Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Getting Along with Roommates

Guerrilla war.

When I went off to college, I roomed with a friend I had known for five or six years. We had always gotten along until we roomed together, but there are things you don’t know about somebody until you live with him. For instance, it turned out that he liked to sleep with the window wide open and under a pile of blankets. I did not like to sleep under a pile of blankets. This proved to be a harder matter to compromise than I would have thought. My solution was to average the few inches I preferred the window being open and the two feet he had in mind. Why not one foot? That was still not open enough, in my friend’s opinion. It is almost embarrassing to admit how long a simple, if not simple-minded, dispute of this sort can continue.

Benjamin Franklin had a similar difference of opinion with John Adams during their trip to New York City when they were attempting in vain to resolve the Revolutionary War by consulting with a British General. They were sleeping together one night when one founding father—I forget which one—thought it was healthier to sleep with the window open to let the bad air out. The other disagreed. I think that particular argument was solved when Franklin went to sleep.

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Also, when I studied, I liked to talk to other people. My roommate liked to study quietly; and so he disappeared after a week into the library. I rarely saw him until the end of the year when he informed me he would rather live alone. He was probably wise. All the people I ever roomed with, including my wife, noticed their marks going down after moving in with me. Evidently, most people prefer studying silently. Even my children’s marks improved when they moved out.

My daughter’s room at college demonstrated one solution to roommates having different interests. There was a strip of black tape that ran along the floor, turning a small room into two smaller rooms. The tape ran up both opposite walls and continued across the ceiling, just in case, I suppose, there should be different ideas of how to decorate the ceiling. My daughter’s bed and desk were a mess. She had a poster of some rock star draped on her wall. Her roommate, who was pre-med, kept her desk spotless, with a few papers in discrete piles. There was, no kidding, a picture of a saint tacked to her wall. My daughter transferred the following year to another college where her boyfriend was a student. That relationship continued for years until they moved in together.

I would not like to suggest that problems between roommates occur only among young and immature persons. A good friend of mine, a psychiatrist, complained that his office mate—another psychiatrist—had taken some of his food out of the refrigerator that they shared, and that as a result, my friend had moved out. When I expressed surprise that this behavior was enough to end their relationship, he told me, “It wasn’t the first time.”

My second roommate in college was much more relaxed. Although he had been a ranking member of the class during his freshman year, he was not upset when after moving in with me his marks dropped precipitously. He was relaxed about other matters also. I remember one of us left in the room a half-finished bottle of cider which, over the course of the following year, slowly solidified then liquefied again in layers of different colors, then solidified again. I was vaguely interested in this phenomenon, but I don’t remember Eddie paying any attention at all to the bottle, which sat on his desk. Neither of us paid any attention to the dust that accumulated everywhere, including the fireplace, where it joined with the dust of previous centuries.

He was on one occasion too relaxed. We had both returned from a party and had flopped into our beds, which entirely filled our tiny bedroom. He began to throw up on the floor, which annoyed me, since the bathroom was only a few steps away directly across the hall. I started to curse at him, but he kept vomiting. And laughing at the same time. I found myself laughing too. It was impossible to get angry at someone who could laugh and vomit at the same time.

As a psychiatrist, I have heard innumerable sad stories of roommates at odds with each other. I am not counting the married couples who fight over clothes strewn about, or whether or not one of them is snoring, or who’s been grabbing all the blankets, or sex, or money, or all the other matters that couples complain about whether they sleep in the same room or not. These are familiar to everyone. I am thinking, rather, of the young woman who crept into the kitchen of her apartment when her roommate was giving a party for her family to which she had not been invited. So, she ate the whole birthday cake and snuck away silently. Or the young man who couldn’t sleep because his roommate with whom he shared a double bunk was always making love noisily, or masturbating, and shaking the bed. Or the bitter young lady who kept taking her roommate’s possessions and removing them to an unlikely place in their apartment and pretending not to know how they got there. One young man made subtle noises with his tongue and pretended to read when his roommate looked around for the source of the sound.  Roommates are in a singularly good position to drive each other crazy if that is their intent. I will not mention alcohol or illicit drugs which are a common source of discord, along with political or religious differences which may trouble those few who take such matters seriously.

I remember one young man who had been assigned a roommate who was evidently psychotic. The young man would wake with his roommate staring at him. I advised him to ask the college administration to move him to a different room. I think if somebody suspects his roommate is thinking of killing him, it is time to move out, whoever is at fault. Certainly, it is time to give up sleeping together in the same room.

I think after a couple goes off for the first time together on a vacation, it is possible sometimes to make predictions of the future course of their relationship. If one of them comes back complaining of the other’s table manners, or that he chews too loudly, or belches or farts too frequently, it is likely that she is becoming disenchanted with him. Similarly, if one person complains about the other using the same verbal expression all the time, e.g. “You know…” or “Like…” as in “Like, I went to the corner where there was…like, there was a dozen guys ogling me. Like, they had nothing else to do. Like, they were just hanging around, like, doing nothing but, like, making a pest of themselves. Like, they expected me to, like, go off with them,” then it is reasonable to assume this pickiness is reflective of a more serious dissatisfaction. The same is true when someone is annoyed by the other’s grooming, or dress, or bathroom habits, or tendency to admire himself, or herself, in the mirror, or the inclination to take an inordinate amount of time getting dressed, and so on.

There are rules governing the way roommates should live together, but these are known to most people:

  1. It is necessary for the roommates to respect each other. It would be better if they like, or love, each other since living together puts a strain even on reasonable people. By respect, I mean certain specific things: Do not eat the other person’s food unless you ask first. Do not borrow clothes, or pick up money lying around, or take up any other possession of the other person without asking first.
  2. The wish to go to study or go to sleep takes precedence over someone else’s wish to play loud music or party. Roommates should be careful not to wake each other up.
  3. Follow through on financial commitments, so that one roommate does not have to ask the other for rent or payment for other bills. Chores should be done without having to be reminded.
  4. Do not keep close track of everything you do for your roommate with the expectation that every favor will be returned. Weighing every action on a scale leads invariably o someone feeling disadvantaged.
  5. No sleep-over guests should be allowed unless such an arrangement has been previously agreed to.
  6. The inclination to be orderly or messy has to be compromised with the other person’s wishes.
  7. If bedrooms are separate, do not go into your roommate’s bedroom unless he/she is present.
  8. If your roommate is of the opposite sex, assume he/she does not want to enter into a sexual relationship. Even if you are sure that a sexual overture would be welcomed, consider that you may then have to find another roommate down the road.
  9. Of course, never be rude or insulting. Do not try to undermine your roommate’s friendships with other people. Be kind and thoughtful. These are the ways you will want to be with everyone else also. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blogask-dr-neuman-advice-column/

 

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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