To Build a Home

The importance of setting a foundation for open communication
APR 2020
Rumya
R.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

When you introduce two people to one another, you often contextualize who that person is to you. The words we use to categorize these people are sometimes simple, but sometimes people fill more than one role in your life. For example, your mother may also be your dental hygienist but you’re probably going to introduce her as your mother first before introducing her as your dental hygienist. This decision of what relationship we highlight is often so natural, no one gives it a second thought. But, one relationship that isn’t so black and white is that between roommates. You see, a roommate can either be a stranger that you simply share a roof and, if you’re lucky, an in unit washer dryer with, or they can be so much more. And simple, clear communication can make up that entire difference.

To me, a roommate has (almost) always been the latter. I grew up an only child which meant that I rarely had to share anything. That led to its own set of issues, but we’ll unpack that in a separate blog post, or with my therapist… But unlike most only children, I was thrilled about getting the chance to share EVERYTHING with my unsuspecting, randomly selected college roommate. My college roommate, on the other hand, grew up with an older brother and was excited to embrace her independence in college. Our different roommate approaches resulted in several icy exchanges early in our roommate relationship where I would often borrow her things without asking and she would respond passive aggressively.

One particular evening, I decided to ask if I had done something to upset her. But this time, when she inevitably denied being upset, I pressed a little further and allowed myself to be vulnerable to invite her to open up. I told her how I had always wanted a roommate and how I felt like sharing a space with someone was something I had always looked forward to; sometimes, however, I didn’t realize that the things I did overstepped boundaries because I didn’t grow up having to establish those boundaries. In return, my roommate immediately shared stories about her upbringing, personality differences and most crucially, the fact that it annoyed her that I didn’t always ask before borrowing things. We resolved then to always talk about how we were feeling and be candid about how to improve communication with one another.

We lived together for the next three years. This past fall, I went to her brother’s wedding and I already know who the maid of honor at mine will be.

My very first roommate taught me the importance of communication in having a deep meaningful roommate relationship. So, I felt totally prepared when it was time to graduate, become an adult and find my very own apartment to live in for graduate school. There was just one problem. I had no idea where to start in trying to find an apartment. My best friend from day 1 of MIT, Emma, and I set out on every apartment rental site we could find, apartments.com, zillow.com, rentme.net, realtorsrealtorsrealtors.org, thesearentrealsitesanymore.edu. Basically, if you could google it, Emma and I had scoured it for budget friendly, two bedroom apartments.

After three weeks of RELENTLESS searching, we found the perfect place. There was just one catch: it was a four bedroom place, which meant we had to find two new roommates and we had to find them fast. The very next day, I was complaining to a friend of mine in class about the conundrum I’d found myself in, when the guy in front of me turned around and offered himself as a roommate candidate. To my surprise (and my friends’ and his and honestly everyone’s), I accepted without hesitation. We were, after all, desperate. I nervously texted Emma that I had accidentally found us a third roommate and, virtually at the same time, she texted me about a potential fourth roommate. Somehow, by the end of the day, we had stuck together a motley crew of misfits worthy of a Breakfast Club remake and were ready to sign a lease.

That motley crew, after just a year, ended up becoming my closest friends, my confidants and sounding boards, my harshest critics and my strongest advocates. Above all else, my roommates became my family. This meant they often got on my nerves (and quickly knew my pet peeves better than anyone else) but it also meant we learned to work through conflicts better and developed a communication style that was direct, but respectful.

But all good things must eventually come to an end. The two roommates Emma and I had found moved out to pursue graduate school across the country — and just like that, the dream team was broken up. We began the hunt to fill the two rooms and managed to find two new roommates. One of them was kind, gregarious and meticulously neat. And the other... well, the other roommate...

Our new fourth roommate was passive aggressive, uncommunicative and avoidant of conflict. Having a hostile roommate made for a whole host of problems I never imagined possible. Among these was the suspicious disappearance of kitchen utensils and board games and the greatest theft of Indian spices since British colonialism. I began spending more and more time in the lab, and when I got home, I would recede into my room. At first, I didn’t understand what was wrong. I loved my other roommates and sure, I wasn’t on the greatest terms with my fourth roommate but he wasn’t so bad that I needed to isolate myself. Then, I realized: the less open we feel in our homes, the less time we elect to spend there. No matter how many times we confronted our roommate about the missing items, even ones that we explicitly saw him stash away, he continued to deny and avoid conflict. Creating a home isn’t simply about budgets, bedrooms and checking off boxes. It’s about creating a safe space where everyone feels comfortable voicing their thoughts and feeling heard.

I don’t necessarily recommend doing your roommate hunting in the backs of classrooms but I am advocating for establishing clear communication and expectations with your roommates, whether you’ve known them for 5 years or 5 minutes. However, sometimes, no matter how hard you try to establish honest communication, it won’t work out. And that’s okay. But after trying, don’t be afraid to move on and move out. After all, having a good communicative relationship with your roommates can make the difference between coming back to a house, and coming back to a home.