Hopefully all will go swimmingly with your roommates. But if you do need outside help with roommate conflicts or conflicts in any relationship on or off campus, the CU Ombuds Office urges you to reach out to them at http://ombuds.colorado.edu or 303-492-5077.
Drama. It’s the reason so many reality shows force their contestants to live together in a single house, even if — as in cooking or fashion competitions, for example — their personal relationships aren’t the point.
Step 1, combine different personalities in a confined space.
Step 2, add water.*
Step 3, enjoy the fireworks.
*Water is optional.
The absence of a camera and a national TV audience doesn’t change that basic human equation, and the roommate relationship can be complicated and difficult to navigate for anyone, at any time of life.
“A roommate is not necessarily a friend and not necessarily an enemy either. It’s someone you coexist with,” says psychotherapist Jen Phillips. “There’s a different set of needs and struggles than there is in any other relationship, unless you’re living with a partner, because you’re dealing with cleanliness, noise, having friends over — all of those fundamental basic things that you don’t normally deal with in a friendship.”
And in fact, says Professor Heidi Burgess, director of CU’s Conflict Information Consortium, it’s best to approach a new roommate without expectations, either of future BBF status or line-dividing-the-room disagreements.
“It’s so important to be open. People who don’t seem or look like we expected can still be great and interesting to be around,” she says. “Only expect that there is the potential to learn and grow and become a broader person from the relationship.”
Since roommate disagreements — about privacy, personal possessions and even lifestyle choices — can be emotionally charged, she advises remembering three simple ideas: listening, boundaries and respect.
Listening is a sign of an open mind. “When there is conflict, listen and try to find out what their point of view is,” says Burgess. “You may initially think they’re an idiot or a liar or all sorts of things, but if you listen, they likely have a reasonable point of view and a reason for their behavior or ideas.”
“I like to be curious. That takes the judgment out of it,” says Phillips. Ask: How did you grow up? Who are you? What do you believe in?, she said, rather than judging a book by its cover, but remember: “In your late teens and early 20s, people are still figuring that out, and who you are itself can change, which makes it tricky, too.”
The next step, boundaries, requires some self-discovery. You have to decide exactly what your needs and wants are as a person and find the line in between where compromise is possible. Personal boundaries then need to be expressed, and not telepathically.
In the dorms, CU requires roommates to use My Room 2.0 to create a roommate agreement, which covers how the roommates will handle noise, visitors, and cleanliness, and lays out how to handle violations of the rules. Burgess says the practice is a good idea for all roommates, though. A contract may seem like an eye-rollingly square thing to do, but comfort and emotional safety comes before coolness.
“It’s kind of like a pre-nup agreement, working out expectations and needs from the very beginning,” Burgess explains. She says the contact gives you a tool in possibly awkward situations. “It’s a great conflict-resolution instrument. All you have to do is say, ‘Remember that agreement we have?'”
“(Laying out your boundaries) is going to feel awkward, and it’s going to probably not be graceful at times,” says Phillips, who notes that such intimate details rarely come up even in close friendships. Hurt feelings are normal, and getting over them can be part of the growing-up experience.
“At such a young age,” she says, “people are still learning that by someone expressing their feelings it has more to do with that person than the person that’s receiving it. It’s a pretty mature concept. It’s easy to make it about you.”
Though most of us can melodically spell it along with Aretha Franklin, many have a hard time implementing respect in real life.
“If you treat people with disrespect, it’s a firebomb. They will lash back or withdraw and not deal with you at all,” Burgess says. She advises roommates to give one another space to be themselves, judgment-free, whenever possible.
“Don’t try to turn the other person into you. You can grow and learn from seeing how they’re different and seeing what you might want to rub off on you a little or — ‘Wow, I don’t like that’ — affirming what you don’t want for yourself.”
Almost never is one person right and the other person wrong. People are just different, and even different people can share an apartment or a dorm room peaceably (at a minimum) or joyously (in the best case). Simply keep a cool head — or take some space until you can — use your words and do your best.
“Just remember, this is temporary. When you’re in it, it feels like it’s forever, but a year isn’t that long,” says Phillips.
“There will inevitably be times you don’t handle things the way you would have liked to or that your emotions were heightened, and that’s OK. That’s just part of it. You grow and move on.”