The Strange, Unique Intimacy of the Roommate Relationship

More and more American adults are sharing their homes with people other than family members or spouses—an arrangement that can be anywhere from harmonious to downright hostile.

Alex Schelldorf shares a sunny Chicago apartment with a man who creates messes but who doesn’t, Schelldorf says, clean them up. His roommate also leaves doors open long enough for Schelldorf’s Shiba Inu to escape and has a habit of making what Schelldorf considers to be insensitive offhand comments to guests. But Schelldorf won’t have to deal with these annoyances much longer. This roommate, who declined to comment on their relationship, is not renewing the lease, and Schelldorf, 31, who works for an education-and-health-research nonprofit, again finds himself back at square one: on the internet advertising for a roommate.

His search for a compatible roommate hasn’t been a complete bust, Schelldorf says, but it has made him reconsider the way the assorted people he’s lived with have affected his life, both emotionally and financially. Over the course of eight years, he’s moved 11 times and has lived with 10 roommates. He’s also lived alone three times. But with student loans, a high cost of living in the cities where he’s resided—including Washington, D.C., and Tampa, Florida—cohabitation has been beneficial for his lifestyle and, he says, for his mental health.

“I genuinely enjoy living with other people,” Schelldorf says. “It sounds weird to say this, but just [having] another warm body in the house is sometimes good.”

For many Americans, cohabitating is a necessity, not just a preference. In decades past, many 20- and 30-somethings shared a household with their spouse—nearly half of the adult population lived with a spouse as recently as 2007—but lately, delayed marriage rates, climbing student-loan debt, and rising housing costs have led to increased numbers of doubled-up households, a term used by demographers to describe homes that include additional adults other than the householder or their partner. This includes people who live with roommates or parents. In 2015, about a quarter of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 lived with roommates, up from 23 percent a decade prior, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Nearly 32 percent of the overall American adult population lived in a shared household in 2017, an increase from about 29 percent in 1995, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. In examining housing trends among young adults, Jonathan Vespa, a U.S. Census Bureau demographer, noted that by 2015, most adults between the ages of 18 and 34 were not living alone, or with a spouse or an unmarried romantic partner, a dramatic shift from the decade prior when most young adults in most of the country lived independently.

Vespa discovered that, on average, the type of person most likely to live with roommates is between the ages of 18 and 24, has completed some college, but is usually enrolled in school. People who are unemployed are more likely to live with roommates, Vespa found, and rent either a single-family home or an apartment together.

The trend may have been spurred by the 2008 recession, when unemployment rates peaked at 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it seems like a recovering economy hasn’t led young people to change course. Shacking up with roommates has persisted “despite an improving labor market, despite more young grads getting jobs,” says Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist for the real-estate-and-rental website Zillow. In a survey, Zillow found that 30 percent of American adults aged 23 to 65 lived with roommates, up from 21 percent in 2005. “We thought this would be a cyclical phenomenon, but it’s turned out to be quite durable, which is quite surprising.”

One possible explanation is that many young adults and recent graduates who flock to expensive coastal cities for job opportunities find themselves shacking up with friends, or sometimes complete strangers, to cut costs. Zillow found that Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco were among the top cities for adults living in doubled-up households; nearly half of adults in Los Angeles lived with a non-partner. “You think of people moving to booming job centers and they don’t have a family network to rely on in these areas,” Terrazas says.

The United States has seen this phenomenon before. As people moved to cities seeking work in the 19th century, boarding houses became hubs where diverse residents—immigrants, single men and women, workers of all kinds—could live affordably and mingle with others in shared spaces. Now, as housing becomes increasingly scarce and rents continue to rise (cities like Orlando, Salt Lake City, and Knoxville are experiencing the fastest rent growth in the country), the boarding-house experience is back, just at a smaller scale. Along with it comes the proliferation of a unique sort of relationship—sharing your home life, and all its little intimacies, with someone, or multiple someones, who you aren’t related to, and who you may not even be friends with.

Susan Fee, a Seattle-based therapist and the author of My Roommate Is Driving Me Crazy!, hears her fair share of roommate woes. Living in a city where many young people move for work, she says, has impacted the way adults in their 20s and 30s live. “This is not out of loneliness,” Fee says. “They really have no choice; they can’t afford it any other way.”

What’s surprising to Fee though, is when renters don’t take the proper precautionary measures to vet potential roommates on important topics like expectations of cleanliness and how to handle disagreements. When things go sour, “they see it as any other sort of rejection,” Fee says, “and it hurts and it makes them wary of people.” Instead, she believes framing these conflicts as social lessons provides a unique benefit. By learning from the shortcomings of one living situation—like a lack of chore division or poor communication—and not placing blame on the other person, Fee explains, being a roommate can allow for individual growth.

To smooth the social boundaries, Fee suggests taking a pseudo-dating mind-set when interviewing potential roommates and inquiring about past living situations. Because these relationships are not necessarily as intimate as friendships or romantic partnerships, it’s imperative to have clear definitions on if cohabiting is purely a “financial transaction,” or if the roommates expect to have a social relationship, too, Fee says.

Alex Schelldorf, the nonprofit worker in Chicago, thought he took the necessary screening precautions with his current roommate. But he ultimately ended up feeling like they weren’t on the same page about chores, which Schelldorf says he did the bulk of. These housekeeping items were routine chores growing up in a southern household, he says, and there was an expectation for each family member to do their fair share. If disagreements arose, “in family situations, people yell, you argue, but you still love each other.”

Schelldorf translates the lack of cleaning cooperation as a lack of respect. The fact that the two housemates aren’t relatives—or even friends, for that matter—has led him to wonder what emotional responses, if any, are appropriate when tensions are running high. “That sucks a lot, to know that someone doesn’t care about you enough to take out the trash or to put something in the dishwasher,” he says. “How is that supposed to make me feel as somebody who has to breathe the same air as you?”

“In relationships in general, we tend to blame a lot of what happens on other people,” says Amy Canevello, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “The data suggests that really we have a whole lot of control over how we feel about things” based on how we perceive certain actions. “It’s objectively not [about] what the roommate is doing, but how I’m orienting myself in that situation.”

In research examining social dynamics and motivations within non-romantic cohabitation, Canevello found that the motivations behind roommates’ behaviors—like not taking out the trash or bringing home dinner for the group, for example— often don’t align with how other housemates view them. One roommate may perceive a well-intentioned gesture as manipulative, for example. Instead, she theorizes that roommates perceive their household in one of two ways: as a socially dynamic ecosystem, where each household member feels supported, or as a self-serving “egosystem” in which fellow roommates’ actions are seen as either helping or hindering your ability to fulfill your needs—like respect and belonging. In the case of a roommate who never takes out the trash, “the ego response is ‘This person doesn’t care enough about me,’” Canevello says, “versus an eco response to that can be ‘Maybe I haven’t explained to them enough and they don't understand,’ or ‘There’s something that’s keeping them from doing it that I don't know about.’”

Taking these different perspectives, Canevello says, can help explain why people may have difficulty interpreting their roommates’ intentions. “I think that when other people are sending signals that they care about you, that’s very clear—that’s not something I’m going to reject easily,” Canevello says. “When somebody is sending a signal that they may or may not care about your feelings or care about your needs, it’s confusing.”

After a few months of living with a woman new to Philadelphia, Anna Lockhart began to question her roommate’s motives. The two women connected via Craigslist in late 2016 and began living together without having met before. From the get-go, Lockhart says, she and her housemate, Caroline, avoided confrontation, frequently hiding objects they had broken rather than owning up to the deed, and silently removing artwork from the walls. “She had put some horrid plywood art on the wall and I did hate it,” Lockhart explains, “but I only took it down because I got a wall hanging in the mail from Etsy when she was out of town, put it up to see what it would look like, and forgot about it.”

Part of the problem, they both say now, was that they had differing expectations for their relationship: Lockhart had an established social life in Philadelphia, one that Caroline, who works in education in the Philadelphia suburbs, probably wasn’t going to grow into. “I really didn’t want to put in an emotional effort to get to know her,” Lockhart, 31, says. “I got the sense that we weren’t going to be super tight friends.”

“The ideal situation in my mind was this person and I are going to end up being really close and wanting to spend time with each other and will be interested in going out to dinner together,” Caroline, 31, who asked not to share her last name since she works in education, says now, “but at the end of the day, you never know.”

One day, after living together for six months, Lockhart discovered on Twitter that Caroline had written an essay about their relationship, in which she detailed ways living with Lockhart “cramped her style,” citing Lockhart’s preferences of keeping the house warm and living without cable. “I have come to realize that the one thing standing between me and all of my housing dreams coming true,” she wrote, “is this person I still don’t fully know, a woman who leaves half full coffee mugs around the house and has a boyfriend that comes over basically every Sunday night.”

It wasn’t Lockhart’s actions specifically, Caroline says, that drove her to write the piece, but more a desire to return to living solo, which she had been prior to moving to Philadelphia. Caroline didn’t share her plans to publish the essay; Lockhart never mentioned to Caroline that she had seen it, either. They finished out the lease and parted ways peacefully after living together for a year, they say. Caroline now lives by herself in the house and Lockhart, who is an editor at an academic publishing company, lives with her boyfriend.

While shacking up with a stranger may be a sound financial decision, it seems that people don’t always realize the social implications of these living situations until after the fact. Lockhart says she wasn’t the ideal roommate either. She also notes that the conditions in which the two women lived—in close quarters and with a stranger— though not unprecedented, weren’t common in every generation. “We’re in a time where everyone kind of laments our [generation’s] social skills because they’re being usurped by social media,” Lockhart says, “but we really are navigating a lot of social spheres.”

Living with nonfamily may make people feel like they have to police their actions and emotions more carefully. “You have these relationships that are close relationships—you’re living with somebody—but the problem is you don’t have this relationship where you can say whatever you want to that person necessarily, kind of like mother-in-law relationships,” says Claire Kamp Dush, a professor of human sciences and sociology at Ohio State University. “I can’t say whatever I want to my mother-in-law, but I can say more to my mom. They’re not in your family, you’re not related to them, there’s not this expectation that you’re going to be there for each other no matter what.”

While this gray area may be socially tricky for some, it’s where Hafeez Baoku thrives. Inspired by compelling conversations with his various housemates over the course of a decade, Baoku, 27, founded the podcast The Roommates, and co-hosts it with his roommate, Chris Below. The two discuss topics like dating, pop culture, and politics.

Baoku took a chance on his housemates when first moving to Houston in 2016. A friend recommended Baoku stay with mutual acquaintances, including Below, now 24, in the city while visiting from Dallas for a job interview. He never left. The five men in Baoku’s house have varying backgrounds and personalities, and Baoku says the dynamic forced him to become a more empathetic person. He considers his roommates close confidantes, and not just people to help split the cable bill: “They’re actual human beings that I’m invested in and I care about their lives.”

What makes their roommate relationship unique, Baoku says, is their ability to remain friends and partners despite occasionally not seeing eye to eye. Recently, for example, Baoku “went on a little rant,” saying his roommates didn’t appreciate his dishwashing efforts and that he felt he should be exempt from household chores. Faced with criticism, he snapped: “I was like, you guys should apologize to me because you’re ungrateful of the job that I did.” The exchange left Below with a bad taste in his mouth since he feels he does his fair share of domestic work. He discussed the encounter later with Baoku.

“I’m usually the type of person who doesn’t hold onto grudges,” Below says. But “I’m not going to live in a house where I have to continue to explain to somebody about the same thing over and over again. I don’t want to come home angry all of the time. Either I have to adjust to what’s happening or I leave.”

“My personality is to be oblivious to how other people feel,” Baoku explains. “It wasn’t about the dishes; it was about me being insensitive.”

Over the past two years of living together, Baoku and Below say they have made many of these minor adjustments to course correct their relationship and to grow together both in service of the podcast and the household. Though there was never a time the pair was so badly hurt by each other they considered moving out, they say it was the culture of open communication that cemented their bond. “It brought us closer together instead of driving us apart, ” Baoku says.

And then there are those for whom living with a roommate feels like living with family. In households where longtime friends, or even respectful strangers, are living harmoniously—what Canevello refers to as an “ecosystem”—the effect can be uplifting. “We see less anxiety and depression,” she says. “I’m in my ecosystem and I’m getting all my [emotional support] that I need from other people and that’s making me happier. I’m in my ecosystem and I’m contributing to other people’s happiness and making sure that other people are doing well and that leads me to be less anxious and depressed.”

Kyle Petty, a TD Bank employee from Bay Shore, New York, says his relationship with his roommate Steve is one of the most important in his life.

Petty lost touch with his family after coming out as gay about 12 years ago and turned to his inner circle of friends for the support typically provided by relatives. Though the 33-year-old and his roommate have been friends for a decade, they’ve only been living together for a year. He takes solace in their companionship and their routines, from carpooling to events to a bathroom schedule. It’s a dynamic Petty says is akin to family, not without its challenges, but intimate, loving, and supportive.

“Obviously our bond is not at all romantic but I do look forward to coming home,” Petty says. “Oh Steve’s home? I can’t wait to tell him about my day and I can’t wait to hear about his day.”