What Would a Humanist Do? My Busy Roommate Doesn’t Respect Common Space

Today we bring you our latest installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on the same question. As with our long-running “Humanist Dilemma” column by Joan Reisman-Brill, readers often ask what qualifies as a humanist problem. Our answer: humanists are committed to being good without a God, but sometimes they need a little advice on how to pull it off.

Q: I’m a twenty-seven-year-old professional and have been living with my current roommate going on a year and a half. Prior to us moving in, we had a couple informal chats about what our “house rules” would be.

We discussed how clean we were on a scale of one to ten. I expressed I was an eight, and he said he was more like a four or five. I told him I didn’t like that, but he said he would try to maintain cleanliness in common areas. The number scale might have failed us, because his concept of a four or five is more like a two to me. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the floor of his room!

In addition to feeling like I’m picking up after him constantly, he’s not terribly courteous about replacing common-use items, like toilet tissue, paper towels, or napkins. We’ve attempted some resolution on cleanliness, like when to do dishes and what goes in the dishwasher and what needs to be hand washed. Although it was an affable and respectful discussion, it seemed like we simply might not be complimentary to each other’s lifestyles.

The good news is he’s not in the apartment much, since he’s often studying on campus. That can be both an advantage and a disadvantage; I often get the place to myself, but if I do have a gripe or concern, I can’t really discuss it with him. He’s stated he plans to stay for the next year and a half, or at least until he’s done with grad school, but I’m feeling a bit more antsy to get out. Our apartment isn’t that convenient for the transit lines I prefer; I can commute to work relatively easily, but weekend activities feel too far to endeavor. Having said all that, the place is affordable and our rent includes all utilities. So, considering all this, I’m asking myself if I should stick it out or find my own place. Is cleanliness next to godlessness? What would a humanist do?

—Torn Over Toilet Tissue


Hi, TOTT. Let me start by saying you have my sympathies—dealing with roommate incompatibility is very delicate and can seem like an insurmountable task. We all want our home spaces to feel as comfortable and true to ourselves as possible, and another person’s presence can easily throw us off balance.

Reading through your query, I see two distinct issues: cleanliness and financial. Let’s start with cleanliness.

You wrote that even before you moved in together, you had some idea that your roommate’s vision of a clean house didn’t match your own. Did you expect that you’d be able to change his habits? Or did you resign yourself to the possibility of putting in more work? When someone is up front about having different standards than you, you should believe them. Your frustration is of course legitimate, but if hearing the words “I’m not as clean as you” results in an unclean house, your outrage can only go so far. And furthermore, why are you looking at (and judging!) your roommate’s bedroom? Common areas are fair game here, but your roommate’s personal space is absolutely not.

Where your roommate needs to step up is in purchasing common-use toiletries. If you’re bearing an uneven share of the financial burden here, then you should have a frank and honest discussion with him. It sounds like you had some success in your talk about washing dishes (which is a major accomplishment!), so I’d recommend a similar type of discussion about buying toilet tissue.

At the end of the day, I believe that not everyone is meant to cohabitate with everyone. If you can improve your home life and improve your commute at the same time, I say go for it and look for new housing. But you should be up front with your roommate if you’re planning to move—a dirty glass left on a coffee table is no excuse to leave a housemate in the lurch.

—Peter Bjork

It sounds like you don’t like your apartment for multiple reasons which makes me think it is time to get out. First, consider your moving schedule: review your lease, check your work and personal calendars, and set a realistic goal to find a new place. Next, consider what you want in terms of the area (parks, bars, restaurants, etc.), transportation, amenities (utilities included, pet-friendly, parking, etc.), and whether you want roommates or to go solo. Then talk with your roommate about your plan. Will you together agree on timing? Will you help him get a new roommate? Will you stay friends?

When two people live together, inevitably one will be the cleaner one and one will be the dirtier one (unless you even out or miraculously agree on it all). What matters is that each person’s demands, requests, expectations, and limitations surrounding cleanliness are understood and respected. We all need to know what we can live with.

—Emily Newman