By Michelle Wells
My social media accounts are filled with pictures these days. Teenagers are heading off to college for the first time. Young adults are returning to campus to resume their studies. Pursuing higher education often requires moving and sharing a place with a roommate or two. Though the prospect of independence is exciting, learning to live with someone new is a growth experience. Under the best of circumstances, roommates may become the best of friends or at least suitable living partners. Since it is often easier to build a healthy relationship than it is to fix a broken one, the question becomes, “How do you cultivate a healthy living environment from the very start?”
Lower your expectations.
Remember real life isn’t a Disney show or a perfectly staged Instagram. Your bedding may not be perfectly coordinated. Your roommate might study too much or too little. They may not like country music. She may have an aversion to your favorite lotion. Who knows? By no means, though will she be perfect and neither will you. By lowering your expectations, you leave room to enjoy the surprises, a common interest or a shared passion. In turn, you won’t be as let down or stressed out by your differences.
Give your relationship the gift of time.
It takes time to feel comfortable in a new place filled with new people. Bonds aren’t instant and building a rapport takes time. By sharing bits of ourselves over a series of interactions we can determine when it is safe or healthy to share more. This is natural and okay. It is not a reflection on you or anyone else. It’s like sticking your toe in the water at the beach. As you warm up and feel safe, you will venture farther. Common experiences will create memories. Healthy relationships are built over time.
It’s scary sometimes, but it is important that you communicate. By talking together and communicating about upcoming visits, exams, or get-togethers, roommates can anticipate and/or schedule their life appropriately. Something as simple as, “Hey, do you mind if a couple of friends come over to study?” encourages dialogue and honors your living situation. Maybe your roommate wants to study too. Perhaps he or she will choose to hang out with friends that night. Maybe they’ve already planned to have a few people over for a game night. Whatever the case, open communication helps the “household” run more peacefully.
Keeping in mind that you need to choose your battles, it’s important that roommates discuss problems. It’s essential, however, that you do so in a clear and appropriate manner. I prefer the three-part formula I learned in treatment. “When you…, I feel…. I need….” For example, “When you borrow my clothes without asking, I feel sad and disrespected. I need you to ask me when you want to borrow my shirt.” Such an interaction does not attack the other person. Rather, it clearly states your concern, how it makes you feel, and how you would like it handled in the future. That is fair to both of you. Respectful communication provides the parties involved an opportunity to adjust behavior and walk away with dignity.
Share the responsibilities.
Dishes need to be washed and carpets need to be vacuumed. Seemingly minor household responsibilities in a dorm room or apartment can become a sticking point. It seems someone always ends up doing more (or feeling like they are doing more) than the other. By setting up a schedule for the big jobs from the very start (an old-fashioned chore chart works fine) such conflicts can be avoided. The same goes for common expenses such as toilet paper, plastic wrap, dish detergent. By talking about who is responsible for what, the costs are shared and no one feels like they are paying more than the other.
Respect your differences or as the saying goes. Your innate personality and needs won’t change because you are in college. If you are an introvert who needs time to recharge, make sure you find (and take) time for yourself. If your roommate wants more time together than you prefer, schedule a dinner or two together during the week. It may sound trite, but valuing differences often comes with compromise. With each person giving a little, you can meet in the middle and both end up happy.
There is no one right way to fold a shirt or dry a dish. There are many styles of clothes, a million religions, and all kinds of music. Give your roommate the space to be her/himself and do things the way they prefer. By being exposed to new methods and experiences, each of you can learn from the other. I still think of a friend from camp every time I fold my laundry and I still don’t understand why my roommate thought I wiped down the counter the wrong way.
College is not only an opportunity to learn about a chosen area of study, it is a chance to learn about life and how to form healthy relationships with others. Roommates teach us how to communicate and when to compromise. They teach us when to stand firm and when to be flexible. They help us understand when we should be brave and try something new and when we should respect that still, small voice telling us that enough is enough. Though there are no guarantees that a college roommate will become your best friend, you can rest assured that you will learn from them and that, good or bad, you will remember them for a lifetime.
Many schools and universities have resources available to assist students in achieving academic success which often include mental health and wellness services. If you are struggling and need help dealing with emotional issues such as anxiety or depression, we encourage you to seek help. We understand that college-age young adults may also experience eating disorder conditions or substance use disorders. You should seek help for any of these concerns before they develop into even larger issues that may jeopardize your college career. For additional information please call to speak to a Counselor at 855-333-6075 and we will contact you with the information you need.