Growing up in a small home in Dallas, Texas, my mom, dad, sister and I would often bump into each other as we all tried to move through our small hallway. The space was limited and privacy was a prized commodity. Even if I closed my bedroom door, I was certain my parents could hear me talking on the phone to my friends, and I’d immediately know if my sister was playing music in her room because I could hear the bass of the drums vibrate through my walls. It was difficult to draw boundaries and I’d sometimes argue with my parents about personal space if I wanted to make a phone call or have friends over. Sometimes they’d agree to my requests, but in other moments they were reluctant to acquiesce to a teenager’s demands.
I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that setting boundaries might be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s important to find ways to do so — especially if you’re sharing space for the long haul. Here are six ways to respect other people’s boundaries and your own, if you share a small space.
Be clear about how you want to live.
The key factor in setting boundaries with the people you live with is to spend some time reflecting what you want and need in your living space. If you can articulate your needs and wants, you can better express these concerns to your partner, family, or roommates.
“When living in a small space, it is important to be clear about how you want to live and your expectations for that space,” Erica Cramer, a therapist from Cobb Psychotherapy, tells Apartment Therapy. “You and your living mates need to make certain everyone is on the same page.” For instance, if you are a neat person and your partner doesn’t think twice before wearing “outside” shoes in the house, that is going to present a problem at some point or another.
There are other cues and expectations that need to be discussed. Needs can’t solely be focused on you. It’s also important to understand each other’s needs for alone time and your partner’s needs for unwinding and understanding how he or she likes to recharge his or her battery. “If your partner needs space when they get home from a hectic day at the office, find a way to give it to them. If you have self-care rituals and things you need alone time for, plan for them when your partner is regularly out,” says Cramer.
Spend some time thinking about how your habits impact others in the same space.
Since space is limited, your personal habits might impact others in a way you don’t anticipate. Spend time focused on the other’s senses — if your roommate has a headache it’s probably not the best time to play loud music, or if one of you likes to sleep in on the weekend, hosting an early brunch may not be the best move.
“Be mindful and have conversations around each person’s needs as it relates to all five senses,” Katie Fries, a licensed social worker and the owner of Whole Self Therapy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, tells Apartment Therapy. “Often we think and talk about not leaving unsightly messes around but forget other needs. You may not think twice about burning a candle or smoking weed in your own room with the door closed, but be sure to ask your roommate how they feel about it, as smells travel, linger, and stay.”
Think about sound as a way to help set boundaries.
It’s easy for conflict to arise if it feels like one person is taking over a space that is meant to be shared, such as the dining area, living room, and bathroom. It’s also possible to hog the space with your sound — and just because you live together doesn’t necessarily mean your personal activities need to be broadcast over the entire space.
“Before you settle in, test out the sound-proofing. Talk in your normal volume in your bedroom and see if it can be heard in the kitchen,” says Fries. “This will help assess whether you would be disturbing your roommate while they cook, as well as whether each other’s private conversations may be unintentionally overheard through doors or walls.”
Planning in advance might help everyone become mindful of the amount of noise that spills over and disturbs others. Try to take heated personal phone calls outside, plug in your headphones when conducting meetings over Zoom, and invest in a white noise machine to drown out extraneous sounds.
A good rule is to have a practice of checking in with your roommate or family member periodically, maybe at the end of the day or at the beginning of the weekend. Maybe you’ve had a bad day and want to vent, but perhaps it wasn’t the best afternoon for your roomie. Simply asking if they are available to chat is an easy way to maintain boundaries and alleviates assumptions of what others might be feeling.
“It is easy to take your roommate sitting on the couch as a sign that they are available to talk, but they may be needing to rest, relax, or veg out,” says Fries. “Recognize that venting, crying, or expressing anger in common spaces may feel like emotional intrusion. In order to avoid that, start by asking ‘Do you have space to talk about something?’ rather than assuming they do because they are in a common area of the apartment.”
Designate specific areas for each person.
It is a natural feeling to want to feel like your living space is your own, and while that might be difficult in a smaller space, it’s not impossible to achieve.
“In a small space, make specific areas just for each person. Maybe there’s a small shoebox that no one else can go into. Maybe there is only one desk and two people. In that case, one half can be dedicated to each person,” says Katie Ziskind, a licensed family therapist. If you’re dividing space in the refrigerator, try offering each person a shelf or sectioned area for their own food items. If two people are sharing a desk, make certain that each individual has half the space to store their laptop and paperwork.
Above all else, don’t be afraid to communicate.
The key to keep in mind regarding boundaries is to talk to one another. Create a monthly meeting where roommates can address grievances, discuss house rules, and other aspects of the living arrangement. And while each of you might feel sensitive about your habits, it’s important to be respectful of one another and express clearly what your concerns might be. Communication also means praising each other when things are going well.
“Remember to keep the communication open and don’t wait to talk until you feel resentment,” Ziskind tells Apartment Therapy. “Talk and have a calm conversation as soon as you can to keep relationships positive.”