How Do You Deal With a Difficult Roommate?

By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.

Have you had any personal experiences in dealing with a roommate that has developed annoying habits? Most people have.  What did you do about it? This was a topic that wanted to address in their new format called, “Answers on the Street.” Their producers, who invited me to be their psychology expert for some of the episodes that were to have a human-interest focus, contacted me. I went into their studios to film the episodes on a variety of topics and this is one of them. I’ve included here the information that I provided when asked the following questions. An edited video version of the interview may be found by logging onto:

What are common annoying Roommate problems?

  • Failing to keep bedroom and common areas clean.
  • Eating your food.
  • Bringing undesirable types home.
  • Paying share of rent or utilities late or NOT paying at all.
  • Having loud sex that you can hear from every room in the apartment.
  • Giving their key to a friend who drops in uninvited.
  • Placing pictures of his/her significant other all over the apartment.
  • Walking around the house naked or in their underwear
  • Constantly borrowing things without asking and or not returning them.
  • Not giving you your telephone messages.

What should I do if my roommate is a real pain?

  • Keep the conflict amongst yourselves.  Avoid bringing others into it.
  • Talk about it.
  • Be honest with each other and speak your truth clearly and with kindness.
  • Seek an understanding and attempt to reach an agreement to work out your differences.
  • Don’t rush through the process; allow the time required to move from where you are to where you want to be.
  • Moving out.  When your best attempts to work things out are not good enough be willing to go your separate ways.  Be willing to move on with your lives.
  • Don’t be discouraged.  One bad roommate experience doesn’t mean that those that follow will also be bad.

Should I lash out?

  • Keep your cool.  Reflect on what’s bothering you and what you think would be the best way to communicate to your roommate.
  • Bare in mind that lashing out at your roommate will only put him or her on the defensive and you will likely snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Should I fight fire with fire and annoy him back?

  • No.  That will only serve to create more resentment and animosity.
  • Rarely will one take the hint from your mirroring his or her behavior. Your roommate will tend to view you as the source of the problem rather than see himself more clearly through your actions.

What is the most effective mode of communication?

  • A respectful and courteous discussion can go a long way to making peace between you and your roommate.
  • Don’t ambush your roommate.  Find a time to talk that works mutually for both of you.
  • State your case clearly and calmly.
  • It may be helpful to write a clear and nonbelligerent letter to your roommate.

How do I get my roommate to cooperate?

  • Be politely firm and commanding when requesting that the problem areas be corrected.
  • Be specific about the results that you would like to achieve.
  • Ask your roommate if he or she is clear about what you’re requesting and furthermore, willing to comply with your requests.
  • Determine the timetable through mutual agreement in which you can expect to see the changes.
  • It can be helpful to have a written set of commitments that clearly spell out your agreements.
  • Reinforce any signs of improvement and especially acknowledge your roommate when the problem has been rectified.

Give us 3 things to consider when dealing with an annoying roommate?

  • Encourage your roommate to reform his or her ways, so that you can restore harmony. This is the preferred path of least resistance.
  • Evaluate whether your roommate is motivated and willing to make the changes that you’re requesting; otherwise, seek assistance from someone who can mediate.
  • When you’re stuck with the roommate from hell that is unwilling to transform, realize that you have a right to free yourself from the misery.  Move him/her out or move on.