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XOMU: Boundaries with roommates, for back-to-school
Setting and holding boundaries with roommates, just in time for college
This is a special bonus chapter from The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free. Read or listen today and choose from 130+ scripts to help you set and hold boundaries in all of your relationships, from work to family, friends to romantic partners.
I’ve had just one roommate in my adult life—a good friend named Mark, who shared my two-bedroom apartment for about a year when I was fresh out of rehab for my drug addiction. Mark and I met through my old job and, though he was ten years younger than me, we got along really well. He was smart, funny, and responsible, and I looked after him like a big sister would. He needed a place to live and I had an extra bedroom, so he moved into my apartment.
While we were great friends, we were also very different people. I was new to sobriety and deeply committed to my healthy eating plan, going to bed early, waking up at 5 A.M. to hit the gym, and excelling at my new corporate job. Mark was in his early 20s with a big friend group, a diet that consisted largely of soda and fast food, a willingness to party any night of the week, and a bedtime that occasionally overlapped with my alarm going off. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but by then I was really good at setting and holding boundaries, and that’s what made our cohabitation so successful.
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The first boundary I set with Mark was around having drugs (or people doing drugs) in the apartment. He smoked pot occasionally, as did his friends, so my boundary was, “my apartment is a pot-free environment.” If he and his friends wanted to party hard, they did it elsewhere, although I was fine with him having people over to have some drinks and watch the game. I also told him not to invite anyone he didn’t know well into the house—“friends of friends” posed too much risk. He knew how important these limits were to my recovery, so I didn’t have to ask him twice.
If he had people over or came home late, I also asked that things stay quiet(ish) after 10 P.M. (I invested in a white noise machine too.) At the same time, I’d get my gym and work stuff ready at night, so I didn’t have to clomp around the house early in the morning and disturb him. And if he had friends over for Sunday football and I found the environment too rowdy, I’d simply go upstairs and close my door or head out for a few hours.
Mark and I happily cohabitated until I decided to move to be closer to my job, and I can honestly say that year was one of the most peaceful, happy, and restorative times in my life. You do not have to be best friends with your roommates; you can just peacefully coexist, if that’s how you want it to work. But clear communication, thoughtfully established boundaries, and mutual respect are necessary to make any cohabitation situation pleasant and rewarding for everyone. If you hope to have a successful roommate experience, whether you’re heading off to college, moving to a new city, leaving your parent’s house, or moving in with your bestie, the key is boundaries.
Live, laugh, boundaries
Your roommate could be your best friend, a coworker, a casual acquaintance, or a total stranger who responded to your Craigslist ad, which is part of what makes this relationship (and boundary-setting) tricky. First, remember that boundaries aren’t about controlling someone else’s behavior, only establishing a limit for yourself and explaining how you will behave. One limit for your mental health may be, “I don’t want to wake up to a messy kitchen,” but if your roommate regularly eats late at night and leaves the dishes in the sink, that’s a hard boundary for you to hold, unless you commit to cleaning the kitchen every morning for your own benefit. Even if you do hold your own boundary here, that can lead to unhealthy feelings of resentment, which can take a toll on your relationship.
In addition, you may not be prepared or able to impose the ultimate consequence of a disrespected limit: ending your lease, moving out, or forcing a bad roommate to leave. That would be your ultimate boundary: “If you won’t respect my healthy limits, I’m going to remove myself from the situation.” While removing yourself could look like storing food in a mini-fridge in your own room or placing a lock on your bedroom door, you can’t always just up and move.
Let’s not jump to the worst-case scenario just yet, though. As you’ll read in The Book of Boundaries, always go into boundary conversations expecting the best. Assume that your conversation partner wants to be a good roommate and respect your limits, and just needs to know where they are and how to do so.
As with many boundary issues, establishing healthy limits starts with a conversation. Sit down during a relaxed period and ask if you can have a collaborative discussion about household expectations. Ideally, you should do this before you move in together (and before any boundary issues arise), but it’s never too late. Especially when your stovetop looks like it’s been raining ramen noodles.
Tips for boundaries with roommates
When I’ve talked to my community about roommate issues, tidiness and cleanliness is the number-one complaint, but there are a lot of things that could come up when you’re living with someone else. Here are some questions to ask yourself and each other during your “household expectations” discussion to make your shared space more peaceful, comfortable, and conflict-free.
TIDINESS AND CLEANLINESS. How neat do you each like to keep your space? Are you a “keep it clean” person who wants to go to bed with surfaces gleaming, while they are unbothered by laundry sitting on the couch for three days? Do you need to leave things by the door for your ADHD, but your roomie is always putting them away?
AREAS OF CONCERN. Are there particular areas of the house you each pay special attention to, or that impact your mood or productivity? Maybe your roommate doesn’t care if the shared bathroom is messy as long as the kitchen stays clean, or they love a tidy living room, but will happily let the dishes pile up. You want to know these things in advance of living together.
SHARED BILLS. Do you each pay your share or is someone reimbursed? Can payments be automated? What about the heating bill, when one of you likes the thermostat set to 72 in the winter? Is there a “slush fund” for accidents or broken things?
SHARING AND BORROWING. If your roommate buys milk, can you have some (as long as you don’t finish it without replacing it), or are they going to put sticky notes on everything in the fridge that is “theirs”? If you need an umbrella, can you grab theirs? Do you mind if they read your books or borrow your toothpaste?
GUESTS. Do you need to ask permission, or at least let each other know before someone stays with you? Is there a limit as to how long people can stay or where they can sleep? Can your roommate host small gatherings or large parties if you’re not home? Can their guests sleep in your bed if you’re not around?
SIGNIFICANT OTHERS. Can your roommate’s partner crash at your place every night? Can you and your partner take over the couch for movie nights every Friday? Can you or your roommate’s partner make dinner, do laundry, or work from your home?
PRIVACY. Are you allowed in each other’s rooms, can you use each other’s laptops, and can your roommate come into the bathroom while you’re showering just to grab something?
SOCIALIZING. Does your roommate need quiet time after work or early in the morning, or are they hoping you’ll eat meals together every day? Do they want to be friends, or are they more comfortable being polite but distant roommates? Do they want you to watch TV with them, join them on runs, or meet their guests?
SLEEP AND SCHEDULES. Can your roommate come home late as long as they’re quiet, or would they rather you not play music or turn on the TV before 8 AM? Do you have rules about how loud music can be, or when they can play their guitar?
SPACE AND DECOR. Can your roommate leave their exercise bike in the living room? Can you hang your art on the walls? How do you handle a difference in style preferences, or the number of plants, or their comic book collection?
HOUSE RULES. How do you feel about incense or strong candles? Can you drink or smoke pot in the apartment? Are shoes left at the door? What are the min and max temps for heat or air conditioning? Think about the general rules that you can establish to help make living together more comfortable.
Having these conversations before moving in together is super helpful in making sure someone is the right roommate for you. Or, if they’re already on the lease (or if your roommate was assigned to you), try to have these conversations as soon as possible, so that you can anticipate challenging situations before they arise.
Nothing fuels roommate drama like differing takes on what constitutes “a mess.” As this issue comes up the most with roommates, I advise that you decide together how to split up household tasks and recognize that you can do it any way you want! Some people like to decide that, instead of each being responsible for their own dishes, one of you could handle all the dishes, while the other person does all the laundry or takes out all the trash and recycling. Or you and your roommate could commit to one hour a week where you clean your shared space together, making it a routine and using it as bonding time (or not—what really matters is the house gets cleaned). You could also pool your funds and spring for a cleaning person once a month or every other week so you don’t have to rock-paper-scissors over who scrubs the bathroom. The most important thing is to have a clear conversation in advance so that you don’t end up resenting the person you live with.
If you do find a roommate overstepping your boundaries in any of the areas I’ve described, initiate another conversation after a bit of distance from the boundary violation, when your roommate is less likely to feel attacked or defensive. (Don’t wait too long, or they may forget it even happened. Bringing it up a few hours later or the next day usually works.) It may also be better received if you’re out of the apartment altogether; go for a walk, meet for dinner, or invite your roommate to coffee for a chat. Remember that you both have a wish-list, so don’t just focus on what you want. For every discussion topic you open, also ask your roommate, “What would you like to see here?” or “Now what could I do that would make our shared space more comfortable for you?”
Stick to factual statements in these conversations, not judgments. Try, “I noticed the dishes were in the sink this morning” instead of “You never clean up after yourself.” Have a specific ask in mind, like, “Would you be willing to stick them right in the dishwasher instead? That way, we can make breakfast and coffee in the morning without having to work around them.” (Remember, your ask can be anything that works for both of you—if this is a pattern and dishes in the sink really bother you, maybe that becomes your job, and they pick up another household task.) Another pro tip that I learned from a parenting book—make sure to notice when they do make the effort! Go out of your way to say, “Thanks for running the dishwasher last night,” or “Waking up to a clean kitchen makes me so happy—thank you for making the effort here.”
Finally, it’s likely you’ll both have to pick your battles and compromise to have a truly healthy roommate relationship. If your roommate is respectful of your things, keeps the kitchen clean, and only practices their oboe when you’re not home, you can handle moving their jacket from the dining room chair to the closet a few times a week.
Roommate boundary scenarios with scripts
Roommates need healthy boundaries to coexist peacefully, but, more often than not, we find ourselves living with people who haven’t set boundaries in the past, or who aren’t used to receiving them. You should feel comfortable saying to a roommate, “I like to establish boundaries as healthy ground rules we both agree to in order to keep respect high and conflict low.” Set the tone by having some “getting to know you” conversations, even if you’ve been living together for a while. It’s likely you’ll learn something new about what your roommate values and appreciates, which sets you up for cohabitating success.
For each of the scripts below, your boundary responses will be categorized into a color-coded system: Green, Yellow, and Red. As I explain in The Book of Boundaries, each category represents the level of threat that stems from the boundary violation you’re facing. The threat could be to your health or safety, or it could be to your emotional or mental state. The threat could also be to your relationship: If this behavior continues, is the good relationship you have with this person in jeopardy?
If the threat is minimal at this point—if the other person’s behavior is not okay, but it’s the first time this has come up, or if their behavior is not hugely harmful, you’re in Green territory, and the language you use to establish the boundary should acknowledge that. But if the threat to your relationship is imminent—as in, “If you bring drugs into the house again, I’m canceling our lease”—you’re in the Red, and your boundary language and consequences should reflect that, too.
GREEN: Low risk, and the gentlest language. Assumes the other person wasn’t aware they were overstepping and wants to respect your limits. Your boundary language is clear, generous, and very kind. Leaves any potential consequences unsaid in the spirit of good faith.
YELLOW: Elevated risk and firmer language. Used as a follow-up if your Green boundary isn’t respected, or if historical interactions with this person indicate the threat is higher. Your boundary language is just as clear, but more firm.
RED: Severe risk, and your most direct language. At this point, your health, safety, and/or the relationship are in jeopardy, and your language must reflect the severity of the situation. It’s still kind, but this is the last reminder you will issue, and your language makes it clear that you are prepared to hold your limits. State the consequences of their actions plainly and be ready to enforce them.
My roommate and I often share food, but he’s terrible about replacing something if he’s used the last of it (sometimes he doesn’t even tell me he’s used something up, so I don’t know I need to get more until it’s too late). Either he starts being more considerate, or my eggs are off-limits. Help?
GREEN: “Hey, you used the last of the eggs again. If you finish something, can you make a note and leave it on the fridge, so I know to replace it?”
YELLOW: “Dude, I’m going to start hiding my eggs if you can’t be more considerate. If you use the last of something, replace it.”
RED: Buy yourself a small fridge for your room and keep things you don’t want to share in there.
You could also ask your roommate to add eggs to every Instacart order (or pick some up every time he goes to the store) because “we go through it so fast,” or tack $50 onto his rent bill to cover the food he’s taken. If adding a mini-fridge isn’t an option, consider storing a few key items in a stapled brown paper bag in the fridge, so it’ll be obvious if it’s opened.
I let my roommate borrow a sweater once, and now I’ve discovered she’s borrowed other clothes without asking. She takes good care of them (and will even dry-clean them after wearing it) but that’s not the point. What can I say to her about this?
GREEN: “Please ask before going into my closet. I don’t want you borrowing things without my knowing.”
YELLOW: “I’d rather you not borrow my clothes anymore. Thanks for respecting that.”
RED: “Please stop going into my bedroom. That space is off-limits.”
Installing a lock on your bedroom door or a camera in your room should be a last resort—you need to be able to trust your roommate. Keeping your bedroom door closed sends a strong “do not enter” message that, along with the Red boundary, should do the trick.
My roommate is SO opinionated when it comes to my dating life. The other day he asked me to open my Tinder so he can weigh in on who I swipe, and if I have someone over that he doesn’t approve of, I’ll hear about it for days. I need a nice way to say, “Mind your own business.”
GREEN: “Oh, let me stop you there—I’m still deciding how I feel about this one, so please keep your opinions to yourself. If I want to know what you think, I’ll ask.”
YELLOW: “Stop commenting on my dates—it’s not helpful, and I don’t want your input.”
RED: “Stop. My dating life is not your business from here on out.”
To make this easier, stop talking to your roommate about potential dates or people you’re interested in, and don’t introduce him to anyone until you know how you feel first.
My roommate’s boyfriend is always sleeping at our place. I understand that they want to spend the night together, but I don’t appreciate that this man eats all our food, uses all our hot water, and parks himself on our couch late into the night, even after my roommate (his boyfriend) has gone to sleep. How do I approach this with my roommate?
GREEN: “Jay, can we set some ground rules for when Nick comes over? I’d love for him to contribute to pizza and coffee since he’s eating with us and could you please ask him to keep his showers shorter so we don’t run out of hot water?”
YELLOW: “I’m feeling overwhelmed with the way Nick is spending time here, and it’s impacting how I feel in my own apartment. For my mental health, I need three nights a week when he’s not here.”
RED: “Jay, I didn’t agree to adding a third roommate. You and Nick have to figure out how to give me more space here, or we’ll have to find different arrangements.”
Have this conversation with yourself first: What limits do I need to feel safe and healthy? If you don’t mind Nick being there as long as he contributes financially and to household chores, that’s one conversation. If his constant presence is making you feel claustrophobic and anxious, that’s another. Getting clear here about your own needs will help you establish limits that actually improve the relationship—not only with your roommate, but also with his boyfriend.
My roommate always wants to talk if we’re home together, but I’m a serious introvert and I use my home as a quiet space to recharge. I don’t need total silence, but I don’t always want to sit down at the kitchen table and chat. How can I say this nicely?
GREEN: “I can’t chat right now—I’m totally drained from my day and desperate to recharge with some alone time. Can we catch up later?”
YELLOW: (as you get home) “Hey, hope you had a good day! I’m gonna hang in my room for the night.”
RED: Come home, say hello, and head straight to your room.
Heads up, this scenario is a recipe for disaster if your roommate doesn’t know you’re an introvert, or what that means—without a conversation up front, it can look like you’re avoiding them, don’t like them, or that you’re just rude. Have a direct conversation with your roommate about what it means to be an introvert, where you draw your energy from (being alone), where your energy gets depleted (work, being out in public, socializing), and what it means when you ask for alone time. Be direct about your preferences and make sure it’s clear this is about you, not your roommate. Bonus: When you do have capacity, seek your roommate out for a catch-up or to ask about their day.
Loving the limits that set you free
When my now-husband Brandon moved in with me and my son in 2020, I realized I was basically getting a roommate again. I had lived by myself for five years (plus a tiny human half-time), and having to rearrange closet space, share food, make room for all of his workout equipment in the garage, and figure out how to divide up household responsibilities proved just as challenging as it would with any other roommate. (Perhaps more so, because once we were married, “breaking the lease” wasn’t an option.)
We had many of the same boundary conversations as I did with my roommate Mark—who was going to do the dishes? (Me, because I don’t mind doing them, and a clean kitchen is like my mental health lynchpin.) Who was going to buy the groceries? (Him, but I’d throw whatever I needed on a list.) Who ate all of my mini-peanut butter cups? (He did, repeatedly, so I began buying them for myself and hiding them in my office. Those are some Fuchsia-level boundaries right there.)
He also had to set boundaries with my son. I didn’t mind when my then-7-year-old barged into our bedroom in the morning without knocking, but Brandon did, so we had to establish that boundary. He also told my son that his office (full of camera and video gear) was off-limits, and that Brandon’s XBOX wasn’t to be played without permission.
My point is, if you go back and reread this entire chapter, everything here applies to a romantic partnership too. Not only are you merging your hearts and lives, you’re also going about the very practical task of merging households, habits, routines, and preferences. Having these same expectation-setting conversations, setting these same kinds of boundaries, and continuing to ask each other how you can best contribute to a happy, productive, peaceful household may be the best housewarming gift you can give each other.
Read or listen to The Book of Boundaries now. Learn to set and hold boundaries in all of your relationships—including with yourself—and put an end to anxiety, resentment, and burnout.
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