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Building and maintaining healthy roommate relationships

Finding and dealing with roommates during COVID-19

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Students look for roommates virtually due to COVID-19. Looking for roommates has become a greater challenge due to virtual limitations. // Illustration by Tesla Kawakami

Paper ripped from the telephone books is sprinkled across the room, the furniture is turned over and the contents of the trash bin have been dumped onto the floor. 

Jerome Short, a psychology professor at George Mason University and author of "The Importance of College Roommate Relationships: A Review and Systematic Conceptualization,” was in college at the time and about to have his parents over for a visit. He had asked his roommate to clean up after himself because he wanted to keep the apartment tidy for his parents. Short’s roommate did not take this well.

Student roommate dynamics can be challenging, especially during COVID-19. People are spending more time with their roommates than ever and some of them are meeting their roommates virtually. Given these circumstances, finding a roommate and having a positive household environment is still possible.

First, students must be extra thorough when asking potential roommates questions over social media or Zoom.

“It is more challenging doing it online versus in person because you lose some of the cues in body language and personal distance,” Short said.

Besides lack of body language, Zoom forces us to ask the important questions much quicker rather than just spending time together. Short explains that some people may find these questions intrusive because theories suggest we require gradual self-disclosure.

Despite being uncomfortable, students must be honest about their needs even though they want to make a positive impression.

Sadie Spektor, a fourth-year at Western Washington University, explains that she has two really big requirements for roommates, that they are vegan or vegetarian and that they are not “420 friendly.” She is sensitive to smells so these requirements are very important to her.

“I love someone who is excited about taking adventures, likes to be outside, enjoys hanging out with their roommates and is kind to themselves, others and the world,” Spektor said.

Spektor always asks the same questions when she is meeting with potential roommates over Zoom.

“Definitely stuff about cleaning that's for sure, I want to know how serious you take [COVID-19], are you in a relationship, do you like drinking, do you like 420, are you open to people or would you prefer to live with a certain person, do you like to cook, do you want to be friends?” Spektor said.

Being honest with questions and answers will help students find roommates that match their needs.

Additionally, students will do better in school and in their social lives if they make plans for how to handle conflict and practice good conflict resolution skills with their roommates. 

A national survey reported that 5.6% of undergraduates had roommate difficulties that affected their academic performance negatively.

Roommate conflicts can also affect friendships and opportunities to visit with others. However, there are strategies that can be used to handle roommate conflict effectively. 

Short said one strategy could be to meet regularly to discuss how the relationship and management of household activities are going. That might also be an opportunity to discuss bills, meal plans or the possibility of sharing food. 

Short said, “The meetings are more important in the beginning to kind of set ground rules and expectations and you try to do that in a positive way rather than a negative way.”

Good conflict resolution skills are also important to practice. This means having conversations without getting defensive and blaming each other.

“One example of this is to use ‘I’ statements, so to talk about ‘I feel’ or, ‘I think’ or ‘I would like’, rather than use statements saying, like ‘you are the problem’, or ‘you did this’ or did that and so the ‘you’ statements often make people defensive,” Short said.

Other conflict resolution strategies Short mentioned are summarizing what the other person said before making points, expressing concern for their distress and seeing the other person’s perspective.

Short explained that seeing the other person’s perspective has to do with learning more about their origin story. This includes learning how they or their family liked to cook, sleep at certain times or other habits formed by their upbringing. 

Lastly, students should have a roommate agreement form to reference when disagreements happen.

“While applying [for housing], students complete a roommate questionnaire answering questions about cleanliness, sleep schedules, attitudes towards marijuana and alcohol and other lifestyle specific questions,” said Vicki Vanderwerf, who works in housing at Western.

Then, students are asked to fill out a roommate agreement about these topics. This can give students something to refer back to when conflicts arise. 

Spektor, who lived in the dorms before this year said she plans on always making roommate agreement forms like those used in on-campus housing.

Of course, complete honesty when getting to know a roommate is not guaranteed. 

Short said that we all want to make a positive impression, in the beginning, usually, people are more likely to be on their best behavior, but will that be the way they will live at home? They will not be as concerned about making a positive impression then.

Conflicts may arise from something that we are completely unaware of. Short explained that we automatically behave how we were raised and we assume that it is normal for everybody. 

And agreements? Well, there won’t be any legal consequences if roommates eat each others’ food just this once, will there? People break agreements all of the time.

Nothing is guaranteed. 

 If students are living in the dorms, they have the option of moving out in three weeks, Vanderwerf said. 

However, taking these steps will increase students' likelihood of success because they will have a better understanding of their roommates before moving in together. 

Short hadn’t had a discussion with his roommate about their sleeping schedules or drinking habits. After moving in, he discovered that his roommate would stay up all night drinking a 12 pack of beer while watching television. This caused another roommate with the opposite sleep schedule to move out after they got into a psychical fight over their sleeping habits. 

That is why it is so important to ask the right questions and plan for conflict because you’ll likely have to deal with it at some point or another.

Sophia Heit is an opinions writer for The Front and a third-year news/editorial journalism major. Her work focuses on local news while highlighting strong opinions within the community. You can contact Sophia at sophiaheit.thefront@gmail.com.


Sophia Heit

Sophia Heit is an opinion writer for The Front and a third-year news/editorial journalism major. Her work focuses on local news while highlighting strong opinions within the community. You can contact Sophia at sophiaheit.thefront@gmail.com. 


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