Ladies-Dating When You Have Roommates

The golden rule usually works when sharing your living space with others, but things get more complicated when dates and boyfriends enter the picture. Here's an etiquette guide for you, ladies.

By Haley Shapley

"He used my towel!" she shrieked at me through the phone. My sister was in her freshman year of college, dealing with roommate issues for the first time, and was close to a breaking point. She had woken up to find two of her towels — once laundered and neatly folded in her cubby — now stained and hanging on her roommate's side of the bedroom. One had been used by her roommate… and the other by her roommate's boyfriend.

This guy watched her TV, used her dishes (without washing them), and dismissed her polite requests for some quiet time. "They would hang out usually all
Few things are as upsetting as living with someone you can't stand.
day, every day," she recalls. "Even when my roommate would go to class, he'd be in the room." With space already at a premium, having three people in a room barely bigger than an SUV was a less-than-optimal living situation.

Dating while having roommates is different than when you live alone, and it's important to keep that in mind whether you're casually seeing people or have a steady boyfriend. Here's how to keep both your love and home lives in balance:

1. Discuss dating issues before moving in together.
You should all be on the same page about what's OK and what's not. "Few things are as upsetting as living with someone you can't stand, who annoys you, or with whom you can't communicate," says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend. "Setting up ground rules for dating in advance can help avoid misunderstandings and disappointments."

The "rules" that work for you may be formalized — no overnight guests without letting the other roommates know in advance, for example — or you may opt to go with a more informal understanding that you'll each be respectful of common areas. For Michelle S., a store development manager in Brooklyn, NY, that's what's worked best for her and her two roommates. "We don't really have a system, but we usually know that the other person is going to have a date that night, so there might be some anticipation [that they'll bring a guest home]," Michelle says. "Everybody's kind of polite, so we try not to make any noise."

2. Talk to your roommates quickly if an issue arises.
When healthcare auditor Cindy S. moved into a New York City apartment with two other women last year, they set a ground rule: no live-in boyfriends. Almost immediately, one of the roommates started dating a guy — and he's essentially become their fourth roommate since then. "We all got along in the beginning, and we still do. But they got comfortable at one point, and so I think that's when they stopped being mindful of the living situation — and the shared space and boundaries were crossed," she says.

The roommates had a discussion about it when the lease renewal came up a year later, but by that time, the pattern was so ingrained that it's been tough to break. If they'd talked about it sooner, Cindy says, they may have been able to keep the situation from getting out of control. As she puts it: "He's not a guest anymore — he's a burden."

If you're on the other side of this issue with a roommate objecting to the presence of your significant other or your dates, do listen to what this person's saying and really consider whether the complaints have any merit. "If you have a boyfriend living here a majority of the time, [the two of you] consume double the amount [of food], add to the dishes, produce more trash, and use more electricity," Cindy points out — something you may not have thought about.

3. Act as a mediator between your roommates and dates, if necessary.
Kirsten O., a student in Bellingham, WA, was put in a tough situation last year when one of her four roommates didn't get along with her boyfriend. "That definitely caused
It's important to find that balance that works for everyone.
some tension," she says. "I had to make sure they weren't in the house at the same time, and I tried to keep the contact to a minimum."

While walking the tightrope between keeping the peace and enjoying the space she paid rent for was tough, it was a situation she felt required her mindfulness. "It's important to find that balance that works for everyone," Kirsten says. "It's a big mutual respect thing."

4. Keep your roommates' feelings in mind.
The golden rule goes a long way in roommate relationships, and even if you wouldn't be bothered by something, whether or not your roommate reasonably would be bothered by it. Natasha Burton, coauthor of The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags, points out that bringing home your roommate's ex is never a good idea — nor is surprising anyone with some heavy displays of PDA in the living room. "You shouldn't put your roommate in a position where she comes home and finds you with your skirt around your waist," says Burton.

Safety might also be an issue that's on the minds of the people you live with when bringing dates home that you haven't spent much time with before. "A good ground rule might be to not allow someone you just met to come home," Burton suggests. "Whether you're online dating or meeting someone in a bar, you really don't know that person."

5. Keep the lines of communication open.
Most importantly, talk about any issues that come up. "Not every detail can always be worked out in advance," Levine says. "Sometimes, you just need to learn how to be good roommates to each other." Kirsten's lived with the same group of girls for a few years now and has found that talking about things and staying respectful has kept their living situation pretty good. "It's really important to introduce whomever you're dating to your roommates and make sure they get to know each other," she says. "[You should work on] nipping problems in the bud as opposed to letting them sit and fester."

My sister festered plenty until it all boiled to the surface one day; after that, they hashed things out and it did get better. "Be aware that your space is shared and take [others'] feelings into account," Burton says. "That's your life circumstance right now, and you have to be able to work with this person you're living with."

For the other side of this story, read Room-Mating Guide For Men.

Haley Shapley is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Read more of her work at
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