How to Handle a Bad College Roommate

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Incoming college freshmen might have their acceptance letters, but now they are waiting for another letter in the mail: dorm and roommate assignments.

Whether students have decided to live with a friend, a casual acquaintance or a randomly-selected student, living in a dorm space can be quite an adjustment.

Wellness coach Elizabeth Scott, explains that a comfortable living situation in college can impact a students overall experience.

When a roommate situation is conflict-ridden, the chronic stress that results can impact grades as well as physical and emotional health, she says. Thats why working through roommate issues early on, and keeping the lines of communication between roommates open and healthy, is so crucial for college success.

While many people can coexist perfectly fine with someone else despite personal differences, there can be bumps in the road. Heres what relationship experts recommend to diffuse a tough situation, so you can both get through the semester.

Talk about your expectations in the beginning

Whatever path that brought roommates together, the experts agree that setting ground rules from the start is important.

It is much easier to establish a system that works for both roommates at the outset than to wade through a long list of built-up resentments that have accrued, says Scott.  Adjusting to a roommate for the first time can be challenging because its often the first time students have had to adjust their lifestyles to mesh with someone whose lifestyle and habits may be completely different from their own.

Setting expectations for the living arrangement doesnt have to be as formal as posting a whiteboard with written rules; merely setting aside time for a respectful conversation can be enough.

Talk about whats important to you, says Eve Sullivan, author of Where the Heart Listens and founder of Ask [if you can] sit down and have a little chat about how youre both going to be successful this semester and what you can do to support each other.

Early Bird vs. Night Owl

Roommates with different majors or extracurricular activities and interests are likely to have different sleep and work schedules. Not getting enough sleep is detrimental to students productivity and stress levels.

Students who find themselves in this situation should talk to their roommates and establish a commitment to safeguard one anothers sleep, Scott says.  Simply moving around as quietly as possible in the morning, and perhaps even using a white-noise machine to mask sounds when one roommate is sleeping, can go a long way in providing a more conducive sleep environment.

Regular and open communication is the best way to head things off at the pass if issues come up.

The key is to refrain from blaming the roommate for the differences, accepting that there will be issues to discuss, and coming to solutions with a spirit of cooperation and respect, says Scott. There is no absolute right or wrong when coming up with these rules; compromise, patience and acceptance are key.

Putting Out Pit Fires Before a Wildfire Starts

Even roommates who are the best of friends will have issues throughout the semester.

Relationship coach Larry James advises that students avoid confronting their dorm mate when the incident in question has just occurred.

If you do bring it up when youre angry, you have a tendency not to really think too straight and sometimes we say things that we say we dont mean, but when they come out, thats what were feeling at the time, he says. If you stop and let your anger subside for a little bit and pick a time and say, we need to have a conversation about some things, do you mind we sat down and talked about it?

Sullivan suggests students try to notice a pattern and keep track of reoccurring conflict-causing incidents. Jotting down a roommates every single misstep isnt beneficial to anyone, however,  being attentive to problem areas can help students calmly point out certain instances instead of making blanket statements, which tend to make people overly defensive.

After a while, students may be inclined to let things slide if the behavior subsides or if they get used to it (does it really matter if their towel is never folded?).  With that said, if the behavior or habit really bothers a students, James suggests confronting it head on.

If anything annoys you more than twice, you probably need to not have any unspoken communication about it, he says. You need to talk about it in the most loving way that you can and as soon as you can. If you dont, its going to explode into a major conflict later.

Outside intervention

Theres only so many times a student can ask someone to respect their sleep by not bringing the entire party back to their dorm or keep their space clean.

Most colleges have a residence advisor (RA) or something like it,  assigned to the dorm to help conflicting roommates reach an agreement.

Many campuses have mediation programs that train people on how to help folks work out problems, says Sullivan. Young people need to learn to speak up for themselves and they may not have learned that at home.

Scott explains that while learning to deal with new relationships and living situations is a great opportunity for growth in college, not every roommate situation is destined for success. Students whose roommate refuses to negotiate, becomes verbally abusive, or is threatening, should request a room change.

If students try compromise, work on communication, and seek help from the available resources and still cant come to a satisfactory living arrangement, and especially if interactions leave the student feeling unsafe or overwhelmed, moving out is an option to consider, says Scott.

Sometimes issues with a roommate extend beyond trivial annoyances. Many young adults deal with health issues such as depression or eating disorders, making it difficult for the other person to know how to react or deal with outbursts. In this case, students should definitely reach out to a trusted third party for help.

The [roommate] is not a therapist and shouldnt have to fix that other young persons problem, says Sullivan. Having a sense for your own concerns and being able to express them, but also knowing that you dont have to do it all and you can get help is very important.