Sharing space can be a wonderful first step to independent living. It can be a great way to save money and share the responsibilities of running a home. But it can also be stressful. Sharing a place means paying bills (on time!), doing chores reliably and being considerate of the other guy. Not everyone has the same standards or expectations. Not everyone takes to it naturally. Not everyone is prepared to make the compromises that living with other people requires. When housemates have different ideas about what sharing their lives and the bathroom means, tempers, and relationships, can be lost.
Living as I do in a college town, the stress of living with housemates brings a fair number of young adults to my door. Some are bewildered. “What happened?” they ask. “I thought we’d never have a problem we couldn’t solve.” Some are heartbroken. “How could my friend be that way? I thought we were friends.” Some are outraged. “He or she is unfair, unreasonable, and ridiculous! I don’t know what I saw in them.” Almost all are sure it’s the other person’s fault. By the time they get to me, it’s difficult to repair the friendship. Sometimes the best we can do is help the person sitting there in righteous indignation consider that maybe he or she did have something to do with it and could learn from it.
You know what they say about an ounce of prevention. Friendships can last with an investment in some serious personal reflection and upfront conversations. Making the transition from friend to friend-and-housemate requires thought and attention.
So let’s back up a bit. Before signing a lease with your best bud, consider whether it’s really the best thing to do at this time with this person.
Step 1: Look at yourself. Have you ever had to share space in a meaningful way? If you’ve always had the privilege of having your own room, you may not be prepared for what it means to share one – or even to share an apartment. If you have very strong needs for privacy or control, are you comfortable with giving up a fair amount of both? These are important skills to learn, especially if you hope to marry and share a home someday. The question is whether you are willing to work on it now. Housemates are less forgiving than mates.
- Do you have “issues”? If you have a diagnosed mental illness such as significant OCD, depression, bipolar, or borderline personality disorder, you may be able to manage it well enough that your friends aren’t affected all that much by it. Maybe you keep to yourself when you feel your worst. Maybe you have ways to cope that get you through an evening or a day. But when we live with other people, they see all of us. It’s only fair to ask yourself if you want to be that exposed. It’s only fair to your prospective housemates to let them know ahead of time what it’s like to deal with you and what they should do in the times when your ability to cope is overwhelmed by your illness.
- Do you deal with conflict calmly and productively? Conflicts are inevitable when people live together. People who stubbornly insist on their “right” to have things go their way are doomed to making themselves and their housemates unhappy. People who give in all the time in the name of keeping the peace often end up resentful. If you tend to either extreme, it’s important to think about whether you are prepared to make some changes in your approach to conflict in order to preserve your relationships.
Step 2: Look clearly at the other person. Charming, wonderful friends don’t necessarily make good housemates. What you look for in someone to hang out with is different than what’s important in someone you live with. Can you count on your friend to be responsible about paying bills on time? A friend who is always short of cash isn’t likely to have the money to pay the rent or keep the cable on. Do you have similar standards for neatness? You may be able to stay out of someone’s sloppy room in the dorm but that same mess is likely to migrate to the living room and kitchen in an apartment. Are you okay with that? Or if you’re, shall we say, casual about such things as cleaning the bathroom, are you sure your friend has a similar tolerance for the ring in the tub and the toilet?
- Does your friend have “issues”? If your prospective housemate has a diagnosed mental illness — or even less-than-charming quirks — do you think you can handle a daily dose of it during bad times? It’s one thing to be a supportive friend. You can take a break from his or her problem by going home. That’s not so if “home” is a place you share. The issues have taken up residence with you.
- Does your friend know how to deal with conflict? Is he or she able to compromise? If he or she is a “my way or the highway” kind of person, rethink signing the lease. You’ll be signing on to living by his or her rules. If you know from experience that your friend will simmer with resentment and give up a friendship rather than deal with a problem, it’s likely that’s the treatment you’ll get the first time there’s a major disagreement. Think about it.
Step 3: Talk out ground rules ahead of time. Often enough, the seeds of problems are in the original agreement – or lack of agreement – about what sharing a household means. The group figures that of course everyone knows what they’re getting into and that friendship will see them through. It won’t. Being friends is one thing. Sharing bills and chores and deciding on ground rules for daily living is something friendship alone doesn’t require.
Talking things through up front and in detail can prevent a whole lot of grief. If people don’t want to talk about it, it’s already a red flag. People who aren’t willing to negotiate the terms of being housemates are often the same people who aren’t able or willing to work things through when there is a problem that needs to be solved.
When a group is able to meet a few times to really work through what they expect of themselves and others, they establish a new level of respect and mutual support that will be carried into their living situation. Such friendships are enhanced and deepened by the experience of sharing their space and their lives for awhile.