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.
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.