How to deal with a difficult roommate

You don’t have to remain miserable: You can get help resolving roommate issues.
You don’t have to remain miserable: You can get help resolving roommate issues.

Got a roommate? If your housing situation is like most that involve more than one person, you may find your expectations for the space you share differ from those of the person you share it with.

It is common for roommates to find that conflicting lifestyles, cleaning habits (or lack thereof), schedules, and/or guest policies need to be addressed. Gail Packer, executive director of the Community Dispute Settlement Center in Cambridge, said lack of communication is the fundamental issue in unsatisfactory living situations.

“When people have a breakdown of communication, things can escalate and really get out of control,” Packer said.


But before a standoff over dirty dishes leads to full-on filth and the occasional overnight guest becomes a permanent one, there are methods and resources available to nip conflicts in the bud.

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Organizations such as the dispute settlement center — which partners with the City of Boston to provide affordable mediation — offer a neutral place where roommates can constructively discuss issues with the help of a facilitator. Colleges and universities also offer mediation along with advice from resident assistants and residential life departments on how to best handle disputes.

Kiana Carver, a Boston University sophomore who sought help from her RA to confront concerns for one roommate’s well-being and aggression from another, said she recommends taking advantage of the resources colleges offer to diffuse friction between students.

“[RAs] aren’t just there to knock on your door if you’re being too loud,” Carver said. “They are there to help you.”

Packer said seeing past the issue to understand that every person living together has valid concerns is the key to finding progress. Before a discussion or mediation, “they see each other as the problem, not as a person with a complexity of interests and needs,” she said.


Here are five steps toward resolving issues with a roommate.


Before asking someone else to adjust how they live to make you more comfortable, it’s important to think about how your own habits contribute to the living environment. Boston University’s roommate success kit covers all the bases of how roommates coexist, including sleeping hours, study/quiet times, how the room will be used, and more. Consider the ways that your roommate may also have trouble living with you so that you can both admit faults and move forward.

Have explicit conversations

It is better to rock the boat than to capsize it by avoiding the issue. “Putting it all out there is the safest bet,” Carver said. The most effective way of voicing her concerns with her roommates was to phrase statements from her perspective of how the roommates’ actions made her feel, rather than being accusatory. Start the conversation with “I feel” instead of “you” so that it does not come across as blaming the roommate for a problem but instead sheds light on how their actions affect others.

Find compromise

“Once things have been aired, people understand each other and what their real needs are — for their self and their roommate, [so] they can work things out,” Packer said. Keep in mind that a balance of adjustments from all parties involved will make for an overall more positive environment and demonstrate mutual respect.

Meet with an RA or mediator

If the previous steps don’t get you anywhere, it may be time for someone outside of the disagreement to step in. “A mediator’s job is not to decide who’s right and who’s wrong,” Packer said. “It’s to help each party understand what’s important to the other.” A mediation will not only provide an objective way to solve the problem, but participants will be able to learn methods that they can practice in the future. Packer said, “They will hopefully have learned a skill or two from the experience of a constructive conversation about these things, and then they can try to do it on their own.”

Check in periodically


As time goes on, new problems may arise. With regular discussions, roommates can continue to squash conflicts before they get out of hand. “Knowing that [my RA’s] advice was what she deemed best for the situation, it made me feel more secure about confrontation,” Carver said. “It gave me the confidence to bring up issues that I shouldn’t just let go.”

Abigail Freeman can be reached at