Living with a roommate isn’t just financially savvy. Roommates can be a great source of support and make life around the house a little less stressful and a lot more fun. That being said, living with someone isn’t always easy, and conflict is bound to happen when needs or preferences don’t match up perfectly. Regardless of whether you are close friends or just co-habitants, the stress when dealing with roommate conflict can really affect your relationship, mood, and ability to unwind and relax.
That’s why establishing clear boundaries is so important! You might think that having a discussion about boundaries is only important when trying to solve a problem, but knowing your roommate’s needs and expectations up front can actually help avoid conflict, handle difficult situations, and make sure you are comfortable in your shared space.
1. Know your needs.
Having a clear sense of the kind of environment you want to live in is an important first step. Taking the time to reflect on your needs with respect to the big issues that can cause tension (like the division of chores or finances, cleanliness, noise levels, and visitors) can help make sure you end up with the right roommate. Ideally, these are the kinds of things you should talk about before deciding to live together. If you’ve already agreed to live with someone or are in a situation where your roommate is assigned, it’s a good idea to talk about personal needs and boundaries before they’ve been crossed. Knowing your specific needs also helps us communicate reasons more effectively and clearly.
2. Set the stage for communication.
It goes without saying that communicating is a necessary step in this whole process. Talking about preferences early on (like the desire for privacy or financial planning) not only helps to prevent conflict, it makes it easier to bring up if (or when) a boundary is crossed.
An information exchange should always be the goal when setting, reviewing, or discussing boundaries. It’s not enough to just share what we want our boundaries to be—it’s also important to express why those boundaries are important. Whether it’s opening up about how alone time is necessary for well-being or sharing why we’ve had less time to contribute to household chores, discussing the emotional, practical, and even cultural reasons behind the need for specific boundaries helps create a space where you should feel comfortable bringing up possible solutions. Making sure you ask questions about your roommate’s needs and showing a concern for their perspective is also important. Really, the more information you have the more likely you are to come up with a creative solution that benefits everyone.
3. Work together to establish boundaries.
The important thing to keep in mind when talking about boundaries is that they need to work for both you and your roommate. One person might have an idea that would work very well but if the other isn’t on board, it won’t succeed in the long run. While some people find cleaning schedules or contracts essential, others find these patronizing or condescending. Similarly, you might be in the habit of leaving little notes around the house as a gentle reminder of the things you’d like our roommate to take care of, and would be surprised to learn that they see this as passive aggressive.
Whether it’s finding a solution that works equally well for both of you or agreeing on a compromise, working together to come up with solutions and anticipate potential problems increases the chances that both of you will respect boundaries and stick to the plan.
4. Be respectful.
When you feel like you’ve run out of options, frustration can sometimes make you act in unexpected ways. Maybe you become more vocal or harsh to get your get point across or maybe you withdraw because you decide it’s not worth the effort. In reality, neither of these options will get you any closer to your desired living environment. And it should go without saying, but attacking your roommate with critical words or gossiping to others isn’t constructive and often escalates the situation.
Believe it or not, resigning to the status quo can be just as detrimental. Not only can this make you increasingly resentful, but efforts to be avoidant can sometimes be hurtful. The way you handle this situation is even more important when living with a friend—you want to make sure you balance your need for a comfortable space with maintaining the friendship. Humor can sometimes be a helpful strategy for diffusing tension, as long as both people are on the same page. And sarcasm is rarely effective when talking about establishing boundaries and creating an environment of mutual respect. Ideally, it’s best to strive for a situation where your needs and perspectives are balanced with that of your roommate.
5. Recognize that it’s an ongoing process.
Instead of waiting for things to escalate, it helps to check in with each other to re-evaluate how solutions or compromises are working (like sending a quick message to see if the cleaning schedule you set up is sustainable or if splitting grocery bills has felt fair). Not only does this demonstrate that you’re committed to setting boundaries that make sense for both of you, it shows you’re open to modifying things to make it work. The need for certain boundaries can change over time based on work or school schedule, relationships, and even mood. Whether it’s needing a little extra quiet time because of a looming deadline or wanting to have a friend stay over for a few nights, being thoughtful and giving your roommate fair warning increases the chances they’ll be understanding—and, in turn, will give you the same courtesy.
6. Be realistic and flexible with your expectations.
We all make mistakes from time to time. The same way you’d want your roommate to understand when you occasionally don’t have the time to clean or make a little more noise than usual because you’re having a great time with friends, you need to let some things slide. But when you’re having trouble being flexible, it helps to question whether your frustration is related to a preference or an objective problem—and if you’re interpreting a slight as a personal attack. A messy apartment isn’t always personal, even though it affects you personally. Keeping this in mind makes it easier to problem solve in a constructive way and come up with new, creative solutions. Behaviors rarely change over night and patience is often necessary.
While negotiating boundaries can sometimes feel like a hassle, it helps to recognize the positives. Not only does it give you the chance to brush up on conflict resolution skills, working together to set boundaries can bring you closer to your roommate. It helps you find solutions that allow you to continue enjoying the comforts of home.