Living on campus often means living with a roommate. But what if your roommate is the absolute worst? One student offers advice on managing conflict.
Picture this: It’s your first college move-in day, and you’re about to embark on the amazing journey that is higher education.
But before all those adventures and stories you’re about to create can take place, you need to figure out one important aspect of your life: where you’ll be living — and who you’ll be living with.
Chances are, if you’re an incoming first-year student, you’ll be assigned a random roommate. At some point over the summer prior to starting classes, you probably emailed and exchanged numbers — maybe even texted here and there to get a conversation going. Perhaps you had a Facetime or phone call.
For me, my randomly assigned first-year roommate, who we’ll call “John,” started off as a good friend. But as the semester wore on, our dynamic took a winding road into an uncomfortable living situation.
What happened with John was a textbook situation of when you let problems sit and build. And hopefully, the reflection I have on this experience can help you avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced.
From Friendship to Frustration
For the first month or so, things with John were normal. We had a good thing going. We were both cordial and willing to work with each other on the setup of our room.
We also both loosely agreed to a roommate contract our resident advisor (RA) had provided us. And while we jokingly filled it out together, we respected the rules we’d written for each other.
John and I had a lot in common. Both of us played sports in high school, grew up in similar towns, and liked the same music.
We hit it off during welcome week, spending nearly the whole week going to programmed events as partners and sharing nearly all of our meals together with our floor. I can even remember having one of those deep heart-to-heart conversations with him on the first night, in which we talked about our hopes and fears for college.
After seeing how good the first few weeks with John went, I never thought we’d have any issues later on in the year.
But after about a month, I noticed a slow but steady change in his behavior.
John started going out later, and to more parties, which wasn’t a huge deal but annoyed me due to my early morning class schedule. Previously, this hadn’t been an issue — and I didn’t want to bring it up and cause any more issues. I never really questioned or asked what was going on with him to prompt this sudden change in his life.
As the weeks dragged on and John kept doing more of his own thing, we started to separate. We no longer ate meals together as frequently and only spent time hanging out when we both happened to be in our room or around the floor.
As we grew apart, I noticed a change in John’s personality. He went from being fairly extroverted to pushing that ideal to the max — almost as if he were going for that “big man on campus” stereotype, seeking to inject himself in every floor activity and situation.
Whatever happened, John became a somewhat problematic figure on our floor. He started rumors about other students, got in trouble for drinking, and generally became someone most people didn’t enjoy being around.
This made being his roommate awkward on my end, as I would occasionally have to deescalate some of the rumors he would start. I began to distance myself from some of his ruder actions that our floormates didn’t appreciate.
Beyond that, as his ego grew bigger, I noticed smaller courtesies that were previously respected in our roommate contract start to end, such as not slamming doors at night, not eating each other’s snacks, and keeping our room clean.
I didn’t really bring up any of these issues outside small comments here and there, choosing instead to mostly avoid John out of not wanting to cause more issues.
My Mistake? Choosing Avoidance Over Communication
I distanced myself not just from John, but from my floor as well. I ended up finding my own group of friends on another floor and generally had a good time my first semester — but I no longer felt comfortable in my own room.
Toward the end of the fall term, I seriously considered a room swap for the spring. Ultimately, I stuck it out, avoiding my floor and just seeing my room as a place to sleep. The rest of the school year was good.
The truth is that you can get around a difficult roommate through avoidance. But that isn’t necessarily the best or most holistic strategy for roommate conflicts.
It wasn’t until the final weeks of the semester that I learned from another floormate what had happened to John: He and his high school girlfriend had broken up just a few weeks after school started. This would have been right around the time his behavior changed.
For me, this was a lightbulb moment and a major insight. Sometimes, the way someone acts has nothing to do with you, even if you’re living and sharing a room with them. This didn’t excuse any of his actions, but everything started to make more sense to me.
College is often about finding yourself. People change during college and go through periods when they need to work on things or find themselves.
When I reflect on this situation, there’s really only one thing I wish I’d done differently: I wish I’d been more direct with John. Yes, his behavior was erratic. Yes, it was immature. And, yes, he was clearly in the wrong with a lot of his actions.
But I think many of our conflicts could have been resolved or made better by being direct and openly talking about what had happened. Maybe we could have pulled in an RA to help facilitate a conversation.
While doing this might have been unable to completely change our dynamic, I do think it would have been better than silently sitting through a bad living situation and just running out the clock to avoid any further issues.
Whatever situation you find yourself in with your roommate, my advice for sustaining a healthy dynamic is to be open, honest, and direct. What might seem like small things can eat away at you.
If something is bothering you, bring it up with your roommate. Even if it’s small, it’s worth formally addressing it together if it’s affecting how comfortable you feel in your own living space.
Try not to be judgmental because the reality is that you might not know what’s going on in your roommate’s life. And maybe they don’t want to share it with you — and that’s OK.
But being in a living situation you don’t feel comfortable or happy in is not OK. There will be times you have a roommate, whether a friend or a stranger, and you’ll have to work to address your issues together.
If you don’t, you can’t expect them to magically fix everything.
Meet the Author
Christopher Ferrante is an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University where he teaches in the first-year writing program. He earned his BA in psychology from The College of New Jersey in 2018 and his MA in English (creative writing) from Seton Hall University in 2022. His passions include the craft of fiction, game design, and social justice education.