Walk-through double room blues

Dear Alice,

At my school, there are three kinds of rooms: singles (one person in one room), doubles (two people in one room), and walk-throughs (two people in two rooms with a door separating them). My partner is living in a walk-through double with a friend of his. He lives on the inside room, which means I have to walk through his roommate’s room to get to his room. I hate it! I feel so guilty leaving my partner's room late at night and if my partner's roommate isn't home, I feel like I'm somehow invading his privacy by walking through his room. When we hang out, I get uncomfortable being intimate (or even just hanging out pantsless!) with my partner knowing that his roommate is on the other side of the door. There's supposed to be more privacy, but in some ways, it feels like we have less! My partner and his roommate haven't had any trouble with the walk-through arrangement... but I do. I feel weird talking to his roommate about guidelines and solutions because it isn't my room. How can I find ways to set guidelines and boundaries for this peculiar situation without making myself a huge nuisance?

Dear Reader,

Living with roommates can be tricky — especially when it comes to privacy. Many people who live with roommates or suitemates find negotiating communal living tough at one time or another. Given that miscommunication is a main proponent of conflict, talking with your partner and his roommate about your concerns may help you navigate through your walk-through blues and find a solution. Gaining an understanding of the feelings and concerns of all parties involved may help you find a suitable compromise for everyone.

To start off, it can be helpful to talk a little about the different kinds of conflict. Typically, there are three different types of conflict: latent, emerging, and active. Latent conflicts are those where not all of the individuals involved are aware of the issue causing it and may not show any signs of recognizing that there is an issue. In a latent conflict, individuals tend to either have no change in their outward behavior or, at times, exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, or give the silent treatment. Furthermore, emerging conflicts are ones that are starting to become an issue but haven't yet reached the point of becoming disruptive to one's daily life. Usually when people are in this stage of conflict, they're moping or complaining about the issue at hand but aren't actively trying to find a solution. Finally, active conflicts are fully developed ones where the issue needs to be addressed quickly, as it's interfering with the lives of the people involved. This form of conflict often has visible signs associated with it, such as yelling and confrontation.

Relatedly, there are different styles for responding to conflict, these include competing, collaborating, accommodating, avoiding, and compromising. The competing style is when one person works to address conflict in a way that benefits them, but the solution may come at the expense of the other individual involved. The collaborating style addresses conflict by having two or more individuals work together to find a solution that meets the needs of everyone involved. Moreover, when individuals take an accommodating approach to addressing conflict, they may satisfy the needs of the other while not considering or completely disregarding their own needs. In addition, sometimes folks in conflict opt to use an avoidant style, which is when one of the parties involved does nothing to address the issue at all, and instead disregards the interest of all parties involved. Finally, there is the compromising style, which is similar to the collaborating style. The difference here is that both parties reach a solution by giving up some of their needs in order to fulfill the needs of the others involved. Given your specific situation, utilizing the compromising conflict style may allow you, your partner, and his roommate to find a solution that works for all three of you.

It sounds like you've already started to evaluate why and when you're feeling uncomfortable. This is a good first step! Identifying and understanding your feelings about an issue that's bothering you is key when attempting to address a conflict. To help you continue to understand and articulate your feelings, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • How do you feel? Write down the emotions that are surfacing for you. You’ve already described a few — fear, discomfort, disappointment. Are there specific instances that triggered these feelings?
  • How can you be mindful of everyone involved? Navigating relationships and communal spaces involves you, your partner, and your partner’s roommate. It’s likely you all have different opinions on shared spaces and privacy. How do you maintain an appreciation for the perspective of others, while also conveying your feelings?
  • What's your ideal outcome? Do you want to have a conversation to voice your feelings? Or do you want your partner to address the issue directly with his roommate? Try picturing what would make you feel more comfortable. What are the key components? What is a realistic ideal outcome given the factors at play?
  • What is or isn't your space? Try to keep in mind that you're a guest at your partner’s place. While you may be able to suggest ideas for changing the current living situation, the ultimate decision will likely be up to your partner and his roommate. They may include you in that decision process, but it's their space to keep as is or adapt, if they choose.

After you've taken the time to understand how you feel about the situation and you're ready to bring up your concerns, you may want to begin by having a conversation with your partner. Your partner may also have concerns about the situation. You may find it helpful to listen and understand his perspective on the issue before engaging with his roommate. Additionally, your partner may be able to help identify the best way to approach the subject with his roommate, whether that's a group discussion between the three of you or a conversation that your partner has with his roommate privately. Once you've talked with your partner, and if you both feel it's necessary for all three of you to talk, you could start the conversation off by letting your partner's roommate know about your concerns. There's a chance that your partner's roommate may not be aware that there's an issue, and by letting him know about your concerns, it could help him be more aware of them when trying to figure out a solution.

On the flipside, your partner's roommate could also have concerns of their own. Just like with you and your partner, listening to your partner’s roommates’ concerns will allow you to gain a better understanding of how he feels about the current situation. After you've all had a chance to express your concerns, the three of you could then try and work together to come up with a solution that works for everyone. Some potential solutions could be playing music or another kind of background noise when you and your partner are in his room, or you could try to find places outside of his room to spend time together. Alternatively, if your partner and his roommate are open to establishing some ground rules when it comes to visitors, you could ask them questions such as: How long are guests allowed to stay and how often can they come over? Are there certain times or days where they would like there to be no guests in the room? Would they like to have advance notice if planning on having visitors? These are just some of the questions you could ask to help your partner and his roommate come up with guidelines. However, what those guidelines are will ultimately be up to them as they're the ones living in the room. Finally, once a solution is found, it may be beneficial for your partner and his roommate to discuss whether the agreement reached needs to be recorded or not, either verbally recorded or written down on an informal or formal document. 

All in all, try not to wait too long to bring the subject up with your partner and his roommate, as the first step at creating a solution is making the concern known. The longer you delay, the more daunting it may feel. Navigating difficult conversations becomes a lot easier when you keep an open mind and speak thoughtfully from your experience.

Hope this information helps!

Last updated Nov 05, 2021
Originally published Sep 05, 2014

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