Moving in: what to do when your roommate drives you up the wall

When the end of the summer rolls around, many Canadian undergraduate students begin the process of packing their bags and getting ready to live on their own for the first time. However, while some students may bond instantly with their new roommate, some may find themselves sleeping beside their worst enemy.

Attending university or college can be regarded as a rite of passage for many young adults. Because of this, students often do a great deal of research before deciding which university program to pursue and where to study it. Part of that research involves deciding where to live while in school.

Students studying away from home are likely living in shared residence rooms or in homes with other students. For many, especially those living on their own for the first time, roommate conflicts have become an unfortunate part of the university experience.

Do bad roommates lead to increased stress?

When roommate conflicts go undiscussed or resolved, there is the potential for students’ mental health and wellbeing to be seriously jeopardized.

“Having a roommate can often be a very positive experience that helps a student feel connected and safe socially and acts as a protective factor against stress,” said Nathaniel Jewitt, a residence counsellor with Carleton University’s Health and Counselling Services, in an email. “In that sense, social disconnection and conflict in any form is inherently stressful for all humans, and roommates are no different.”

As many students try their best to juggle the stress that comes with jobs, extracurriculars, academic life, and relationships, they often look to their homes as places of rest and relaxation. However, for those experiencing a roommate conflict, the dorm room or apartment can become far from a safe haven.

According to Karen Haarbosch, the accommodations manager with Carleton’s Department of Housing and Residence Life Services, fractured roommate relationships can spread from the bedroom into almost every aspect of a student’s everyday life.

Students that are unhappy with their living situations tend to miss classes, go home more often, and adopt improper eating habits, Haarbosch said.

At their worst, unresolved roommate conflicts can cause students to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in their own homes

Unable to cope

According to a 2012 academic article published in the Journal of College Student Development, roommate relationships can have both positive and negative effects on students’ overall university experience.

According to the article, when a student thrives while living in residence, they are more likely to succeed academically. However, when roommate conflicts persist, students are at a greater risk of having a poor academic performance.

The authors of the article go on to argue that in serious cases, roommate conflicts can be linked to alcohol abuse and high levels of stress. As a result of this added stress, students may find themselves incapable of focusing on their academics and unable to cope with the commotion at home or in the dorm room.

According to Jewitt, these added stresses have the potential to become overbearing for students and could lead to further problems, including anxiety, trust issues, and personal or social isolation.

“It is certainly an issue that comes up in counselling sessions,” he said. “Most often it would be a factor that exacerbates other issues, perhaps around someone’s confidence in being able to make friends or feelings of homesickness, and in rare cases, it might be the focus of a counselling meeting.”

In their first year of university, many students may feel anxious about living with a stranger for the first time.

According to Haarbosch, there are just over 3,600 students living in Carleton’s 11 residence buildings. She said only 149 students requested room changes during the fall semester last year.

“A room change may be the only solution for some,” Haarbosch said.

She added that students living in residence are expected to seek support from trained residence life staff in an effort to resolve any conflicts with their roommates before a room change is even considered.

She added that Carleton’s Department of Residence Life Services has many strategies in place to reduce roommate conflicts. Residence fellows, who are trained upper-year students, work with residence students to facilitate roommate agreements, which helps residents to set boundaries early on.

“Residents are provided with their roommates’ names and emails in mid-August if they wish to contact one another. Many do, and the ice is broken before they arrive on campus,” Haarbosch said.

Haarbosch explained that her department has seen a decrease in the number of room change requests in recent years.

“Part of the reason is because requests now open at a later date, but mainly because students are expected to try and resolve their issues, and seek assistance from residence life staff,” she said.

Not exclusive to residence students

Roommate conflicts are not exclusive to students living in residence. In fact, roommate conflicts can present themselves all throughout a student’s university career.

While some students may be successful in their searches and requests for new roommates, others are not as fortunate.

Students living in housing arrangements other than university-run housing are often unable to break out of leases, meaning they’re forced to try and work out their disagreements with their roommates. If attempts at resolving conflict are unsuccessful, students could be presented with the unfortunate reality of experiencing prolonged anxiety and stress.

Markus Williams, a third-year psychology student at Carleton, said he experienced several roommate conflicts while living in his condominium at Envie Student, an independent, off-campus residence building.

“My roommate would come into the living room, open the window, remove the screen and start smoking weed, “ he said. “I’d sit there and smell it. I kind of felt like he took the living room away from me. It was a space that I felt comfortable in, and he took it away.”

Williams said he had to overcome numerous issues with his roommate, including cleanliness, poor communication, and drug use.

“I was sleeping and I started to smell weed in my room,” he said. “I started to think, the fact that those chemicals can get into the ventilation system and go to my room, what if he’s smoking other things, what if he’s releasing other chemicals that may hurt me.”

Williams said his living arrangements caused him to feel unsafe in his own home.

“I kept thinking, what if this escalates,” he said.

Williams added that his roommate issues became so extreme that he started to worry more about his roommate than himself.

“He was so high, he couldn’t function, he couldn’t speak. He was on multiple drugs,” Williams said. “I tried to talk to him and he flipped out and started to punch the walls. I felt so unsafe in that situation. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know if he was okay.”

Williams, who identifies as gay, said he believes several of the conflicts between him and his roommate were a result of homophobia.

After multiple negative experiences, Williams said he decided to request a room change.

While Envie Student, which is owned and operated by Ashcroft Homes, has no affiliation with any of the universities or colleges in the National Capital Region, students living in the building are entitled to room changes.

The company provides residents a compatibility questionnaire similar to the one filled out by  Carleton residence students. Williams said the company marked him as compatible with his roommate, but that they were anything but.

Priya Thakkar, a third-year social work student at Carleton, said she also experienced roommate issues while living off-campus. 

“I [would] wake up to her screaming and making comments about me,” she said. “She [talked] around me and [acted] as though I [didn’t] exist. I [felt] uncomfortable every single day.”

Thakkar added that her living arrangement impacted many aspects of her life.

“I almost [felt] isolated, she [influenced our] other roommates and [persuaded] them to exclude me,” she said. “It [made] me never want to leave my room. I [avoided] eating at the same time as them. I only [dealt] with it and [tried] to be civil because we still [had] a couple months left.”

Not all roommates are bad

While Williams and Thakkar are both students that struggled with their roommate situation, others have better luck with their respective searches for roommates or housemates.

Rebecca Anderson, a third-year psychology student, said she conducted her roommate search through a Facebook ad in her second year of university.

She said she found herself a roommate who she was actually able to become friends with.

“I struck gold with that one,” she said.

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan