It's time for many graduating high school students to look forward to moving out from family and in with roommates in an apartment or a college dorm.
Now the last stage of adolescence begins, Trial Independence, around ages 18 - 23. It's pretty exciting! Here there are no parents to see, to supervise, to answer to about what's going on. Now there is only the company of age-mates all enjoying an exhilarating sense of freedom to live away from home.
However, it doesn't take long for young people to start appreciating the complexity of sharing living space with peers and of several issues that must now be addressed: compatibility, cooperation, and communication.
Consider the issue of COMPATIBILITY.
The first communal living experience can be jarring. Here are just a few complaints about incompatibility that can arise.
Privacy: "I need my stuff left alone, and she treats everything as ‘ours.'"
Order: "He hates picking up and I hate a mess."
Reliability: "I have to bug her for the rent money or she forgets."
Personality: "I like time to myself and he wants constant company."
Television: "She wants the TV always on and I like it sometimes off."
Values: "He cracks mean jokes about groups of people I don't find funny."
Even friends (much less acquaintances or strangers) do not automatically make good roommates. People are different in a host of ways - in physical, psychological, social, and cultural make up -- and not all those ways are going to easily mesh or match.
So incompatibility in roommate relationships is not a problem. It is a reality. The challenge is how to manage inevitable incompatibilities - some that can't be changed and some that can.
To achieve compatibility around differences that can't be changed (like personality, functioning, and values) requires understanding and tolerance, making respectful space in the relationship for the differences between you.
So to manage where one roommate stays up late (is a "night person") and the other gets up early (is a "morning person") both try to keep it quiet when the other is asleep. Now mutual accommodation to a functional difference has been made. Acting judgmental, critical, or blaming are the enemies of acceptance and respect.
To achieve compatibility around differences that can be changed (like preferences, wants, and habits) requires speaking up and modifying the differences between you.
So the roommates who have differences about the importance of keeping the kitchen, bathroom, and common room picked up agree on a clean up every couple of days - not as regularly as one roommate would find ideally orderly but more regularly than the other would find ideally relaxing. Now accommodation to a preference difference has been made. Acting controlling, commanding, or coercive are the enemies of discussion and negotiation.
Next, consider the issue of COOPERATION. Why do roommates need to cooperate? The answer is, because sharing time, space, resources, rules, and responsibilities between them creates a common interest and daily interdependence.
How each one acts affects the other. Entwined in each other's lives, they must now make living arrangements that work for them each and for them both, and this is no easy task.
When sharing arrangements are not satisfactory for all concerned, the opportunity for conflict can arise. To see how, just consider some simple but potentially divisive questions that roommates have to answer when they move in and must cooperate together.
"Who gets to get what?" (The larger bedroom, for example.)
"Who gets to do what?" (To pay the utility bills, for example.)
"Who gets to control what?" (The TV watching, for example.)
"Whose way is the right way?" (Arranging the furniture, for example.)
"What is a fair share?" (House keeping responsibility, for example.)
In answering these and other cooperation questions, disagreement will naturally arise. When it does, engaging in conflict does not mean roommates do not get along, it is how they need to get along when confronting and resolving a point of opposition between them.
Most young people are inexperienced in conflict with a domestic partner, which is what a roommate is -- someone with whom one has set up house together. So when conflict arises, they typically think of three options: "my way" (domineer) or "your way" (surrender), or "no way" (maintain status quo.) They often don't consider the fourth way, "our way" (collaborate.)
On a practical level, they can follow three collaborative rules for dealing with conflicts which each can help strengthen the relationship: compromise, concession, and equity.
First they can try compromise by working through a differences by trying to establish a middle ground. "If we each give a little we can settle our difference by getting some of what we want, me willing to have the apartment used for your socializing on weekends, you willing to keep it quiet for my studying during the weekdays."
Second they can try concession by working around the difference. "This time I'll go with what you want because I think the issue is more important to you than it is to me. I don't want a cat, you really do, and I can live with the decision to have a pet."
And third, they both commit to the rule of equity that says, "when we compromise we each do some giving, and when we use concession we make sure that each of us concedes about the same proportion of times. This way the balance of giving and giving in feels fair."
Finally, consider the issue of COMMUNICATION. What makes dealing with incompatible differences and cooperation differences most difficult is when roommates, from discomfort, elect not to communicate.
Now hard realities of roommate relationships come into play: speak up and your needs will be known; shut up and your needs will be unknown; delay speaking up and risk building up hurt or anger about what is going on.
Probably the most important communication commitment roommates can make to each other is to TIMELINESS.
This means that whenever either one has issues with each other's conduct or with living arrangements, that person will speak up about it right away in specific, non-accusatory terms. Then the other person will hear that roommate out because it's in the interests of both parties to have an agreed upon set boundaries for living together that allow them to get along.
So if you happen to be talking with a graduating high school senior about what it may be like moving in with a roommate or roommates next fall, you might want to share this blog. To be forewarned can be forearmed, prepared to make this experiment in domestic partnership work well.