Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Roommates: Precursor To Marriage?

I remember participating in an interesting conversation while sitting at the Shabbos lunch table of some family friends a few years ago. The subject of discussion was the daughter of our host, and her plight of not being allowed to return to study in Israel for Shana Bet. Her father was insistent that she begin her college education, and that she had spent enough time focusing on Jewish studies (high school plus Shana Aleph). She was pleading that she could, in fact, attend Touro in Israel and start her college career in the Holy Land. This however, would lead to complications of finding an apartment along with a roommate (or two) to share the rental cost - unlike the previous year where she resided in her seminary dorms.

Another guest at the table remarked, with a twinkle in his eye, that all she had to do to solve her problem would be to find a nice male roommate to share the apartment with her. The comment went over my head, particularly because I wasn't yet dating at the time. I sat there, quite confused, trying to figure out why this frum man would suggest something so scandalous. Then it hit me - he was suggesting she find herself a nice Jewish boy to settle down with.

Insert forehead smack here.

I feel as though I have learned a lot from the roommates I've had over the years that could be/will be relevant in married life. True, I've never had a female roommate before, but living in close quarters with anyone can teach you a thing or two about being courteous, respectful of privacy, and in general being considerate for the other person. You become aware of behavior that you would usually assume is normal and acceptable, but in reality can actually get on a person's nerves and/or offend them. This is especially true, given the vast divide between acceptable male behavior vs. acceptable female behavior (and the fact that we simply don't understand each other at any rate, coming from two very different perspectives). So while I may not be privileged to have insider knowledge on how to live peacefully with a female roommate yet, I can share some experiences I've had that I have found educationally beneficial.

One roommate I had was very meticulous about keeping the room clean, neat and tidy. While I am not the messiest person in the world, I tend to keep my belongings in a fairly organized, slightly disordered fashion. The particular thing that most impressed me was the fact that every Friday/Thursday night, before he went home for Shabbos, he would make sure to empty our trashcan and make his bed. He wasn’t just taking care of a necessary chore, he sanctified that mundane activity into a preparation for the holy Shabbos. That really opened my eyes to the ability to perceive kedusha in everyday life. While I still often fail to make my own bed on Fridays before the onset of Shabbos, I have adopted his practice of clearing out the garbage from my room. It definitely adds to the feel of getting ready to experience the holiest day of the week.

A later roommate made a remark (after several months of sharing the dorm room) that he wondered how our often-full-as-of-Thursday-night garbage bin became "magically" empty when he returned from his Shabbos outings. I informed him that there was nothing even vaguely supernatural about the weekly occurrence and that I had been the one making sure it was taken care of. It happened to be that the garbage was rather full at that moment and he had just topped it in a precarious fashion. After an awkward pause, he finally got the hint and proceeded to empty it himself.

We see from here the importance of recognizing the little things that people (roommates/spouses) do for us. I remember reading somewhere that husbands (most often) fail to realize how many seemingly small things their wives do for them on a regular basis. One example it mentioned was the amount of time she puts into doing his laundry, especially his socks. Aside from washing and drying the socks, very often you have to flip them from being inside out before you fold/roll them. The author mentioned the frustration often felt by a wife from having to repeatedly flip every single sock before folding them. Imagine the difference it makes when a person (you/husband/whoever) simply takes a few seconds to make sure that the socks are oriented the right way when you take them off before throwing them into the clothing hamper. Viewing things from the other person’s perspective, this small change in your daily undressing routine makes them sense that you truly do appreciate all the effort they expend for you.

I figured out that I had been inflicting this annoyance on myself ever since I started doing my own laundry. After reading this article, I made sure to remove my socks so that they didn’t become inverted – and it made such a difference in my laundry processing. So I can verify that this little bit of consideration does work. The basic point is to be aware of even the little things a spouse does for you, and to show gratitude and help out in whatever way you can – even small efforts can be meaningful.

One big area of consideration I have encountered is sleeping habits. I’ve had roommates who had very different sleep schedules. One roommate, who regularly stayed up later than me doing work, actually repositioned his desk so that the lamp wouldn’t shine in my direction while I slept. That evoked great feelings of appreciation within me. The fact that he was sensitive enough to make sure that his own independent activities didn’t impinge upon me was a testament to his character and attentiveness toward those around him.

I had a similar experience where a roommate went to bed much earlier than me, and was also very easily disturbed by noises in the room. I then had to learn how to do things like brushing my teeth putting on my pajamas, and even getting into/positioning myself in bed as quietly as possible so as not to disturb him. True, it was very hard at times to be so silent (especially on the occasion where I accidentally dropped something), but it certainly trained me to be more aware of my roommates personal needs. I don’t think I could live like that for the rest of my life, but it was a valuable educational experience in developing sensitivity.

On the other side of the equation, I’ve had roommates who were very inconsiderate on a regular basis.

Being a guy, I know that there are certain things we take for granted as typical modus operandi, for example: belching. We don’t think it’s such a big deal, especially when we’re younger and think the expulsion of built up gases from our digestive system is hilarious. But, boys do grow into men, and there has to be a certain “legislation” of sorts that regulates this kind of behavior. As an adult, you make an attempt not to publicly show off and belt one out, particularly if you find yourself in mixed company. When you DO happen to belch, you should say “excuse me.”

As a side note, this is most awkward on dates. However, between stifling the developing urge, contorting my mouth to reduce noise level, covering my lower face, and promptly excusing myself without fanfare – I’ve never had any issues or reports from the shadchan that she doesn’t want a second date because of my inappropriate behavior.

Yet, I’ve had a roommate who, as a manner of daily practice, drank soda from the large 3-liter bottles (which is another disturbing point – who DOES that!?) and after noisily slurping several gulps, proceeded to belch loudly without a second thought and without excusing himself. In actuality, he did this multiple times over the course of each single soda chugging session. There was no need to do this at all! I would like to hope that most people can consume a beverage without basically announcing each effort to put the liquid in his mouth and declare his personal satisfaction afterward with unnecessary bodily noises. Do I sometimes belch after drinking soda? Certainly – but not every single time I take a sip!

Other offensive behaviors that I have observed include: eating very noisy/crunchy snacks while chewing with their mouth open when I was trying to study in relative quiet, clipping their nails all over the room (instead of, say, over a trashcan, as I do, to collect the cut nail fragments – aside from any halachic ramifications), maintaining a growing pile of garbage strewn about their part of the room (which encroached on my side of the room as well), and watching movies late into the night on their laptop (with and without headphones), loudly laughing as I attempted to sleep. In all instances, I made an attempt to ask them nicely to refrain from/curtail this behavior and was mostly ignored in response.

I’m not writing this list of previous grievances of past roommates just to air “dirty laundry,” but to make a point. I had never been on the receiving end of these sorts of insensitive behavior before I found myself in these close-quarter living situations. Now I can imagine what it is like when the female members of my family recoil in disgust at my occasional belch at the dinner table, as well as the general female perspective that men can be gross, obnoxious, and unaware of/callous toward others’ needs and feelings. I found these experiences to be profoundly educational in ways that I would never have encountered in any other situation. When you are stuck living with such troublesome conditions day in and day out, it really makes you consider your own habits. I don’t think it is so typical that all guys respond to these behaviors in the negative fashion that I did, but I feel that from my perspective, it was worth being exposed to these circumstances to enhance my own degree of sensitivity toward others – and hopefully my future wife.

Another important lesson I’ve learned from my roommates is learning to understand/tolerate/get along with others of very different hashkafic perspectives. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m usually pretty open to hearing out diverse viewpoints and not restricting myself to one particular standpoint. So it sometimes rubs me the wrong way when someone holds to a specific hashkafic view in a very dogmatic fashion, expressing intolerance of others or looking down on people who have a certain hashkafa. I have attempted to reason with some of these people (and it isn’t just one hashkafic brand that does this), and point out that every group has their positive element in addition to their drawbacks – no one is perfect after all. Sometimes that works, and in others I simply give up trying to discuss anything of a hashkafic nature with them, which can become difficult and somewhat alienating.

I once took a bio-ethics course with Rav Dr. Tendler here at YU. Rav Dr. Tendler is known for his strong opinions, so I was fascinated when he began the course by stating a “rule” of sorts regarding why it is important to understand other perspectives (here he was referring to biological/medical ethical issues). He said that even if we know that the other person is utterly wrong, the mere fact that a thinking, intelligent person believes it to be true requires us to do our best to understand what they’re thinking and why.

Aside from the importance of this advice when debating nuanced/controversial topics in bio-ethics, I think this was a great point for life in general and for marriage in particular. People really have a hard time understanding one another – most often because they have their view firmly entrenched in their mind and won’t see the issue in any other way. Clearly, this is not a good approach for establishing harmonious relationships. The whole “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” may not always work (from my experience), because unless you are literally in their position (which I mentioned with regard to the role-reversal from my bad roommate experiences) it’s hard to visualize how they see things. Instead, be open to what they have to say and make a concentrated effort to listen and comprehend the “what” and “why” of their viewpoint.

I have had success implementing this in some cases, where I just stopped trying to continue the ongoing tension between the roommate and I and forced myself to pay attention to them more. One roommate, who I was initially totally at odds with, eventually became a close friend over the duration of time we shared our room. I can’t guarantee success (as I mentioned above, I myself have had experiences which could not be resolved), but it is certainly worth a shot.

These types of interactions are incredibly important to have now, as a single person, because you’re allowed room for error and the chance to improve your technique. The worst case scenario here is that you’ll find another roommate. Clearly, if one is properly invested in the idea of a permanent marriage – as opposed to today’s societal “normality” of higher than 50% divorce rate – you can’t simply give up and get yourself a new “roommate.” Think of this time as an opportunity or trial-run of sorts. Granted that marriage to, and living with, someone of the opposite gender is an entirely different ballgame, but we all have the obligation to do the utmost we can to be prepared for married life. Singlehood isn’t meant to be simply a time of moping around from loneliness, frantically running from date to date, and hoping to find the right one – we have to be proactive in bettering ourselves as well.

In the end, we all have to learn to live with some elements in a spouse that aren’t exactly identical to the ideal image we have created in our minds. Some things will never change in a person, while others can and will improve with time, sensitive encouragement (not by demanding or issuing ultimatums), and each person’s own desire to please the one they love. It is up to us to determine what our limits are in these areas (while trying our best to be open-minded) and find the right person for us. I think everyone should look at their roommate experiences (past and present) as a source of inspiration for self introspection that will hopefully prove to be of great benefit in their future married lives.


  1. It's usually the small things that drive a person mad, I've noticed. So I try to notice the small things my flatmate does to pick up after me and do them first. Like close a closet door that I've never bothered closing. After noticing it closed a number of times, I started doing it myself.

  2. I agree on the small things being the source of endless madness. It's very astute of you to notice the little thinks, and very considerate to take action. I haven't successfully gotten the point across through subtlety as your roommate did. Did you have British friends/roommates at some point? Flatmate is a very English/European term...

  3. That's why living by yourself can be a blessing and a curse - blessing, because you can do whatever you want, when you want, and a curse, because you can do whatever you want, when you want.

  4. You know- this post rings true in a LOT of ways. And you know- you'll make one girl really happy one day by inverting your socks for her, and putting them in the laundry bin. It's such a mentchlik thing to do.
    I think all dating guys should read this post, so when the girls complain to me that they were uncouth and unkempt on a date, they know what the girls were talking about.

  5. Apple - Having gone through both scenarios within the past year (a roommate switched to a different college) I can very much agree with that sentiment. It was very fun, for a time, to have more space to spread out over the other half of the room, and I didn't have to be concerned with being mindful of another's personal/sleeping schedule. Freedom of choice, however, is a limited, selfish pleasure.

    Living alone became lonely pretty quickly, and I missed the daily social interaction (he was/is a good friend of mine). Living alone also dulls nuances of one's interpersonal skills. Living in a cave-man-like existence such as that makes you more of a loner, which is exactly the opposite of what you should try to develop prior to marriage. Living alone is definitely a double-edged sword.

    nmf #7 - I appreciate the kind words. Feel free to spread this around as you see fit. I would be very happy if I can achieve any measure of positive influence from anything I write on this blog. I don't think I'm the typical "manly" or "uncouth" sort of guy in these respects, hence my observations are not so widely made by other guys out there.

  6. No, not British. Just "apartmentmate" is klunky and "roommate" sounds wrong.


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