Etiquette: Dealing with Roommate Problems

The modern age is such that almost everyone has, has had, or will have a roommate that they really know almost nothing about. (Hello, college!) And when you know very little about someone, you’re bound to have disagreements that can spiral out of control quickly, leading to that neverending bar competition: “Why I Have the Worst Roommate of All Time.” I know this game well, as I always win. It starts with vomit soup, and ends with a lawsuit.*

The problem is that when conflict is in your home, you can never escape from it. When your conflict is with people you’re not related to by blood or other strong ties, you don’t really feel obligated to fix it. “Winning” becomes infinitely more important than compromising, and before you know it, snowy boots are being shaken over your face at six a.m. on a very hungover New Year’s Day. (A completely different roommate. This one tried to swindle me out of $400, presumably so she could pay off the bill that got her detained in Ireland.)

Now I am no saint, so believe me when I say I speak from experience. “Experience” in this case meaning childish mistakes that I, too, have made.

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  • Create a forum for communication. Bring up early how you plan to air your grievances. This way everyone knows what’s up and remains committed to keeping the peace. Do not create a situation where you have to jimmy the lock on your roommate’s door to steal the alarm clock she’s setting for five minutes after she leaves in order to drive you insane. Though I still maintained this was justified, it’s called breaking and entering and invasion of privacy, neither of which sets a tone of trust or confidence.
  • Set rules and boundaries EARLY. Are you going to share pantry items? How do the bills get paid? How often does the apartment get cleaned? Should you give each other advanced notice of guests and “guests”? Getting your pet peeves and desires out there early will do a lot for everyone in the long run, since they’ll know what’s really going to bug everyone else and what’s expected of them in the relationship. This is not a conversation to wait on. Walking up to your finished roof deck with a beer and a good book only to find your roommate and his/her significant other in full flagrante derelicto is not a picture you are likely to forget or to forgive when you can’t forget it. And it’s hard to talk about after the fact without sounding like a total prude.
  • Be direct. I think this is where most of us run into trouble. See, when you don’t really have strong ties to another person, you don’t care about their feelings as much. Nor do you think you owe them the privilege of direct communication. And maybe you don’t. But you do owe yourself the peace of mind of knowing you said something and got your feelings in the open so that they can be properly addressed. Try not to leave notes on the a/c controls saying that your roommate should just “put on a sweater” if she’s cold because you are NOT paying a heating bill that high. Because said roommate will probably turn up the heat to 90 degrees, just to punish you. Which brings me to”¦
  • Don’t be passive aggressive. Chances are, when you “punish” a roommate, they have no idea what they’re being punished for, which leaves them no opportunity to fix it. It also leaves you with a pigsty of a home when you refuse to clean the apartment for four weeks after your roomie’s huge birthday party. (I still maintain that I was within my rights to throw out all those beer bottles, though. He wasn’t really ever going to make them into a table, anyway.)


Good night, and good luck. Maybe someday we can trade horrible roommate stories! For real though. I’m going to win. Just accept it.


*I was sued for gay porn. I’m under a confidentiality agreement as to the terms of the deal I made, but for a glass of cabernet, I’ll tell you how it all went down.

By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

2 replies on “Etiquette: Dealing with Roommate Problems”

Boyfriend living comes with it’s own set of challenges, for sure. Such as, “He’s going to think I’m nuts if I explain why I don’t like dishes in that side of the sink.” And you care that he’ll think you’re weird, which makes it more awkward.

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