As a youngster, you never understood why you had to do chores—couldn’t dishes and things just take care of themselves? Some people never grow out of this stage, and have difficulty cleaning up after themselves. Others never learn to respect boundaries or really listen to what people are telling them. If you’re in the unfortunate situation of having a roommate who’s dirty, incommunicative, lazy, or who just doesn’t get it, here are some strategies for resolving major issues. First, let’s lay down the ground rules for dealing with difficult roommates.
The rules we’ll be working with are Speak (Speak Up, Speak Firmly, and Speak Often) and Solve (Propose a Solution, Agree on a Solution, and Implement a Solution). Hints and notes don’t work—you need to confront your roommate about contentious issues and make a decision regarding how to address them. Difficult as it may be, would you really rather spend another day navigating between piles of your roommate’s dirty laundry and dishes on your way to the bathroom than risk temporarily angering your roommate? If you’re truly friends, your roommate will respect your wishes. If you’re not friends, you might not ever need to see the person again—so why waste your time tiptoeing around an issue? The best way to deal with roommate problems is to avoid them altogether by screening your roommates through some sort of interview process. Once a problem becomes apparent, however, addressing it sooner rather than later is always the best approach. Here are examples where we implement this approach in two particularly contentious situations:
Dishes may be one of the most combative roommate issues, simply because they can be a) disgusting and b) easily attributed to one individual. You know what dishes you did and didn’t use, so you know that the giant stack of plates sticky with syrup and moldy with mayonnaise is definitely not yours, and you are definitely not cleaning it. You’re probably not even willing to put it in the dishwasher, if you have one. Seething in silence about dirty dishes will never get them washed, and stacking up dirty dishes outside your roommate’s door will probably only cause the pile to get bigger faster, resulting in a complete lack of clean surfaces for eating. You’ll need to speak up, and have a solution to propose.
Before chewing out your roommate for being “a filthy, lazy pig,” however, consider his or her possible reasons for not doing the dishes. Is your roommate often in a hurry when eating and not able to do dishes immediately after dinner? Perhaps your roommate works nights, or attends night school and needs to rush to class in the evenings. Try to enter the conversation prepared to understand and accommodate your roommates’ needs, and have a proposed solution in mind. Rather than demand that your roommate wash all dishes immediately after using them, gently suggest that items should be placed in the dishwasher right away (if you have one), or that a deadline be set: all dishes must be washed within two days, for example, or within one week, if you’re more flexible. Make it clear that your goal is not to antagonize your roommate, but to create a better living environment for both of you. Offer to alternate weeks doing dishes, if that works better for your roommate, and remain flexible—this is the best way to get what you really want.
Cluttered Common Areas
Though it’s tempting, breaking your roomie’s things or spilling beer on them is a better way to anger your roommate (and increase his or her resolve to make a mess) than resolve a problem with clutter. If your roommate just can’t avoid shedding sweatshirts, backpacks, CDs, and other items everywhere he or she goes, start out with simple statements: “I noticed you’re leaving a lot of things around the apartment. Sometimes I worry I might break or lose one of your things, so I wondered if we could agree to keep most of your things in your room.” Being empathetic and voicing a concern for your roommate will result in a better dialogue than simply complaining about your roommate’s habits. You simply need to discuss the situation and arrive at an agreement that at least partially satisfies both of you. The following suggestions may help you start a successful dialogue on this issue:
1. Set aside a special area in each room where your roommate can keep his or her belongings. This could be a special drawer in the kitchen, a table in the living room, a basket in the bathroom, or even the entire hall closet. Rather than expecting your roommate to conform fully to your spic-and-span standards, this suggestion allows the roommate to leave items around the house in a more confined and controlled way.
2. Make a deal. Say you’ll pick up your roommate’s things once a week if your roomie will clean the bathroom or take out the trash each week. If your roommate can be relied on to do some chores, but not others, compromising and distributing tasks may be the way to go.
3. Create a schedule. If your roommate can’t be bothered to pick up everything, all the time, make a rule that all personal items must be removed from communal areas once or twice a week. Include yourself in this rule so it doesn’t seem like all the attention is on your roommate’s habits.
Speaking up and solving the problem with communication and compromise is the way to address roommate issues. Never stay silent and never attack your roommate. If you can’t reach a compromise, or if your roommate doesn’t uphold the compromise after several attempts, you may need to consider looking for a new roommate. It’s a last resort, but may be better than living with a truly difficult individual.