About the Author: Gabriella Spina is a sophomore at The George Washington University where she studies International Affairs and Computer Science. She is on the Cultures Advisory Board.
Roommates and Boundaries: How to Maintain Dignity
By Gabriella Spina
My roommate and I moved in together after only sharing a thirty-minute FaceTime call, and all we knew about each other was who was bringing the Keurig and who wanted the desk by the window.
I have always lived in a full house, so I assumed I was in an advantageous position moving in with a random roommate; however the transition of living in a new city, spending the majority of my time indoors due to the pandemic, and co-existing with someone new, provided unfamiliar challenges I wasn’t equipped to handle. I had always prided myself with being a neutral (even good, sometimes) roommate, but I quickly learned that my habits, lifestyle, and boundaries at home were “good” because they had been clearly established. Expectations my parents set with me such as immediately cleaning used dishes and maintaining your own space were not expectations others shared. I quickly found myself frustrated: why is there a dirty pan still on the stove? Does the salt really need to stay out? Can we try to keep shoes in the closet? I found these expectations I was imposing on my roommate to be intuitive, but upon further reflection, they may have been unfair. And regardless if they were fair or not and how people are raised to live with others, identifying the problem is just the start. The real challenge is knowing how to handle the conflict with dignity.
Creating boundaries and having uncomfortable conversations is incredibly difficult, especially when it comes to being assertive with someone new. And while it is never too late to establish a boundary, I felt that I had waited too long. How was I supposed to explain that having the kitchen organized in a certain way allows me to feel treated with dignity after I had not addressed the issue for months? But also how was I supposed to introduce myself and immediately note my preferences in regards to tidiness and bedtime? I found myself in such a trivial cycle. I was upset with my roommate for “disrespecting me”; however, I had never explained my living expectations, so how could I be frustrated? This cycle led to internal irritation that I had not been forward with my boundaries to begin with. While in retrospect dirty dishes may have been incredibly trivial, feeling comfortable in your home is important, especially while adjusting to a new city. That being said, the ability to recognize other’s desires and comfortabilities creates a shared sense of dignity and importance that may help with a tough conversation!
What I learned is whether you’re moving in with new people or maintaining a living situation, it’s never too late to establish a boundary.
What I learned is whether you’re moving in with new people or maintaining a living situation, it’s never too late to establish a boundary. But if possible, I recommend starting early. I am not an incredibly assertive person, so given the ability to reintroduce myself to my roommate, I would ask her first if she had any non-negotiables for living with others. If that did not feel right, I would recommend a joke about dirty dishes or going to bed early. “I’m anticipating missing my dishwasher at home, so is it okay if we try to get dishes done within the day we use them?” is the first thing I said to the roommates I will have next year, as it provided clear instructions to my boundaries. For more direct people, “I feel respected when we are quiet after midnight.”
While it may not be the most intriguing note on your “looking for a roommate” post, adding what makes you feel comfortable in your living space is integral to finding others’ with complimentary styles, or those who will take notice of your requests and work hard to abide by them. While that sounds easy, it requires some internal dialogue. What makes me feel comfortable and safe in my home? A short line about how long you prefer dishes in the sink, a non-negotiable bedtime, study hours, and noise sensitivities is an easy way to begin searching for a mutually respectful living partner. Keep in mind that the small things matter, especially when it comes to your place of refuge, and creating a space where both you and your roommate feel comfortable, safe, and respected can only positively impact your co-living experiences.