Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Surviving a Messy Roommate

Dear Joseph,

How do I get my roommates to clean up after themselves? They don’t seem to care about the mess they make and how dirty our house gets. I tried to talk to them about it but any attempt to reform their behavior only lasts a day or two. I end up being the one to have to take responsibility for everyone else’s mess. It drives me nuts. Please help!

Angry Roommate

Dear Angry Roommate,

There are three possible reasons for your roommates’ behavior.

  1. They don’t care about your cleanliness standards as much as you do.
  2. They resent your attempts to cajole them into changing.
  3. All of the above.

Problems in relationships begin anytime you try to “get them to do” something. If your goal is changing someone else’s behavior, your motives are essentially manipulative. You begin to scheme and strategize on covert tactics to achieve your self-centered goal. After a recent lecture, a man approached me excitedly to explain that he now had some great ideas for how to “get my wife to lose weight.” Can you hear the problem?

Please don’t hear this as criticism. Hear it as autobiography. My greatest parenting and leadership failures have come when I have given myself the task of changing another person’s behavior. This goal resulted in feelings of judgment, alienation, and resentment. When I would “succeed” in “changing someone’s behavior,” I rewarded myself with self-deceptive hubris—which inevitably led to future episodes of judgment, alienation, and resentment.

With that said, you are fully within your rights to want a clean apartment. There are two ethical and effective ways to get there:

  1. Explore preferences. Hold a conversation with your roommates to see if there is any mutual dissatisfaction with the status quo. If there is sufficient dissatisfaction to agree on a new system of responsibility and consequences, then you’re home free. If not, then move to #2.
  2. Negotiate. They may not care about having a clean living room, but they may care about having a preferable parking spot, or an evening with the house to themselves, etc. If there is a basis for negotiation, be sure you come to clear expectations and consequences for failure that you and they can live with.

If you’ve tried both exploring and negotiating with little success or progress, then you really only have two options moving forward.

  1. Do it yourself—for yourself. If your roommates don’t care enough to take any additional action, you have the option of cleaning the house the way you want (so long as they don’t mind the smell of Febreze). To take this step, you’ll need to surrender the resentment you feel from their failure to live up to your standards. Let go of the burden of manipulation and pick up the broom or dishrag yourself—for yourself. Don’t hope for appreciation from them—just appreciate the state of things yourself.
  2. Move. The only person whose behavior you can control is you. And nothing makes you feel more like a victim than hanging your happiness on making others change. It absolves you of emotional responsibility as your moods become the product of others’ choices. You trade contentment for resentment. Not a great trade. At the end of the day, if you don’t like how your roommates behave, you’ve got a choice to make. In the aggregate, are the pluses bigger than the minuses? If so, choose to stay—and take responsibility for your choice. If not, move. Take responsibility for your needs not their behavior.

I hope some of these suggestions help you find peace and cleanliness!


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7 thoughts on “Surviving a Messy Roommate”

  1. Alan Janak

    I think he should have mentioned another choice: getting new roommates! That way, you don’t have to move, if the roommates can be told to move when their lease expires. I guess it depends on who owns the house/apartment, and what the terms are, but sometimes it’s preferable to stay if you can and have the others move. Of course, you have to vet the new roomies to make sure they meet your standards! Good Luck!

  2. Sally anlin

    Thanks for the post. I always value your insights. Other than excluding the option of ‘move out’, would you change your answer if the question was in regards to a minor child?

    1. Andrea

      Or a spouse?

  3. Tracy Morgan

    “Do it yourself—for yourself.” Good advice.

  4. J. Nielsen

    Unless roommates (spouse, gf, bf, etc.) know the expectations (and agrees with them), you shouldn’t get angry. I used this technique with my ex-husband (when he was my husband). Whenever he did or didn’t do something, I would first ask myself “Did I voice my expectation?” If the answer was “No” then I couldn’t get angry at him. But if the answer was “Yes” then I had to options…1) remind him or 2) do it myself. I usually ended up with option #2 because it was much easier to get things accomplished than to get all wound up about “the small stuff” and I knew he wouldn’t remember to do it as a recurring chore. The good new is, this technique taught me patience and what battles to fight.

  5. Aneisa Phelps

    Oh my goodness, I LOVE this! Thank you! My roommates are a husband and sons. I appreciate reading this and being able to look at my own frustrations and realize that I own it! I always respect and enjoy your advice.

  6. RPM

    Perhaps discuss the possibility of pooling funds to pay for someone to come in x number of times a month to clean for all of you. Sometimes it’s worth skipping Starbucks and other “necessities” to have this luxury.

    Another option is to stop cleaning up after them (and yourself). Just make as big a mess as possible as often possible. Eventually someone will say something and that opens a dialogue of what works for everyone.

    Finally, living either with others like us or alone is often the best option for a neat and tidy person.

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