Messy Room, Messy Conflict

October 2, 2023

Dear Conflict Coach,

What do you do if you really like your roommate and you both really get along, but they are so messy? They maintain such a mess on their side of the dorm and never seem to organize or take the time to really clean it, though they say they will.

–Clean and Conflicted

Dear Clean and Conflicted,

First, I’m glad you and your roommate generally get along. In any relationship, a reservoir of good interactions can help navigate whatever is challenging in the relationship.

The good news is that if you and your roommate are getting along, you probably both care  whether the other is comfortable in the room. And, the thing is – your roommate may care about how their mess affects you, but they may not understand how or why their mess affects you. If you have divided the room into “sides,” then your roommate might perceive that they can do what they want with “their” side, because the space belongs to them. You might perceive that even if the mess stays on their side (and that “if” might be important here), the mess still affects you because you can see it, and you may have to maneuver around it, which may be what is making you uncomfortable in your room.

You may find it helpful to not just ask your roommate to clean, but to explain how the mess is impacting you. One approach might be to say something like, “I really like living with you and I know we both want each other to feel comfortable living here. For me, a room with clothes on the floor is really hard to be comfortable in, because I’m afraid I’ll walk on things that are important to you.” The exact words should align with your relationship and the key parts of a statement like this are that you: 

  • Ground the feedback in care about the relationship (drawing on the reservoir of good interactions);
  • Highlight a shared goal or value, like that you both want the other to feel comfortable in the room or you both want guests to feel comfortable in the room;
  • Give specifics about what “messy” or “neat” means to you. You don’t say whether or not you and your roommate have really talked about what “organized” or “clean” means–and they may mean different things to each of you. For more on how to develop a mutual understanding of important concepts, I suggest going back a few weeks to the first question about Respect. “Clean” might seem more obvious than “respect,” and it probably is–but you may simply be dealing with different understandings of what it means to be clean and organized.
  • Outline the impact on you, rather than labeling the other person. Whether or not the room should be “clean” or “messy” is a position that people could legitimately disagree about, even if they have good intentions. Whether or not a clean room “matters,” is also something that people can disagree about. How you feel about the mess, however,  is not up for debate.

Finally, be prepared for your roommate to have some feedback for you, too. Your tendency towards tidiness may make them anxious and overwhelmed trying to replicate it, and maybe they just gave up. Whatever the feedback is, try to take that feedback as another chance to build towards your shared value of developing a room that it feels like home for both.

Got a question for the Conflict Coach? You can anonymously submit your question.