How living with a roommate helped me develop better communication skills and learn the importance of compromise

Before college, I had never shared a room with anyone other than my childhood stuffed animals. Housing at my college was decided by which first-year seminar you chose, and three questions: Do you listen to music (loudly) while you study? Do you stay up late or get up early? Do you smoke?

These three questions would seal the fate of who you lived with your first year of college. For me, it sealed the fate of all four years. The roommate I was assigned ended up being the roommate I had for my entire college experience. Cheryl and I grew together, both learning how to share a living space with someone we didn’t know, and how to be good roommates to each other. Our relationship didn’t happen over night. In fact, on paper we couldn’t be more wrong for each other because we were complete opposites. It took a lot of hard work, constant communication, and effort to be good co-habitators.

Let’s explore: I am a neat freak, Cheryl was a slob. I am a morning person, Cheryl was a night owl. I studied in the library, Cheryl studied in our room. I am extroverted, Cheryl was more introverted. However, we both had the same roommate goals: we both wanted to be good roommates.

Our housing office required all newly-paired roommates complete a three or four page “roommate contract,” a series of questions outlining rules for the room. Really, it was a document that helped us talk about our lifestyles without being in a specific situation that could have been problematic to address in the moment. It helped us really think about what the parameters of living with someone other than a family member, because most of those lifestyles develop over a long period of time and are almost ingrained into us by our upbringing. In a roommate situation, you might have two very different lifestyles and upbringings melded together all at once, which could lead to differences that might cause heated issues.

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The contract helped me figure out what my needs were in a living situation, what I valued, what I could tolerate, and what I could not. For example, Cheryl was a complete slob and though I valued tidiness and neatness, I accepted her for her messiness because her mess never intruded into my space. It was as though there was an invisible line drawn down the middle of our room and her clothes or notebooks that were on the floor never crossed over that line.

One thing I could not tolerate, was noise at night when I was trying to go to sleep. Though the rest of my dorm seemed to be a zoo after 10 p.m., Cheryl was quiet even if she stayed up reading or on her laptop until early in the morning.

Here are some tips for you to build a successful relationship with your roommate:

  1. Create your own roommate contract that highlights the differences you may have. It’s important to address issues before they occur. For example, Cheryl and I decided that borrowing clothes was acceptable only if we asked permission and approved the article of clothing. My college sweatshirt? No problem. My favorite sweater? I’d rather you didn’t borrow it. Talk about issues like dirty dishes, shared chores (like trash duty), and overall ways to approach touchy subjects so neither of you feels uncomfortable when the time comes to bring up a specific incident.
  2. Respect your roommate for her decisions and choices, and ask that she do the same. Create an environment where you know you can go to her with a question or concern without worrying about defensiveness or passive aggressive reactions.
  3. Don’t hold grudges. It’s important to be able to let things go. You roommate leaves her dirty dishes in the sink for too long? It’s okay to be upset about it, but address the situation with a calm conversation. Maybe she’s overwhelmed with work and forgot about the cereal bowl left on the counter yesterday. And if she just doesn’t clean up after herself, remind her about shared spaces, contribution, and the roommate contract or chore chart (if you made one up). Chances are, somewhere along the line you’ve done something to upset her, so remember that no one is perfect.
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Obviously, there will be tense moments, arguments, and frustrations. Being able to address a situation head-on and continue with open dialogue can be what makes or breaks your roommate relationship. Living with Cheryl wasn’t perfect and I had my moments where I had to stop what I was doing and apologize for something, or address something that she was doing. However, we both respected each other and our agreement as roommates and we tried our hardest to live well together.

Ultimately, I became a better person thanks to living with someone who started out as a complete stranger. I learned how to be a better communicator, how to address something I didn’t like without sounding like I was blaming or attacking the person, and I learned how to recognize what was important to me and what I could compromise. The best part is that Cheryl became my best friend whom I know I can count on, and vice versa. We grew up together and into a beautiful friendship.