Three roommates in small kitchen

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Dirty coffee mugs are lodged in the windowsill, clothes litter the floor, and the ice cream you were planning to dig into after class is gone—again. Either someone broke into your space or you have a roommate, am I right?

Whether your life in your shared space is smooth and easy, filled with an occasional bit of trouble, or a near-daily battle of “this is not really happening,” we could all benefit from some tips on how to make (and keep) the peace with the people we live with. If you fall into that last category, you’re not alone. About half of all first-year students struggle with roommate issues frequently or occasionally, according to 2009 research from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. And that’s significant—a stressful home situation can affect you in real ways.

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  • How you do in class: Roommate issues are more likely to prevent you from doing your best academic work than issues with drinking or homesickness, according to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (Fall 2016, Canadian reference group).
  • How you feel: Your connection with your roommate helps shape your mental well-being and your ability to adjust at post-secondary, according to research published in 2014 in Innovations in Research and Scholarship Features. Students who reported frequent roommate issues had higher stress levels than those who peacefully shared their spaces, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of American College Health. There’s also data showing that poor relationship dynamics can trigger a surge in anxiety and depression. “If you feel as though roommate conflict is negatively impacting your mental health, seek out support from a Resident Assistant or Counselling Services,” says Melinda Scott, Dean of Students of University College at the University of Toronto.

Some of the most common complaints among roommates are things we’ve all had to deal with at some point. OK, they’re also probably things we have all done at some point, including shirking basic responsibilities (like cleaning those crusty coffee mugs), snagging snacks, and showing a lack of respect for the space and the other person in it (like that time your girlfriend moved in for three weeks). Sound familiar?

So, rather than brushing things under the (unswept) rug, how can you set things up so you both feel comfortable bringing up what’s bugging you?

Dirt being swept under a rug

Start it off the right way

Yes, there is a right way. It includes making and sticking with a plan from day one. Here’s how:

1. Get together to discuss the details

“Craft a set of mutual expectations around important topics like quiet hours, guests, and perhaps, most importantly, how you’ll raise concerns with each if conflicts do arise,” Scott says. Make sure everyone chimes in on what they want for the space and agrees on the details, including what happens when rules turn into loose suggestions. Because they will. “While a proactive approach is always preferable, it’s never too late to have these conversations and develop a plan for moving forward in a positive direction,” Scott says.

2. Put it on paper...or Google drive

Living on campus? Your school might require that you sign a roommate agreement. Living in an apartment off campus? Yeah, you’re not off the hook either. Don’t shrug off the details here. Be clear about your expectations from the get-go.

“From the beginning, we’ve noted whose turn it is to take out the garbage or clean up the dishes, etc.. This way, everyone is doing the same amount of tasks. As for [quiet] time, we’ve set a time where no one’s allowed to talk on the phone or have guests over, so that the other person’s peace is respected. These points have worked for my roommates and I without any major problems,” says Peter G.* a student at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. (*Name changed)

3. Commit to communicate

Real talk: If you can figure out how to break down the awkward and talk about the stuff that bugs you early on, you’re setting yourself up for a roommate situation that works. Struggle with speaking up? Try getting a Resident Assistant involved, Scott suggests. “If you’re uncomfortable speaking to your roommate alone, a Resident Assistant can help facilitate the conversation to ensure that it’s productive and respectful.”

Three young women chatting in lounge area

What to do when stuff goes down

You nailed down the details, made the agreement, spoke up when things were on your mind—and there’s still a problem. We’ve all been there. So now what?

First, bring it up as quickly as possible. If you don’t talk about it, your frustration will fester, and that’s a loss for everyone. Here are some ways to approach it:

Keep blame out of it

Launching into a gripe session about everything your roommate has ever done wrong means they’ll probably tune you out ASAP. You’ll do better by framing a problem as something to solve together—start off by introducing the issue using “I” statements. When you start talking solutions, use “we” rather than “you.” “The relatively simple shift to a focus on how ‘we’ as roommates will respect each other and live together verses what ‘you’ are doing that bothers me can help to move a conversation in a more positive and productive direction,” Scott says.

Listen better

It seems so much easier than it actually is. Active listening means concentrating on and processing what someone is saying without simultaneously prepping your comeback. Take time to understand their words rather than blurting out the response that you spent the last five minutes crafting. “By engaging in active listening, roommates may be able to better understand each other’s underlying interests,” Scott says. “A conversation that begins with ‘you’re too loud!’ has the opportunity to evolve into ‘So, when I play my music past 11 p.m., you find it difficult to sleep and you feel as though it is impacting your ability to study the next day.’” Remember that most of us have good intentions. Just because your roommate is falling short on dish duty doesn’t mean they’re trying to intentionally set you off. We’re all doing the best we can, and it helps to keep that in mind when you hear them out.

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Aim to understand

We overestimate our own contributions to keeping our living space clean (and peaceful) and simultaneously underestimate what our roommates do, according to behavioural economist Dr. Dan Ariely. And that can lead to some not-so-good feelings about the people you’re living with. Dr. Ariely explains that because we’re intimately familiar with the details of our own tasks (think about the smell of the moldy cheese you pulled out of the refrigerator drawer), we minimize the things that others do. And then we resent them for it. “The particulars of our own chores are clear to us, but we tend to view our partners’ labors only in terms of the outcomes. We discount their contributions because we understand them only superficially,” Dr. Ariely told the Wall Street Journal.

How can you fix it? Either change up your chores every now and then so you get acquainted with the details of their tasks or simply ask your roommates to share the gruesome details of their chores—step-by-step. Once you hear all about it, you may view them in a whole new light.

Come at it with compassion

OK, we’re not all going to love our roommates; it’s just life. But you can make a conscious choice to care about their well-being—and that can make a big difference in how you interact. “When roommates attempt to understand each other’s perspectives and support each other’s well-being, there’s far more potential to build a positive and respectful relationship,” Scott says.

Roommates who had “compassionate goals,” or goals related to others’ well-being and happiness, were less stressed—and they gave and received greater support—than those whose goals focused on themselves, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010).

Three young men hanging out on staircase

What to do when it’s not getting better

Sometimes you just can’t solve this stuff on your own, and that’s where your Resident Assistants, counsellors, staff, faculty, and others on your team come in. Reach out to them; they’re there for you, and they know how to help. Here’s what that might look like:

A third-party mediation situation

This could be a Resident Assistant, a fellow student, a staff member, your dog. (The last one will probably not be that helpful, though.) An unbiased third party can listen to problems and help construct resolutions. “A Resident Assistant can facilitate a conversation to help you raise your concerns and look for solutions,” Scott says. “In very serious situations, a Resident Assistant might refer the roommates to a Residence Manager or Assistant Dean to mediate the conflict.”

“As a Resident Assistant, I would oftentimes facilitate that safe space for people to be completely honest and explore how they really felt about things,” says Sebastian W., a fifth-year undergraduate at Trinity Western University in British Columbia. “Worked every time.”

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Revisit your roommate contract

Remember that? Surprise—it’s actually helpful. If yours included things such as watch Game of Thrones every night while devouring pizza, you might want to make some changes to address the stuff that keeps coming up. Talk to your Resident Assistant, other staff members, or another third-party mediator about how to make it work this time around, and agree to reference it if issues come up in the future.

Know when it’s time to bow out

Sometimes, a living situation just can’t be resolved, and you need to find new accommodations. Live on campus? Talk to your Resident Assistant or Resident Life or Housing office about how to amicably make the switch so that everyone can live happily ever after—just not together. Live elsewhere? Read through the terms of your lease and the consequences of breaking it. You may be able to sublet your room or pay a nominal fee, both of which can be a worthy exchange for peace of mind.

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Article sources

Melinda Scott, MEd, Dean of Students, University College, University of Toronto, Ontario.

American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Executive Summary. Retrieved from http://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/NCHA-II%20SPRING%202016%20CANADIAN%20REFERENCE%20GROUP%20EXECUTIVE%20SUMMARY.pdf

Ariely, D. (2017, April 12). When chores go unappreciated. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-chores-go-unappreciated-1492017015

Crocker, J., Canevello, A., & Breines, J. G. (2010). Interpersonal goals and change in anxiety and dysphoria in first-semester college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 1009–1024. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44642305_Interpersonal_Goals_and_Change_in_Anxiety_and_Dysphoria_in_First-Semester_College_Students

Dusselier, L., Dunn, B., Wang, Y., Shelley, M. C., et al. (2005). Personal, health, academic, and environmental predictors of stress for residence hall students. Journal of American College Health, 54(1), 15–24.

Erb, S. E., Renshaw, K. D., Short, J. L., & Pollard, J. W. (2014). The importance of college roommate relationships: A review and systematic conceptualization. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(1), 43–55. Retrieved from http://mason.gmu.edu/~jshort/Erb%20Roommate%20Relationships.pdf

Ruiz, S., Sharkness, J., Kelly, K., DeAngelo, L., et al. (2010). Findings from the 2009 administration of the Your First College Year (YFYC): National aggregates. Higher Education Research Institute, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved from https://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/Reports/YFCY2009Final_January.pdf

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. (n.d.). Changing rooms. Retrieved from

University of Missouri. (n.d.). How to be a good roommate. Retrieved from https://reslife.missouri.edu/roommate

Washington College. (n.d.). Roommate conflict tools. Retrieved from https://www.washcoll.edu/offices/residential-life/roommate-conflict-tools.php