“After college, I got an apartment with an old friend from high school,” says Brooke, a 25-year-old media relations assistant living in Washington, D.C. “We were both single and loved going out. It seemed like the perfect living situation until my roommate started dating a guy from her grad program. All of the sudden, I had a third roommate. He hung around the apartment while she was in class, eating my food and hogging the bathroom. I didn’t even like the guy.”
Unfortunately, stories like Brooke’s are all too common. Your roommate may be scrupulous about paying the bills on time, always washing the dishes, and keeping late-night noise to a minimum. It doesn’t matter. A new boyfriend or girlfriend can transform your otherwise considerate roommate into someone who is a nightmare to live with. Even if your roommate handles the situation with tact and sensitivity, there’s no guarantee you’ll like the new significant other, which is another problem unto itself.
Though it’s bound to be a little awkward, it’s best to voice your expectations when you first move in, before issues arise. You can use this discussion to segue into a conversation about cleanliness, utility bills, and interior decorating. Even if you’re moving in with a friend you’ve known for years, don’t assume that he or she shares your values or expects the same things. If your roommate ends up crossing the line of what’s acceptable later on, you’ll have firm ground to stand on when you remind him or her of your earlier discussion. Before you broach a discussion, make sure that you’ve thought about how you feel about some of these things:
- Giving out keys: Is it ever acceptable to give apartment keys to a significant other? What about friends and overnight guests?
- Frequency of visits: Is it okay for a boyfriend or girlfriend to hang around the apartment for the weekend? What about weeknights, and if so, how many?
- Utilities and other bills: If a significant other spends a great deal of time in the apartment, should he or she contribute to the utility bills? What about cable?
- Dress: How do you feel about your roommate’s boyfriend walking around in boxer shorts? What about a towel?
- Noise: What’s an acceptable level of noise at night? If it turns out that you can hear things you shouldn’t through the walls, are you comfortable asking your roommate to keep the noise down?
- Groceries: If you buy food jointly, should girlfriends and boyfriends contribute to the grocery fund? If you buy food separately, has your roommate let his girlfriend know that some of the food in the refrigerator is off limits?
It’s harder to bring these things up if you’ve been living with your roommate for a while or if an uncomfortable situation has already erupted in your apartment. When the discussion becomes specific rather than hypothetical, there’s a greater chance that your roommate will take offense. Sometimes, asking your roommate what you can do to improve the situation may work better than asking him or her to change.
Eliza, an architect living in New York, remembers when a roommate’s boyfriend had literally moved into the apartment. “He was having some problems with his own roommate, so he essentially moved in with us. She had given him half of her closet for his stuff.” Eliza felt uncomfortable asking their new houseguest to spend less time in the apartment, so she presented the situation as her problem, not theirs. “I asked whether my presence in the apartment was cramping their style. I even suggested spending weekends away so that they could have more alone time. She got the hint.”
Sometimes, a discussion about your roommate’s significant other can turn into something more than you bargained for. When Brooke broached the boyfriend issue with her roommate, she got something of a wake-up call herself. “I finally got the courage to tell my roommate that her new boyfriend was hanging around too much and eating all my food. She apologized but then told me that she suspected the guy I’d been dating had been using her bath products.” And not just any bath products. “It turns out that he had been using her extremely expensive face cream as body lotion. It was so awkward to tell her that her suspicions had been correct.”
A conversation about your own significant other can be a great starting point for a talk about changes your roommate needs to make. Start by asking whether your girlfriend or boyfriend ever does anything to make your roommate uncomfortable or if there’s anything you can do to make situation more manageable. Like Brooke, you may discover that there’s a lot you don’t know about either.
If you’ve ever shared an apartment with another person, you probably have a story to tell. Share it with us in the comments section.