,” she recalled — but that wasn’t a priority for her roomies. “Assuming that my roommates also lived by the same standards, I was faced with a huge disappointment because they weren’t.”
She made sure future living arrangements didn’t involve wrangling several messy mates.
Another thing people need to ask themselves, Cohen said: Do they want their new roommate to be a casual acquaintance they share a dorm room with, or their next best friend? When you set this expectation low, anything more will feel like a bonus. “We have expectations, and our roommates can’t always meet these expectations,” he said.
Communication is key
Shared living is about sharing — and that includes communication. Passive-aggressive behavior (think notes taped around the kitchen) does little to contribute to happy cohabitation.
“Share what makes you uncomfortable,” Cohen said. “Most people keep it a secret because they hate confrontation.”
But staying silent and quietly seething can jeopardize a relationship as much as most people think an uncomfortable confrontation would.
“Think conversation, not confrontation” is one of Cohen’s go-to mantras.
“When you set the dynamics to share the truth and be willing to hear the truth,” he said, “you build honest, genuine relationships.”
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