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Students, RAs say setting boundaries is vital to healthy roommate relationships

March 7, 2024

Alongside choosing a university and declaring a major, finding a roommate is one of the most important decisions an incoming student has to make when preparing for college. Because of the unique relationship living together brings, there are several factors students should consider when making this decision.

For many incoming students, dorm life is their first experience sharing a living space with another person. In such a new environment, having open communication is an important first step, Residence Education and Housing Services Associate Director for Communications Bethany Balks said.

"Start communication as soon as possible," Balks said. "It's okay to have some disagreements, and it doesn't mean that two people can't live together because they disagree on something, but the more open they are and willing to have the conversation, (the better). It's a huge practice that will stay with you for the rest of your life."

Accounting sophomore and resident assistant Francisco Hernandez said that the majority of roommate conflicts he sees stem from miscommunication, or a lack of communication, at the beginning of the roommate relationship.

Some students find themselves holding back on lifestyle qualities that they think potential roommates may disagree with, like waking up or going to sleep early and being highly concerned about cleaning, Hernandez said. However, this ends up creating roommate conflict later on.

"The number one thing that you should do or that you have to do when you're living with someone is be honest," Hernandez said. "Not holding back, but truly expressing your feelings from the beginning and really laying the foundation of the expectations, but also, who you are."

For social relations and policy sophomore Ashley Mathews, setting expectations was particularly difficult when she found herself moving in with a friend. Because she cared about keeping their established relationship intact, discussing disagreements about living habits became difficult, she said.

"My first year, I had an amazing roommate," Mathews said. "It was very easy to set boundaries, it was very easy to communicate with them, I had no problems. But then, I went in with a friend this semester. And for me, I would encourage everybody not to room with a friend, because it is extremely hard to set boundaries with a person that you are familiar with."

With her freshman year roommate, Mathews emphasized the importance of regular cleaning for her own living success. Together, they set up a cleaning schedule that both would equally contribute to, she said.

This year, Mathews said cleanliness has been a major point of disagreement with her roommate, making it difficult to live in her own space.

"People have to understand that maybe people don't think the same as them in every way possible," Mathews said. "Like I can't handle there being hair in the sink, and I notice it right away when it's there, but other people do not. … It can get frustrating because you don't want to say something to them and you feel you shouldn't have to because they should be able to take care of themselves."

Along with cleanliness, setting boundaries on the use of personal belongings and expectations for sleeping are vital, Hernandez said. Starting a conversation about boundaries can be difficult, whether it is with a stranger or a close friend, but students can rely on dorm resources to begin the conversation.

At Michigan State, all roommates and suitemates are expected to complete a roommate contract at the beginning of the semester with their RA in order to lay a foundation for expectations, Balks said. This contract can be referred to later on in the case of roommate conflict.

"That's really where students focus on what's most important to them, what's kind of a non-negotiable, like, 'I need to be able to do this to be successful,'" Balks said. "Students can go, whether individually or with the roommate, to connect with their RA or their intercultural aid … and they are there to listen and to provide advice."

Many roommates go on to become lifelong friends, or have a relationship beyond living together, but getting to that point requires open and honest communication from the beginning, Hernandez said.

"The most success that I've seen where roommates become really good friends, they have long lasting relationships, is that they took a look at that living agreement," Hernandez said. "Setting that clear expectation and that clear answer of what you expect can really help you in the long run."

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