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Lifestyle

In it together: how to share space and resolve flatmate rows when you can't storm out


Generation Rent is used to living in cramped spaces – and to sharing those cramped spaces with others. But as the coronavirus lockdown wears on, we’re having to spend more time than ever cooped up in them. While all those useful places we once went to escape – the pubs, cafes, gyms and even friends’ homes – are out of bounds.

Social distancing isn’t a problem for me; I’ve been practising it for years. If I could avoid my own shadow I would. However, for the less introverted and most of you who don’t reserve passing glances with long-time housemates solely for special occasions (such as when you have no choice), navigating this period might be quite difficult.

For those sharing with friends, staying in might be slightly more bearable. But as the weeks wear on, it would be natural for tempers to fray even among the tightest groups. Those living with strangers may find it more awkward – although it could also be an opportunity to make a shared space more of a home. So how can you make sure you come out of this period with friendships intact, or deeper bonds formed? Here are some tips for successful lockdown living.

How to help an anxious housemate

The pandemic is affecting people in many different ways. Some manage to keep a level head, follow the official advice and make the best of it. Others find their worries spiralling, spending their time glued to 24-hour news feeds and weighing up every cough and hot flush with frantic Googling.

If you have a housemate who is suffering with anxiety it may feel natural to rush to reassure them or dismiss their fears. But, says Dr Warren Mansell, a reader in clinical psychology at the University of Manchester, you should try to avoid this. “Ask them what they are really concerned about, and what they are worried might happen. Even then, you don’t need to provide reassurance, because often when people express their worries out loud, they question it themselves. So, just help them explore what they are worried about and what they want right now.”

How should you deal with a flatmate who is taking hygiene to extremes – or ignoring it completely?

Mess is always a problem in house shares, even at the best of times. At one end, there’s the housemate who is prone to leaving passive-aggressive notes for those who aren’t following their high standards. Then there’s the housemate whose bedroom smells vaguely like cheese. But there are things you can do to avoid conflict when avoiding your housemate is impossible. “You can help these people who are overly concerned by showing that you are following the recommendations of washing your hands at appropriate times,” says Dr Anisha Patel-Dunn, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at the US healthcare company LifeStance Health. “Putting a sign in the kitchen and bathroom showing what the recommendations are can be helpful for both those who are overly concerned or messy.”

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Or you could just have a chat. “Everyone has different standards for hygiene and tidiness, and this will just be made more apparent when living with each other all day in lockdown,” says Mansell. Often it is easy to assume what is behind another person’s messy or fussy behaviour – and easy to get it wrong. So the solution is to talk, ask and listen.

Not everyone is taking the outbreak as seriously as they need to. For every anxious housemate, there is one who is still going out and visiting friends. Some of the myths around Covid-19 have endured since the initial outbreak. People are still comparing it to seasonal flu and concluding that the lockdown is an overreaction, while some still think being young and healthy makes you invulnerable. These myths are especially convincing when bouncing around an echo chamber. If one of your housemates is trapped in one, there are ways to bring them out. “Try to understand that some people are reacting to the current situation with denial,” says Patel-Dunn “Be honest and try and use ‘I’ statements so as to not make your housemate feel defensive: ‘I am feeling uncomfortable as I don’t feel you are following social-distancing rules. This is making me worried that we are all going to get sick.’ It can be helpful to gently direct them to what local and national officials are recommending.”

How can you share space fairly if you are all working from home?

Those of us lucky enough to still have a job are working from our beds, sofas and kitchen tables. But if everyone in your household is having to work from home there could be landgrabs for the best spot.

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I have been practising bedroom journalism since the lockdown began, but others might prefer to keep their workspace separate from where they sleep. Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and founder of the life-coaching company Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, says communication is key. “It really comes down to scheduling, designating spaces and making it really clear,” he says. “You need to actively listen when people are expressing concerns or difficulties. Try to designate yourselves a workspace – one particular space that is sanitised.”

Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of the Chelsea Psychology Clinic, agrees. “Ultimately, it comes down to communication and negotiation,” she says. “Ensure that there is a fair amount of taking it in turns if you need to be sharing the living room, for instance. That’s going to save anyone from feeling resentful or as though their needs aren’t being met.”

What if you can’t find a quiet place to work?

Many of us suddenly find ourselves with all the time in the world to twiddle our thumbs or use them to turn the volume up on our sound systems. “Just be mindful of how your flatmates live. The technology is there to make sure that you’re not disturbing each other,” says Chambers. Using headphones is essential. “There is a lot of social communication going on now across video platforms.”

Approaching your housemates about this can be difficult, especially if you don’t know them very well – or at all. “It is important to stay calm and try not to get upset as this won’t be helpful,” says Patel-Dunn. Like cooking and cleaning, devising a plan around work and play could be the way to go. “Asking your housemates to all work on setting up a schedule for everyone to abide by in the house, including quiet time, can be helpful in showing respect for one another’s time and creating a routine,” she adds.

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How do you end an argument when you can’t leave the house?

Storming out is not really an option at the moment, especially if you’ve already used your approved daily dose of exercise. So, as Flounce City is officially closed, conflict-resolution techniques are called for. “There is no right way to end an argument,” says Mansell. “Again though, as soon as you can shift the argument to ‘I want …’ and ‘It makes me feel …’, rather than ‘You do …’ and any overtly or implicitly critical comments, the better. Remind yourself that the goal is always some kind of compromise and understanding of the other person’s point of view, and never just to ‘win’.”

What should you do if you think your housemate has Covid-19?

With the lack of testing, we are all having to become expert symptom spotters, but we need to be careful about alarming people. “It will depend very much on what your existing relationship is with them as to when to tell them,” says Mansell. “If you are hesitant to tell them, think why. Is your worst fear about telling them likely to happen or not?”

If someone in your household presents with the common symptoms (a fever and persistent cough) then you should follow the official guidelines, self-isolate and take steps to improve the hygiene in your home.

Now you are facing weeks locked together, is it time to tell your flatmate you fancy them?

“Probably not!” says Touroni. “The reality is that you’re going to have to spend a considerable period of time with them, and it might end up becoming uncomfortable for both of you if the feelings aren’t reciprocated. This is not the time to be taking major relational risks, particularly as we don’t have access to the same coping mechanisms or distractions that would otherwise provide us with some comfort.”



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