Difficult Roommates: Should I stay or should I go?

Difficult roommates

You may be hoping that a magic bullet for the bad roommate situation will be presented here. Unfortunately, more often than not the bad roommate situation is a rite of passage that most of us must endure and learn from. We asked several people to give us their roommate stories, and the response was enthusiastic. Here are a few testimonials — some amusing, some frightening — that highlight the rich tapestry that is dorm life.

When I was a bright-eyed eighteen-year-old freshman entering the dorms for the first time, my only thought was, Freedom! Glorious, unadulterated freedom! Well, this turned out to be broadly true, though not without exception (as anyone who has tried to sleep in a freshman dorm at 2 a.m. on a Friday night will testify). I had to get a job in the cafeteria if I wanted any spending money. I wasn’t able to skip classes with impunity. Girls were not automatically interested. And, of course, there was the roommate.

I can’t recall his name now, but I remember his head: it was the kind of head one normally associates with neck bolts and cranial stitching. He didn’t talk much. He liked Van Halen, hair-gel, and those sleeveless muscle shirts so popular circa 1988. But what he liked most was drinking. What he drank was not important, so long as he could, in the words of Beldar Conehead, “consume mass quantities.” He would leave the dorm sober as a churchmouse and return some hours later so plastered I could actually smell him coming up the elevator. One time I was in the dorm lobby and saw him come through the doors clad only in his tighty-whities, eyes a shade of red not usually achieved without conjunctivitis, a kind of manic, purposeful grin on his face. “Isn’t that your roommate?” I heard someone say behind me. I pretended not to hear.

This sort of behavior continued throughout much of my first semester freshman year. I really had no idea how to handle this kind of thing. As my wife is fond of pointing out, I was brought up in a Norman Rockwell painting. My childhood was pretty sheltered. I was therefore not prepared when my roommate threw up in my bed. I was non-plussed — I had not experienced bedside vomiting since I was six years old, and I had been the one doing the vomiting.

As interpersonal communication of any kind seemed to be a non-starter, I decided to try what was for me at that time a last resort: prayer. And do you know, it actually worked? When I returned from Christmas break, I discovered that my roommate was a changed man. Disgusted with how flabby he was becoming, he determined to cut out all boozing for the remainder of the year. It was like he came out of a fog. We never became best buddies, but we hung out occasionally and found TV shows we both enjoyed (“Night Court” was a favorite). Thus, I had survived one type of bad roommate: the constant imbiber. Here are some others:

The no-fault mismatch (Communication)

H: My roommate and I had completely different life-schedules. I got up early, had entirely 8 a.m. classes, and then went to bed by 10 p.m. every night. My roommate rolled out of bed five minutes before class and stayed up till all hours of the night studying. My roommate was pretty laid back and social; I was so shy and scared of not being liked that I was kind of a loner. I was a neat-nick; her side of the room was messy. At the time I thought things were going pretty well, but I’d never had to share a room before, so I don’t think I was very good at understanding how to share space. It wasn’t an unbearable living situation; in fact, I got pretty good at sleeping with my head under a pillow while she stayed up for hours studying, and I learned to stop talking to her for a week before her chemistry tests. But, when the end of the first semester rolled around, my roommate sat me down and asked me if I would be okay with her moving in with a girl down the hall. She knew that eventually I wanted to get into a single room, and the girl she wanted to move in with kept a sleeping schedule closer to her own. Would I mind? Of course I wouldn’t. I wished her well, and off she went to a better living situation for us all.

The social misfit (Grace)

J: I got along with “Tex,” my originally assigned roommate, well enough. But he bonded with guys down the hall, one of whom had roommate trouble with a generally disliked fellow I’ll call “George.” We arranged a mutually agreed swap — Tex for George. George was struggling with his weight and an addiction to role-playing games that led to sleep deprivation. We mostly hung out with different sets of people. When George did return to the room to sleep, he snored loudly. I discovered I could interrupt it with a sudden, loud clap — long enough to get back to sleep myself. I’m sure I annoyed George with my new-found taste in contemporary Christian music (Keith Green, Phil Keaggy, Larry Norman, the Rez Band and more — back in the day). We somehow made it through the remainder of the year without too many deep conversations or too much overt conflict, but George didn’t have the grades to return the next fall. Sad to say, probably few missed him.

Years later I met up again with one of Tex’s friends. He confided how amazed he and the rest of Tex’s cohort were that I managed to put up with George as long as I did.

The worldview clash (Empathy)

B: I remember first stepping into my dorm room. Light bulbs were out. Vampire posters were up. A satanic bible was visible. Dark clothes everywhere … rumor had it my roommate had been kicked out of her previous room on another floor for carving into the desk or something stupid like that. She was a classics major, so she studied Greek and Hebrew. She had overly zealous relatives who were Christian, and not the nice kind — the Mommy Dearest type of Christians.

I wasn’t the most open minded Christian at the time either. People would walk into the room and say “It’s like heaven and hell.” My side had Bibles and Precious Moments, and I’d wake up early every Sunday. I’m sure I seemed completely obnoxious. It was like a stereotype played out. She liked Marilyn Manson, and I liked Stephen Curtis Chapman. Her boyfriend was named Lestat after the vampire in the Anne Rice novels. We were a match.

My friends would try to convert her. She’d recount the story to me. But she did like some of my friends who would always say hi to her. She’d present contradictory texts of the Bible. We had good conversations about our “God differences.”

In the end she said I was one of the most considerate roommates she ever had. I would agree with that of her too. We never were best friends but we agreed to listen to each other. It was a great experience where we learned to see each other as people.

The never-ending party (Endurance)

G: My freshman year I had two sophomores for roommates. They liked to pretend I didn’t exist (talking in front of me to friends about parties to be held in our room without asking me, not sexiling me when I should have been sexiled, and ignoring my voice even when I asked if they could please just leave a sock on the doorknob in the future). Yes, we led very different lifestyles. They drank and smoked and had fake IDs and had parties in the room, and left the floor sticky with beer stains for weeks. They slept with most of the basketball team (each of whom I got to meet the next morning, leaving my shower). They left the TV on 24/7. The one nice thing one of them did for me was tell the police that I had not been present, nor should I be cited for, a party in our room that had ended in several arrests.

I had been in the studio. In fact, I was often in studio, doing near all-nighters for weeks — such was freshman design. I found other friends on my dorm floor who took care of me and watched out for me, and I had a community of designers at the studio as well. That spring I had a tutoring job and six classes. But I stayed in the room and dealt with the roommates because I wanted to keep the same room for next year — it was on the roof, the best room in the dorm! I didn’t want to say anything to my RA, because what could she do besides say I could have a different room (plus she was one roommate’s sorority sister)? So I covered my stuff with towels when I knew they were going to have a party, and stayed out of the way except when I was needed — to keep one from drowning in her own vomit, or whatever. After freshman year, I rarely saw them.

The “It’s not you, I’m just a hateful person” (Seeing ourselves as God sees us)

K: My roommate disliked me from the moment she met me. And she disliked me a lot. The more I tried to break the tension in the room by being cheerful and friendly to her, the more I felt her contempt. To my detriment, I am a people pleaser and want the approval of others — and I didn’t know how to act around this girl. Nothing I did could persuade her to like me, and the harder I tried the worse it became. I became fearful of saying anything to her, unsure of her response — she fluctuated between ignoring me, glaring at me, and snapping at me. I dreaded going back to my room; instead of being the home that it should have been, the safe retreat, it was a cold, hostile, and unfriendly environment. I was confused and ended up depressed.

However, it was my own fault that I let my fear of her dictate to me. No matter her rudeness to me, or her inconsiderateness, I said little to her about it and instead continued to live in fear, and unfortunately, with some resentment. She would smash flies by my bed and leave them, she would leave the door open in the morning so that I was woken up by the noisy hallway; one time she spilled rubber cement on the carpet that I’d brought to school and then refused to clean it up.

One day, my roommate sat me down with a bowl of popcorn and spent two hours telling me everything she didn’t like about me. And it wasn’t constructive criticism, it was a personal attack: “I don’t like the way you eat, I don’t like the way you walk, I don’t like the way you talk, I think you’re immature because you’re short, you’re too nice, you’re too cheerful — you’re fake.” I was devastated.

After that I was able to work out with residence life an alternate living arrangement. I moved out of that room at the end of the semester. I learned, through that whole experience, that I could never win the approval of some people, and that the only approval and love I could be certain of never losing was God’s. Although during that semester I never really learned to stick up for myself, I became aware of my need to do so; it has put me on a path of discovering how to stand my ground and not be taken advantage of. I learned to trust in a loving God, knowing that he wants the best for me, but that doesn’t always mean life will be easy. Those are all lessons that I continue to learn, but having a poor freshman roommate helped put those areas of surrender to God for the first time.

The immature one (Learning from our mistakes/Growing up)

D: Well, basically I was a slob, inconsiderate about the volume at which I played my music, and I used other people’s stuff without asking. One night my roommate and I had a confrontation; I yelled at him and turned up my music really loud so he couldn’t study. After that, he moved out. I don’t blame him.

The worst-case scenario (Sometimes it’s time to leave)

B: At the beginning of my sophomore year I was placed in a room with a girl who had just gotten out of a mental hospital and refused to take her medication. She also bathed rarely, only occasionally washed her clothes, refused to wash her sheets, and the only people she socialized with were online “friends” from the Hanson fan club chat room. (Yes, Hanson, as in that scary boy-band that we’ve all tried to repress memories of.) She knew every minute detail of Hanson brothers’ lives, including their cousins’ names and birthdays. It was all she talked about.

Around February, for some reason I’ll never know, she decided she wanted to kill me. We had been civil toward each other for the most part until this point. However, she suddenly started leaving descriptions up on her computer of how she was going to kill me. It involved bludgeoning me with a bat. Every night I would look up at her bunk bed right above my head and wonder if I was going to make it through the night. Finally, an RA helped us go through mediation. During this time, we asked S. why she wanted to kill me, and her response after a long pause was, “I don’t know.” After this meeting, she was kicked out of my dorm and put in a dorm room all by herself. In retrospect, I have no idea how I survived almost seven months with her. I never did hear from her again.

Should you stay or should you go?

To sum up: communication, empathy, grace and endurance regarding your roommate are key; a strong outside community is necessary; and a knowledge of God’s love for you is important. It’s best to try and work things out, but not at the risk of your physical or mental well-being. And remember: bad roommate situations aren’t forever. All of the contributors to this article survived their ordeals and are happy, well-adjusted members of society.