Surviving Your Roommate (And Surviving Yourself in the Process)
Learning to live with a stranger teaches you how to live with yourself and prepares you to live with your spouse.
It’s September again, and for some of you college or university is waiting. It beckons to you with new experiences! new classes! new friends! – new roommate?! Of all the adjustments going away to school brings, learning to live with another person is easily the most challenging. As is often the case, the hardest lesson to learn is the one most worth learning. Living with a roommate whether they are a complete stranger or your best friend from back home is an incredible opportunity to learn. Approach the situation as such and you will be amazed how much easier it becomes. To get the most out of your living situation go into it prepared to:
- Learn about yourself
No one will hold a mirror up to your character quite like a roommate. Because they live with you 24/7 a roommate will see you at your best and at your worst. You may be stronger than you know, you may have a tendency toward selfishness. A roommate will point these things out to you – and this is a good thing. There are things you do that you have never noticed, unconscious acts that have become part of who you are. Take this opportunity to really look at yourself. Celebrate the strengths, take action against the weaknesses. Socrates urged his students to know themselves. It is still good advice. The way you treat your roommate says a lot about the way you treat people in general. Now is a great time to pay attention to that.
- Learn how to share your space with another person
Chances are most students are planning to get married some day. Enter marriage stubborn and unwilling to compromise and it’s going to be a rocky road. Living with a roommate is a great step toward a successful marriage because it teaches you how to live with another person. As I quickly learned my freshman year, you can’t just walk into your room at one in the morning, turn on the light and start getting ready for bed. Your sleeping roommate with the 8 o’clock biology lab is not going to appreciate it. It’s a mental shift to start thinking about someone else before you act. Modifying our own behavior for the benefit of someone else is not our tendency, but it is a valuable exercise. Going away to school is all about expanding your world. It starts by learning to think beyond yourself.
- Learn how to run a house
If you and your new roommate have an apartment (or even just your own bathroom) you are also going to need to learn what it takes to run a house. Sit down with your roommate and decide who will do what. Do this at the beginning of the semester – do it by the end of the first week, sooner if you can. If neither of you really feels like scrubbing out the bathtub it’s going to be really disgusting by April. There is a life lesson here: if one of you doesn’t do it, it simply does not get done. Like the signs that hang in cafeterias everywhere “Your Mother doesn’t work here. Clean up after yourself.”
Work out a schedule and force yourselves to stick to it. Trust me there are always going to be other things that need to be done — books to be read, papers to write. If you don’t want to live like pigs you have to make time for it eventually (and it is much easier if the time is sooner rather than later). Welcome to responsibility, you’re going to be here for a while. Do we need to talk about the phone bill?
- Learn how to ask for help and how to give it
There are going to be times when you really cannot do everything by yourself. Before you burn out or drop out, learn to ask for help. All campuses have some sort of support system in place. Learn where it is and how to use it at the beginning of the semester, before you need it. We live in an age when self-sufficiency is at a premium, and asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness – it’s not. Don’t be afraid to seek help and refuse to feel guilty for asking.
Learn to ask your roommate for help when you really need it. Letting someone help you is a way to let them get to know you. This is another skill your future spouse will appreciate. He or she is going to feel shut out and even unwanted if you refuse to let them help you. A friend of mine used to despair that “I knew him too well.” Being known isn’t a bad thing. We tend to shy away from it because it feels like we’re giving up control, but you will never be able to fully embrace another person until you learn to let go of yourself a little. The flip-side also applies: when your roommate turns to you for help, be the person that is willing to go out of their way. The paper can wait a few minutes. Never under-estimate the power of tiny gestures and make time for people. It is always a worthy investment, I can promise you that.
- Learn how to be flexible
In the end it all comes down to flexibility. Figure out what matters and leave the rest alone. If there are things you don’t want your roommate to use tell them at the very beginning of the year. It will save both of you a lot heartache and arguments later. If your roommate does something that makes you mad, telling them (please note I did not say “yelling” at them) gives them the opportunity to apologize. Chances are they would never do something intentionally harmful. How will they know what they’ve done if you don’t tell them?
There are going to be things that you and your roommate disagree on, sometimes you just have to learn to live with it. Before you decide that your roommate is impossible and go storming off to the housing office to request a transfer (and I should mention, don’t waste your time, most housing offices won’t even consider roommate transfer in the first month of a school year, especially not for freshmen) ask yourself if you are listening to your roommate. You can’t communicate anything to anyone without listening. If you’re not listening you’re not communicating, you’re just talking. Those are two very different things. It does get easier with time.
The way you interact with your roommate will do more to affect your school experience than all the classes, all-nighters and bad coffee combined. Some of my former roommates are among my best friends, and some aren’t, but I learned things about life, and about myself from each and every one of them. A good friend of mine dropped out of school for a year because of his roommate, and another is still alive because of one of hers. Think about the effect you will have or are having on the people who share your “itty-bitty living space.” People are different. You cannot change your roommate but you can change yourself and you just might learn something interesting in the process.