What follows is a scenario that may not be unfamiliar to some dorm residents.
It's during the first two weeks of college. You wake up in your 8'x8' dorm room, and step out of bed…right into an open pizza box. And it's not empty, either. Pulling your foot out of the cheesy goop, you ask yourself why your roommate didn't clean up like you asked them to. Making your way to your closet, you reach for your lucky green T-shirt, only to find that it's missing. A frantic search ensues. Then you notice it's hanging in your roommate's closet. Turning around, you see your roommate curled up with their sweetie (who stays over almost every night), blissfully unaware of your troubles.
As much as we all hope that living with a complete stranger in a tiny room would work out fine, conflicts do arise even with the happiest of roommates.
“Why wouldn't people have issues with their roommates?” Phil Burns, University Residences Conduct Officer said. “It's the first time living in such a small space [and] people have so many assumptions in their head of what's normal.” Those assumptions are one of the most common reasons for conflict.
“Part of it is that people come in with a clear set of expectations about who their roommate will be. Having some expectations that don't really fit is one thing that contributes [to roommate conflicts],” Nancy Corbin, Counseling Department Director said. Preconceived notions of what your roommate will be like often leads to disappointment, then resentment.
An important thing to realize when dealing with this situation is that your roommate will never be exactly the person you expect them to be, but that doesn't mean the two (or three or four) of you can't get through the year without driving each other crazy.
“The ultimate tip to remember when living with a roommate: roommates who want to get along find a way to get along. You don't need to be best friends. You don't even need to be friends. You just have to want to get along,” Harlen Cohen, author of “The Naked Roommate: and 107 Other Issues You Might Run into in College” writes.
Another common issue is space. Many students, noted Corbin, have never had to share a room with someone else and may even have had their own bathroom back home.
“It takes a lot of discussion to have both your lives in such a small space. People need to remember it's not solely their space. It belongs to [your roommate] as much as it does to you. This is something you should discuss on the first day,” Corbin said.
Discussing how to share the room is important, and Corbin suggested following up with regular discussions to voice concerns and reassess rules and boundaries.
After any discussion, it is important to set clear boundaries that indicate compromise instead of command.
“Be willing as you're talking to look for reasonable alternatives for both parties, so there is a balance between give and take,” Corbin said. This prevents resentment from building up.
Another area that requires setting down some ground rules is when and how often to borrow clothes, electronics and other possessions. This also requires open communication between roommates.
“Line out what things you can borrow, and how you're going to share things,” Ben Wurtz, AS Vice President for Student Life said.
Burns highly recommended filling out a roommate agreement stipulating what each person is comfortable sharing and what they would rather keep to themselves.
Corbin pointed out that another spark for potential conflict is when boyfriends and girlfriends come to stay. This can make the other roommate uncomfortable or inconvenienced (for example, if they can't enter their room due to “sexile”). Again, the best solution is to communicate honestly what you want to happen and set limits where needed. Corbin suggested that if you are the roommate with the boyfriend or girlfriend, remember that your roommate needs his or her space as well.
“Your roommate doesn't have to be your best friend, but you should show basic courtesy,” Corbin said.
Other possible bad situations, such as messiness, rudeness or refusals to shower on a regular basis all require communication that is honest without being accusatory. And don't let a situation that makes you uncomfortable linger.
“The first time is the best time to deal with it,” Cohen writes. “Say something to your roommate immediately if there is a problem or it will only get worse and worse. Don't be afraid to speak up!”
Corbin suggested using the situation to your advantage by seeing it as an opportunity to improve your communication and conflict resolution skills. Indeed, college is one of the best times to fine-tune your conflict-handling techniques.
If talking to your roommate isn't working, Burns suggested speaking to your Resident Advisor, Resident Director, the Counseling Center (located in Old Main 540) and family and friends who may have shared similar experiences and can offer advice.
“Being forced into a room with someone forces you to learn how to compromise, how to communicate, how to deal with conflict, and most importantly, gives you a deeper appreciation of another person's culture, lifestyle and family dynamics,” Cohen writes.
So take a deep breath, and start talking!