Tips For Living Happily With Others

By Sunday, March 17, 2013 11 0

When I googled “tips on living with others” just now, my posts from 2008 and 2009 on that topic were the first two things that came up. Given that folks seem to be coming to me for this advice, plus the fact that most of us will live with one or more others for a good (hopefully good!) part of our lives, I’ve decided it’s time to update and repost on this topic. This is part of the continuing 2013 series on how to improve our relationships with others, inspired by my December 2012 survey in which about 75% of survey-takers expressed interest in that.

Most of these tips apply to interacting with anyone we live with, whether a spouse, partner, child or housemate. The final few tips apply specifically to housemates, except for the very last tip, which applies, again, to everyone. For the record., I am in a happy, diamond-cut marriage, and we have a housemate, currently a traditional one who pays rent (rather than a gardening partner who works for rent  as we’ve had three times in the past).

Express appreciation. There is no easier, faster way to build goodwill in a home (or anywhere else) than to express appreciation. “Great dinner.” “Thanks for watering the plants.” “You look nice today!”  “I felt so happy coming home to a clean kitchen this afternoon.” “Thanks for putting those books away.”  “Nice job on the bathroom; it looks great.”  Write a note or text if you’re not present in person. Or, acknowledge him or her on Facebook. If you want harmony and kindness in your home, build a practice of expressing some kind of appreciation to whoever lives with you — every single day.

Nurture your home. Treat it like your sanctuary. For example, put food you love to eat in the kitchen, art or photographs you love to look at on the walls, soaps and towels you enjoy in the bathroom, and lovely plants or flowers in the room where you spend the most time. Doing these things will make you feel happier at home. Moreover, in the absence of these things, you will enjoy your home less, be more irritable, and be quicker to project your lack of pleasure onto your spouse, partner, or housemate. Be proactive. Make your home a place you love to inhabit.

All that said, the following is also true.

Have a life and friends outside of the house.   Bring interesting things home to talk about, whether it’s local news, what you overheard on the bus, or a funny story about what happened at work. No spouse,  house or apartment can meet all of a person’s needs. Everyone loves to have the place to themselves once in awhile, and that can happen if everyone has some outside activities. Show some interest in your housemate’s life outside the home.

If you need to get your spouse, partner or housemate to change, read this. It’s a technique that has worked quite well, in my experience.

Confine your mess to your personal space. Within your own closet, bedroom, man cave etc., your mess only affects you, assuming the door is shut. But if it’s community space (i.e. kitchen, dining room, living room, shared bathroom), clean up after yourself as if you’re being paid to do it (you essentially are, since living alone would cost you thousands more per year.) This kind of daily consideration is the biggest make-or-break issue I know of among housemates, except in the rare cases where everyone is happily sloppy in unison.

Expect to not always have your own way. This is true of life in general, and more true than ever when we live with others. Try not to keep score on how many times you compromise. The other person may be compromising much more, in ways you don’t even realize.

Consider brief texts, emails or phone calls during the work-day to deal with little living-situation things that come up.  I’m a good problem-solver during a work-day, but I do not want to go home from work to a problem. One former housemate and I would give each other a phone heads-up on the occasions we were too rushed to clean up after ourselves before leaving the house. The advance apology made the mess forgivable, rather than upsetting. Don’t let tensions build up. Rather, be proactive.

 If it’s motivating to you, remind yourself you’re being paid thousands of dollars annually to manage a living-together situation. If a housemate reduces your living expenses by $400/month, that’s $4,800/year. That’s like getting a raise at work. If finding or getting along with this person takes you 10 hours/month, remember you’re being paid $40/hour for that time.

Know and state clearly what you are seeking from the beginning. If you want a clean, tidy housemate, say so. If the housemate you are wanting to replace was rarely home and you loved that about them, volunteer that fact. If you’re a homebody who comes home from work and stays put, wear that on your sleeve.

Back when we had just one bathroom, our one-page written agreements with housemates detailed out that Thor would use the bathroom from 6:30 to 6:50 a.m. for his weekday showers. This then made for smooth early mornings. What seems awkward to discuss or write down up front can actually create smoothness in the living situation itself.

Look for a roommate experienced at living with others. A person builds their skills by having done a thing. I like to ask what a person learned from past living situations. If they’re still angry about something, I don’t consider them a good candidate. I suggest asking for references from past housemates, whether you placed the ad or are responding to the ad. I ask the references open-ended questions like, “What’s Miriam like to live with? What are your best and worst memories of her?” (Now that I think about it, those might also be good questions to ask a person’s exes before starting a relationship with him or her.)

If one situation or housemate doesn’t work out, give another a chance. Don’t jump to the conclusion that all housemates suck, or that it’s a sign you are  “built” to live alone. Different housemates yield different experiences, and even the same housemate may behave very differently when happily employed, for instance, than when unemployed or unhappily employed. If one housemate or situation doesn’t work out, get clear on why it didn’t work. Try again, making sure to create a different experience this time.

Keep your world much bigger than the walls you are sharing with one or more others. This brings perspective, and keeps us from obsessing about what happens (or fails to happen) at home. My husband and I rarely get into fights unless we are focusing tightly on each other. When we focus  outwardly, i.e. on our friends, projects, what we can do for our families of origin, the organizations we belong to, and anything else that’s not US, we don’t fight.

Over to you: what has helped you to live happily with others? Comments here.

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  • Ursala Garbrecht
    March 22, 2014

    This is a very rich article and discussion! Having lived in community with 5 others for 2.5 years, I will echo the value of appreciation. Acknowleding the contributions others make can go a long way.

    Secondly, having similar values makes a big difference in commitment to how we prioritize our household chores. In our household, it’s composting, gardening, having an inviting space for guests, etc.

    And third, similar to any other relationship, make time to enjoy each others company so that when a conflict comes up, you have something to fall back on. It’s no fun when the only interactions are negotiating when people want things done a different way. It can create tension if you only talk when you disagree. Make time for common ground to build community.

  • DJ
    September 6, 2013

    I guess I should clarify — it’s actually a “no male overnight guest” rule. Curfew is midnight, no boyfriends in the bedrooms. What you do elsewhere is your own business, but with such a large household (5), all female, and such a wide age range (20-59) it’s just a lot more peaceful to not have to worry about what guy we’ll meet in the hall on our way to the bathroom at 1:00am. We are also a pretty conservative bunch overall, so we have chosen rules that make the house a comfortable sanctuary for everyone who lives here. “The Rule” is not quite as draconian as it sounds- guests ARE allowed, but everyone else has to approve beforehand, and anyone can veto without being “the bad guy”. Family have never been nixed (even a last-minute family of 5 ), and there have been “emergency” guest without any prior notice (family issues).

    We have had problems/potential problems the past -“but everyone else already said it was OK” (none of us had), “my boyfriend is too drunk to drive home, and it’s sooo late” (um, so better get going before it gets even later, right?) & “I don’t feel safe sleeping at his house ’cause all his friends are gang-bangers, so I figured he could spend the weekend here instead!” (um, no. really. no.)

    • Alison
      September 7, 2013

      DJ, Now it all makes sense to me. I like that your house treats family guests (trusted and permanent people in our lives) differently than boyfriends/lovers. Naturally a house would have boundaries around the latter. Congratulations on having a long-term, successful shared home. Thanks for giving us such a full, detailed picture of the structure that’s helped it to succeed. Different details and structure would work for other shared houses. The point, to me, is to share homes and other resources so that we’re treading more lightly on the earth, and building community and connectedness instead of separateness and isolation, the latter being common forms of suffering these days in the ‘developed’ world.

  • DJ
    September 5, 2013

    So, as a very long-term “roomie” in a larger house (12 yrs, 5 roomie household) I can offer some “communal living” suggestions.
    1) Make sure that everyone is on basically the same page for the things that matter most to them. Talk about them up front when interviewing (ie we have a no overnight guest rule, I’ve known other households that had a no meat in the house rule).
    2) CHORES.
    a. Several years ago we hit on a time-based system. If something is bugging you, you clean it. Write down your time.
    b. Chores part II - (the part where we figured out how to make it stick)….. In our household everyone “owes” the house 1/2 hr per week of chore time for the public space. What we had found was that in a Coop situation it was really hard to “make” another (equal) adult do something. Life happens. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand social obligation of doing their fair share (the thought process for this varies). We did figure out that most people understand owing money.
    Our solution; If you do NOT do chores you can
    “cash out” at $15/hr for your undone chore time. If the money is in the kitty, anyone (including the original lagger) can “cash in” at $15/hr for house-cleaning.
    There of course have been some tweaks (washing your own dog is not a “household” chore, if you make a mess cooking cleaning up after yourself isn’t household chore time). The system does depend on honesty (ie a list of “chores done” appears when no one else is home, but the house is no cleaner & the person is never seen cleaning….these roommates are usually already a problem).

    3) Background checks. You may be fine having someone move in who has a bankruptcy, charge-offs & a felony drug conviction, but you should know it ahead of time, right? MySmart has a nice system that has worked well for us.

    4) Bathrooms. We have the luxury of 3 bathrooms. Matching up partners who have different schedules, but similar cleanliness makes for a smoother household.

    5) Ask their pet peeves, and what other roomies complaints have been during the interview (roomie who is a social worker came up with this one on the interview worksheet). Most fun was when back-to-back interviews for two open rooms came up with one girl whose most annoying habit was putting hair on the wall while she was showering (to keep it from getting caught in the drain), and the next whose pet peeve was hair on the shower wall. We ended up with both as roomies (who became best friends), but we put them in different bathrooms!

    4)Respect everyone. Household meetings to keep minor issues minor.

    5) As listed by Alison, when someone does something that annoys you just remind yourself…”dirt cheap rent in a great neighborhood, utilities divided by 5…”

    • Alison
      September 6, 2013

      DJ, I’m impressed! You and your house sound like you’ve really got it down on how people can live fairly and harmoniously together.

      The only item that surprised me was the rule of no overnight guests. It seems so normal to need and want to have overnight guests, whether family/friends visiting from out of town, or a boyfriend/girlfriend spending the night at times. It makes me wonder: was this rule inspired by a situation where the bf/gf sleepover privilege got abused and turned into a whole new non-paying housemate? In my home, guests can sleep over. It has happened just occasionally and never been a problem.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. Great stuff.

  • Tess Giles Marshall
    March 20, 2013

    Great tips here, I especially like the one about specifying bathroom times. If I every shared space with someone again I’d do that, and if I have someone to stay for the weekend I do tend to make suggestions for when they might expect breakfast! (I’ve many times spent time as a guest in someone’s home if I don’t know them that well, listening for footsteps to let me know when they’re up and about and it would be polite to show my face.)
    And expressing appreciation - yes absolutely, and too seldom. You’ve prompted a resolution from me on that.

    • Alison
      March 20, 2013

      I’m honored to have prompted a resolution from you, Tess.
      Hm, bathrooms can be a fairly big deal. I grew up with one bathroom for the five of us. It always worked out, somehow. Once in awhile I peed in the backyard. This did not scar me.

  • allison
    March 18, 2013

    Oh boy. I need to print this one out. I’d hate to tell you how many of these tips I needed to read today. Cyber-spanking.
    Thanks Ali.

    • Alison
      March 19, 2013

      Allison, I’m glad to hear you think these are useful, and tickled to hear of the phrase ‘cyber-spanking’. I never intended to administer one to anybody . . . but what a playful phrase.

  • GrnPwrGuy
    March 18, 2013

    Great overview of the way we live our married life. As someone who lived alone for most all of my adult life, the transition to having a roomate was amazingly easy.

    • Alison
      March 19, 2013

      Um, I remember the transition of my moving in with you in 2003 as being pretty challenging for both of us, actually :)