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Students, experts share tips and stories about roommate conflict

Submitted by Sarah DeClerk on November 6, 2013 – 5:49 pmNo Comment

illustration by Logan Sturgill

For many freshmen, living in dorms is their first experience sharing a room with someone else. While living with a roommate has its benefits, sharing such a small space with another person can be onerous. In close quarters, some boundary disputes are inevitable.

Even best friends can get on each other’s nerves when their sharing a tight space. Jordan Anderson, a junior music major, said things started to get tense when his best friend became his roommate.

“Going in, I was super pumped,” he said. It was not long before they started to aggravate each other, however. Anderson said they would have disputes when one of them wanted to play loud music while the other one wanted to study. Instead of talking it out, he said, they would throw things at each other. Even insignificant habits, like leaving the cover off a toothbrush, would cause friction.

“Small things start to drive you nuts,” Anderson said. “For a while I hated it, before I realized I could get up and go out to other people’s places. I spent all my time in the room with him.”

Eventually the two managed to talk out some of their problems. Anderson said he wanted to work it out; he wanted to keep his best friend. If he had been living with a stranger, he said, he might have just moved out.

“It’s going to happen every time,” said Mason Qualls, a senior double-majoring in history and biology. “Even if it’s a really good friend, it’s a different situation living with them. They’ll have habits you didn’t know about…little things come to the surface when you live with friends.”

Qualls said he had come across problems like keeping items on one side of the room, conflicting sleep schedules and having one roommate bring guests over when the other is trying to study. Communication is the key to resolving those disputes, he said.

“If you are already having some problems, have a frank discussion with them. You have to live together at least a few months, so you need to address those problems.”

“The worst thing you can do is try to get back at them or find other ways to take away from their living situation. That’s not an adult way to handle it,” he said.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen is timeliness. Respect my sleep time,” said Jimmy Johnson, a junior business finance major who has been a resident assistant in West Hall for more than a year. “As little sleep as freshmen do get, they cherish their sleep.”

Seeing the same person every day can get annoying, he said, and some freshmen are not used to sharing a small space. He said guests, can be a problem, but usually they spend their time playing video games in the common area or just stop by and leave again. Most of the time, he said, residents are able to solve their own disagreements.

“They do a good job compromising and working things out themselves,” he said. In fact, he added, space disputes are not the main reason people change roommates; room changes usually occur when people buddy up and decide to be roommates.

“That’s the environment we try to create,” he said. “We want everyone to respect one another. We want them to know their roommate’s schedule.”

This year, resident assistants had students fill out roommate contracts with their roommates when they started living together. The contracts cover things like items that can and cannot be shared and quiet hours. Qualls said the contracts are a good idea, though he doubts that most people take them seriously.

Johnson said if students are having problems with their roommates about it, they should first bring it up with them – politely. If the problem continues, they should go to an RA, who can mediate the situation. If all else fails, the RA might suggest a roommate swap.

illustration by Logan Sturgill

“There are some conflicts you can prevent, of course, but the issue about conflicts is that they usually require some kind of external factor…that is going to trigger a conflict,” said Charlie Simpson, a marriage counselor who earned his master’s degree in psychology from UALR in 2005.

Simpson said he analyzes peoples’ emotional states during a conflict. Healthy moods make people more likely to handle conflict in a positive way.

When people first live together, they are optimistic, but they become more sensitive as boundaries are continuously breached. Sometimes people may already be sensitive to some triggers, like a student whose siblings violated his or her personal space back home.

It is important to identify triggers and determine why they cause tension, Simpson said. Then, students can find positive ways to deal with the issue when it comes up. Students cannot always control what happens to them, but they can control how they react.

“It’s important to control what you can, and that is yourself. If you are able to apply that, then you have a lot more positive outcomes,” Simpson said.

Although students can accept some problems, acceptance is not the solution if it leads to passive aggressiveness or stress. Setting boundaries, determining a plan of action if those boundaries are breached and following through on that action is a good way to deal with disputes, Simpson said. For example, if a roommate is eating your food without permission, tell them not to. If they keep doing it, tell them you will lock the fridge if they do not stop. If they continue anyway, lock the fridge.

Even if a conflict cannot be resolved, people can handle it without throwing things at each other. “The ultimate goal in a conflict is to have a healthy dialogue,” Simpson said. “Even though the conflict is not resolved, you are able to walk away not angry at each other.”

College is unlikely to be the last time students live with other people. They may go on to have more roommates, spouses or families. That is why it is important to learn to overcome conflict early on, Simpson said.

Ideally, he said, people learn conflict resolution skills in childhood, but many learn to shutdown, criticize or become sarcastic instead. If students understand their triggers and how they deal with conflict in college, they will take that knowledge with them later in life.

“The earlier the better, because then they don’t have to go through that trial-and-error period,” Simpson said. “It’s just important to understand your style.”

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