Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Getting Along With Roommates

September 14, 1998

A while back, I asked my daughter Tawny to collaborate with me on giving dating advice to 16 year olds. She did a fine job and so I've asked her again to write a piece about living with college roommates. Don't worry about my abdicating this space on a permanent basis. Tawny will be serving as a missionary in Mongolia for the next year and half.

With the approach of fall, thousands of college students are moving into their new dorm rooms or apartments. Box after box is carried in by mom, dad, siblings and an anxious college student. Up and down the stairs they go while trying to avoid a collision with the other box-wielding people. Slowly the empty room with bare cinder-block walls begins to take on the personality of the student as posters, quilts and worn teddy bears assume their positions. With all the hustle and bustle of moving in, the student doesn’t realize the impact of her new roommates will have on the upcoming year.

This year you will not only discover things about your roommates, you will discover things about yourself. Personality traits and flaws will work their way to the surface. Now that you are in close-quarters, it is up to each person to make it work. Your roommates will teach you some of the hardest and greatest lessons of the year. Here are a few lessons I have learned.

Don't let the small things get to you, and remember, most things are small. Everyone has different preferences and pet peeves. Sometimes you will have to sacrifice the little things, like the shower curtain's position or somebody using your toothpaste, in order to preserve the relationship. Try to keep the big picture in mind. Does it really matter that much in the long run? Each person will have to learn to put up with something that drives them nuts, like old research papers lying around or an ever-present pair of bunny slippers. Remember these three words - "Deal with it."

Do not complain about a roommate to another roommate. This only makes the problem bigger because most likely the roommate you talked to will take it upon her shoulders to make everything better. Pretty soon everything is blown out of proportion. What starts as a teeny-weeny annoyance can snowball into a silent battle kept alive by the other roommates involved.

Don't let yourself get caught in this common trap. If someone complains to you about another roommate, don't be so quick to be the mediator. Instead, advise her to talk to the roommate she is having conflict with.

Most of the time, the roommate complaining is just venting small frustrations. The complaint was never meant to get back to the person involved. If you set a tone of honesty in your apartment, the year will be much more enjoyable. Most of the time problems are caused by a simple misunderstanding and the two of you will end up laughing together.

Communication is essential! Throughout my freshman year, a can of hair spray occupied an annoying position on our desk. It was constantly getting knocked over by my books when I studied. I wondered why my roommate didn't keep her hair spray in the bathroom. Was she so worried that somebody would use it that she had to keep it in our bedroom?

Finally, at the end of the year, as we were packing up, I noticed the can still sitting on our desk. I tossed it to her, a little annoyed and said, "Don't forget to pack your hair spray." She looked at me bewildered, "You mean it's not yours?" We had both gone the whole year being secretly annoyed by this can of hair spray that didn't belong to either of us. It turned out to be my sister's - who had visited me at the beginning of the year.

Try to meet as a whole apartment at least once per week. In one apartment I lived in, we worked our schedules out so that we could have Sunday dinner together. This got us all in one spot - something that is rare for college students - and allowed us to talk about stuff the whole apartment needed to know, such as "Don't forget about cleaning checks tomorrow," or "Please quit turning the thermostat to 80 degrees," or "Whose turn is it to buy toilet paper?"

Try to fit it in. Even if your "meeting" is just hanging out in the living room at night after everyone is home. Believe me, these few moments of talking together will help your apartment run smoother. At least the number of emergency toilet paper runs will be cut down.

Accept your roommates for who they are. We tend to think our own perspective is the "right" one. Realize that the way things were done in your family is not necessarily the correct way. Learn from the people you live with. Some of your roommates will become lifelong friends. Others, uh . . . let's just say, you'll be glad when the year ends. However, once you decide you are going to accept them with all their strengths and their faults, they will be easier to live with. Some of the greatest lessons of college life will be from the small space you share with your roommates. Best of luck with this exciting part of your life. -Tawny