relationships, roommates

How to deal with a bad roommate

The other day I posted what to discuss before moving in with a roommate. A discussion about expectations held prior to moving in together can help prevent roommate issues, but not always. Maybe you don’t ask enough questions out of politeness, or don’t think to ask the right questions simply because they aren’t issues you’ve dealt with before or could foresee being a problem. Maybe you are too focused on the more immediate need of securing shelter to notice roommate differences that could lead to problems later.

Regardless of how it happens, at some point, you’ll probably find yourself living with a roommate you can’t seem to get along with. Here are my tips on how to deal with a bad roommate:

Address issues early, the first time you notice them. At first I had the opposite approach–I’d give roommates the benefit of the doubt and hope the problem would be a one-time thing rather than ongoing. I was almost always wrong. If there is one “rule of roommates,” it’s that if they do something once, they’re probably going to do it again unless you speak up.

The longer you wait to address something that’s bothering you, the more difficult it will be to resolve for a couple of reasons. First, if the behavior goes on for an extended period of time, it’ll become a habit and your roommate will be less inclined to break it. If you say something the very first time they wake you up at 2 am/leave the kitchen a mess/pay rent late, your expectations will be clear and they will (hopefully) adjust without forming a habit. Second, the longer you wait to address something, the angrier and more resentful you’ll become, and what could’ve been a casual conversation if you brought it up the first time will now be a bigger, more difficult confrontation.

Communicate openly rather than being passive aggressive. Sending hints to your roommate through your actions rather than speaking openly about whatever bothers you is cowardly, ineffective, and can drive you crazy. Sometimes people who have been raised to think that confrontation is mean feel they’re being kinder by sending subtle hints instead. Wrong. It isn’t kind, it’s passive aggressive, and it probably won’t work.

Your roommate might not pick up on yours hints. This will be frustrating for you and cause resentment to build. If your roommate does pick up your hints, they might be insulted and retaliate with their own passive aggressiveness. I’ve been in a passive aggressive roommate stand off before and it’s an awful way to live. You get sucked into a paranoia vortex where you can’t tell what your roommate does innocently and what is done vengefully. A confrontation might feel difficult or intimidating, but it’s much better than allow anger to build and second guessing the meaning of everything little thing your roommate says and does.

Don’t allow their passive aggressiveness. Open communication is a two-way street. If you make attempts to communicate openly but suspect your roommate is being passive aggressive in return, acknowledge it right away. Be direct in a kind, non-accusing way. “Hey, I haven’t seen you much since we discussed things the other day. Are you angry with me, or is that a coincidence?” “Hey, I noticed you keep moving my stuff off of this shelf in the kitchen. Is it bothering you? If so, where else should I put it?” Even if they deny obvious passive aggressiveness, you calling it out could keep them from doing it again in the future. Also, I’ve noticed people are much more likely to communicate openly about their concerns once you’ve communicated yours.

Talk about things in person, face-to-face. I learned this with my very first college roommate. After weeks of feeling frustrated by her clutter, I came home and found dirty clothes on my bed–the only uncluttered space in the dorm room–and decided that was the final straw. She wasn’t around, so I wrote her a note that I thought was straight-forward yet polite. It turned out that the clothing on my bed was not hers, but a friend of hers, and she hadn’t known it was there. Later, I found out she showed the note to a bunch of my friends and former co-workers without explaining the context, making me out to be insane. (Woah, I just realized that might be where fear number 87 originated.)

Writing notes or sending text messages is tempting because it relieves immediate frustration and it’s easier than dealing with a face-to-face confrontation, but it’s not worth it. Most times it’ll make things worse. With a text message, email, or written note, there is no context or tone. Chances are, such a message will anger your roommate rather than fix the problem. Plus, then the message is there forever, for them to show to whomever they’d like and to reread (and become re-angered about) over and over.

Show that you’re willing to compromise. No one likes being bossed around. Also, if you have problems with your roommate, chances are they also have problems with you. When you’re dealing with an issue, show that you aren’t trying to order them around and that you’re also willing to make changes. “Hey, your loud music woke me up last night and that kinda sucked because I had to get up so early. I’m wondering if you can turn it down after midnight. Am I being too loud in the morning? I can try to be quieter too, if I am. I want to make sure we aren’t doing anything to disturb each other’s sleep.”

Pick your battles. If your roommate does twenty things you can’t stand, literally sit down and rank the top 5 worst behaviors and even then only pick 1-2 to discuss at a time. No one is going to respond well to being told that pretty much everything they do is awful so you’ve got to narrow it down. You want your open communication to feel like open communication, not a personal attack. Address how he doesn’t pay rent on time and leaves out food that is attracting cockroaches, but let the more minor things slide.

Be nice. Hang out. Have fun. Maybe you’ve decided your roommate is an evil human being and you look forward to never speaking to her again once the lease is up. Fine. Be nice to her anyway, for pragmatic reasons. Buy her a birthday and Christmas gift. When you’re going out with a group of people, invite her. When she gets home at night, have the courtesy to ask, “How was your day?” instead of rushing into your room and shutting the door. Kindness melts resentment on both ends. This doesn’t mean be a doormat or allow yourself to be taken advantage of, but don’t allow the situation to devolve into one where you are avoiding each other, giving the silent treatment, or being openly hostile. A tiny bit of effort into being nice–even if it feels fake–can make the subsequent days or weeks more bearable.

Get out of the apartment. That said, sometimes you just need a break. Address your roommate issues, but don’t let them consume your thoughts. If you’re like me–an introvert who spends a lot of time at home and tends to ruminate on things–a bad roommate situation can take over your mood and begin to feel more dire than it actually is. Plus, the more you sit around at home feeling irritated, the more you contribute to an unpleasant situation. Do things that improve your mood and force a change of perspective. Go for a walk. Visit a friend for the weekend. Study at the library instead of in the living room. Do whatever it is that will take your mind off of the roommate situation and leave you feeling refreshed.

Take action. Talk to your roommate first. Talk to your roommate second. Talk to your roommate third. If your roommate doesn’t respond to your multiple attempts at open communication, take action. They won’t buy toilet paper? Let it (and the tissues) run out the day you’re leaving for a week-long vacation, forcing them to buy some. They won’t clean? Hire a maid and deduct their portion of the cost from the amount you owe them for utilities. They are months late on paying you for cable and internet? Cancel cable. Change the wi-fi password. They keep using your shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste? Get a shower caddy and keep that stuff in your bedroom. (I’ve actually had to do this one before.)

If these actions were your first response, they’d be nasty passive aggressiveness. If you’ve addressed issues multiple times (I believe in the “three strikes and you’re out” philosophy) then taking action like this isn’t nasty–it’s standing up for yourself and not being a pushover.

GTFO. Maybe you’ve tried everything, and things aren’t  getting better. Despite your attempts at communicating openly and being nice and friendly, your roommate continues to be passive aggressive, or otherwise make your life at home a waking nightmare. Maybe it’s at a point where you don’t trust your roommate or the people she brings over. You’re concerned you’re in an unsafe situation, or that your things could be damaged or stolen. Maybe the situation is in some way affecting your health, your other relationships, or your work performance. If you’ve tried everything and the situation is still unbearable, get out.

If you’re in a dorm, this should be easy. Go through the proper channels to get a new roommate–you can’t be the only one wanting to make a switch.

If you’re in a lease, first try to talk openly with your roommate about wanting to leave. If your roommate is as unhappy as you are, maybe she will either volunteer to move out, or happily help find someone to fill your spot. If you’re past the point of talking with your roommate, contact the landlord or building manager and ask about the procedure for having someone else take your place. Try to arrange it so that person signs on for the remainder of the lease so you don’t remain liable for anything after moving out. Also try to arrange it so they pay their security deposit to you so you don’t lose money, although if you’ve reached this point, you might be willing to pay a few hundred dollars to be free of the situation.


What other methods have you used when dealing with an unpleasant roommate? When I go back to school this fall I’ll be living alone for the first time in years (yes!), but I know that I might end up living with a roommate again (or a boyfriend, which is still a roommate of sorts) some day.


One thought on “How to deal with a bad roommate

  1. EM says:

    I, unfortunately, had a college roommate who joined a cult and let a (wanted) guy who lived in the woods stay at our apartment while the rest of us were gone on Xmas break. That was a situation where campus police got involved…

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