George McClure navigates the complicated dynamic shift that occurs when moving in with friends, and shares his advice for how best to make the jump pain-free.
So, you’re moving into a new flat-share? Suddenly, those blissful days of walks in the West End and the last-ditch efforts of rescue at Hive have taken a more serious turn. You’re still friends, but you’re something more now. With the letting agent as your witness, and by the power invested in StudentFlatsForHire Ltd., you’ve committed your signature to paper; a formal bond is in place, now amenable to the intricate spider-web of property law and personal finance. Any second thoughts? Just burning enthusiasm to get going? Whatever the case - you’re flatmates now.
Obviously, the bulk of this article will be directed towards first and second years, whose experience of living with others, besides their family, will be relatively limited. As somebody myself who has been through university and lived with randomers on trips abroad, I feel somewhat equipped to provide a rough guideline for the wary and concerned among those of you moving, perhaps even for the second time, into a flat-share with a group of people.
I take the view that no matter how long you’ve known a person, whether a couple of months or several years, very little in the way of social interaction can prepare you for the inevitable rift in expectations that you entertain towards people you move in with. Some of these rifts will be larger than others - "She leaves her dishes unwashed?", "She makes her coffee in the microwave??", "He washes his underwear in the sink???" — you’ll move into these situations believing yourself, in your heart of all hearts, to be reasonably tolerant as a person. However, you’ll discover no end to the number of pet-peeves you’d otherwise have written off as ‘family-related’.
The process of moving-in requires a different mindset. Some people will feel relatively comfortable confronting flatmates on small issues (by dint of a long friendship or a neuropathic desire to unload). However, the majority of us will find ourselves in uncharted territory, mired with various traps and rabbit-holes that could lead a once stable relationship down a whole new trajectory.
"The majority of us will find ourselves in uncharted territory, mired with various traps and rabbit-holes that could lead a once stable relationship down a whole new trajectory..."
Many reading this will experience a sense of unease; a light chill curling up their spine, as moments they tried to forget only resurface with greater urgency. Those who haven’t before made the jump from friends to flatmates may have heard stories from friends or relatives: of flat-share feuds that extend for days and loyalties dramatically riven apart like a whole new season of Succession. There is a level of drama involved, which will be intimidating for some. What’s important to bear in mind, and a point this article will stress at every opportunity, is the fact that this experience is completely universal. Some even might say unavoidable—unless you’re comfortable being a hermit (in which case, all the power to you). Mankind has traversed limitless scenarios throughout history, in which people have had to come to terms with one another; learning to coexist and navigate the unsavoury parts of social interaction. If you are able to approach these situations with the level of patience and understanding required, life will become much easier for you in the future.
However, if you clam up, back up in your corner come hell or high water, there most likely will be unpleasant consequences for you and your flatmates. A certain level of tact must be maintained—for very good reasons. Firstly, you want to be as fair as possible to the people you live with. Fair, in this context, does not necessarily mean reserved or doormat-esque: it means seeing the needs and behaviour of flatmates in relative terms, within each individual context. It’s often been the case, in my experience, that some flatmates make sweeping, inflexible edicts on the ‘ideal’ living scenario—whether that be lazy or scheduled—that they expect all household occupants to adhere to on a non-negotiable basis. Very soon, if this continues, you have a divided household.
At risk of sounding like an aspiring lifestyle expert, and to coin a very hackneyed phrase, I do believe the most important thing is to listen to each other. I remember a scenario when a guy in my flat had a habit of leaving his used dishes to pile in a corner of the kitchen. Days would pass and they wouldn’t move. All of us became so cross that he took flight and moved over to his girlfriend’s. He took the easy way out, perhaps, but, in retrospect, we should have been more accommodating—it was his house as well, after all. His side of things seemed off-key at the time, but it was his viewpoint, and he was entitled to it. At the end of the day, there are worse crimes to commit than slack household maintenance…
"All of us became so cross that he took flight and moved over to his girlfriend’s..."
It’s very difficult to avoid situations like this happening in the first place. More often than not, it’s tempting to feel like you’ve moved in with the wrong people. Unless they’re wildly erratic and openly sociopathic, differentiating people according to their suitability as flatmates can be something of a grey area. We all search for the perfect arrangement but that, unfortunately, does not exist and never has existed. Every relationship is different, but if you have reservations about a potential friend-turned-flatmate, it is important to take those feelings of doubt seriously. For many, it is the easiest option to follow the crowd, take the path of least resistance and quell any irksome questions of ‘What if?’ – but as is so often the case, the path of least resistance can turn problematic very quickly.
From the outset, it is helpful to view the living arrangement in the most impersonal terms possible. This advice may seem to run against the general grain of sanguine dreams of a romanticized, care-free, student living experience. All of that is perfectly achievable, and signing a property contract, by and large, is a momentous next step and the foundation for a friendship that could last many more years. Be that as it may, a further dimension that cannot be ignored is introduced: the relationship is no longer the single highest priority but added into the mixture comes the proviso of the entire flat’s maintenance. In essence, you and your flatmates become ‘co-tenants’, which is a legally binding status. If each person is successful in separating the friendship from flat-related responsibilities—including the legal and mundane—there is a real chance for a zero-drama household. Boring, perhaps, but stable. And there is nothing better than stability when it comes to exam season. You might thank me later.
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