When you decide to live with roommates, you never know how things are going to end up. It’s not uncommon to hear of people who move in with strangers and break the lease as best friends, or sisters who end up as mortal enemies after a 6-month sublet situation. There are tons of reasons you can or cannot live with someone, but a new study suggests that there’s a very simple reason you can’t get along with your roommates: We’re not being as empathetic as we could be.
Hey, it’s hard to care how your roomie feels when she hasn’t taken out the trash *once* in the last three months and insists on having her girlfriend basically move in with you.
Sometimes, when we’re peeved about something our roommates have done, we stop being polite, too. Then it just all falls apart.
But researchers at New York University found that if we were just a better judge of how people are really feeling, we might be able to stop things from turning too hostile, or worse, start leaving condescending Post-It notes to communicate with each other. That’s never a good sign.
The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, looked at just under a hundred pairs of same-sex roommates in the university’s dorms, comprised of Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, and biracial students.
The study surveyed the students two times during the academic year in February and April, asking each roomie to report their current distress level and the perceived distress level in their roommate. Because these students were just human beings with midterms, trying to live their best life in a New York winter, they weren’t trained to spot signs of distress. Turns out, this leads to dramatically underestimating the distress levels of their roommates, which can lead to problems. If you think your roommate is just sort of annoyed that you’ve been too busy to clean the bathroom recently, she might be a lot more pissed and not saying anything. Likewise, the more you put on a smile and shrug something that bothers you off, your roommate is assuming that everything’s gravy when really, you’d like to drown her in some.
Of course, having empathy and knowing how to communicate is essential for any relationship, but it seems to be especially hard for college kids forced to live together. And having lived with roommates long after college, there’s something to be said for how living with someone will change your routine. You want to be considerate, but you also have to live your life, and finding that balance is never easy. A roommate is never just a roommate — you’re essentially in a relationship with them.
The research found that roommates not only drastically underestimated their roommates’ feelings, but they just assumed that the person was feeling the same way they were. That’s a dangerous combination. Lead researcher Patrick Shrout, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology, said in a statement accompanying the study, “College students can detect certain levels of distress in their roommates and spot changes over the course of a semester, but they nonetheless underestimate the absolute level of distress.”
For the purpose of this study, the researchers recommended other ways to “train” college students going into roommate situations to better spot signs of distress, but that’s just teaching basically teaching some plain and simple empathy. You know, like being able to hear someone complain about how your showers are too long and not immediately getting defensive, admitting that they may or may not have a point, and figuring out a way to make everyone’s life easier.
We don’t always pick our roommates. It’s one thing to move in with a sibling or bestie and already have that foundation set, so you know when they’re secretly upset about something else that problems at home can exacerbate. It’s harder when you move in with relative strangers and try to set a tone in a house. As hard as it might be, think about your roommates as a potential dating partner. To make a relationship sustainable, you have to be a little vulnerable and tell people how you feel, but you also have to soak up the other human’s point of view.
If you’re having problems with your roommates (and they aren’t obviously The Worst), it might be time to check yourself and see if you’re not the one ignoring some major signs from the other person that things could be better. Roommate fights sometimes aren’t always *just* about the dirty dishes. Sometimes, they’re about other things going on in both of your lives outside of your apartment. The next time you think something is “just fine,” remember that we all have a tendency to underestimate other peoples’ feelings sometimes, even with the best intentions.