As the last season of the popular television show The Big Bang Theory begins, we’re reminded just how many television shows center around the adventures and altercations of roommates. From Felix and Oscar’s Odd Couple to Chandler and Joey’s bromance on Friends, we see it play out in prime time how living with someone you’re neither related to nor involved in an intimate relationship with can provide hours of entertainment—even if some of those are fueled by laugh tracks. But some evidence suggests that the experience of having roommates actually seems to increase our skills with romantic partners as well.
In an article which appeared recently in The Atlantic, author Allie Voupe chronicled how delayed age at first marriage, student loan debt, and the rise of housing costs have led many young adults to cohabit with a non-romantic bunkmate. In fact, about a quarter of young adults ages 18-34 live with a roommate today, an increase of about 25 percent since 2005. Our friend and fellow sociologist, Jonathan Vespa of the Census Bureau found that, while young adults still value finishing school and becoming economically secure before settling down, they find doing so increasingly more difficult. Those who live with roommates tend to be on more solid financial footing compared to those who live with their parents—though only a third have incomes greater than $30,000 per year. Still, we find that the experience of two people sharing a kitchen and bathroom can set them up for success in love later in life.
Just before the great recession, we interviewed two groups of young adults who were living with their romantic partners—the middle class, who had college degrees, and the service class, who were working in professions such as restaurant work, telemarketing retail, and the occasional blue collar job. We advertised for couples who had been living together for at least 3 months, but we were surprised to find that, among the service class especially, “living together” did not always mean “living alone together.” In fact, 14 of the 30 service class couples (compared to just a few of the middle class couples) had moved in with one another, sure, but also with a sibling, parents of one partner, or another roommate. It’s likely that, given the economic changes since then, this phenomenon has only become more common.
Even though they generally lived only with their romantic partners, the college educated overwhelmingly had a “roommate experience” during and immediately following college. Our evidence suggests that living with friends in the past forced them to get very specific on things like which partner would do the dishes and who would tackle the floors. Middle class men, for example, were far more likely to compromise on the housework and share equitably in certain financial obligations—skills easily gleaned by sharing a lease with a buddy. In fact, we argue in our book, Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, that living with another adult outside of marriage should actually be facilitated through dating-site-like apps that allow individuals to easily match with other (nonromantic) roommates.
Whether your roommate experience is fantastic, like that of Monica and Rachel—the former of whom lamented, “I have to live with a boy!!!” when she moved in with her boyfriend—or it features the seemingly endless struggles of Leonard and Sheldon, there are still lessons to be gleaned from it. Living with an unrelated person forces you to learn how to navigate difficult conversations, negotiate sticky situations, and learn to share space. Communication, compromise, clearly defined expectations and the ability to retreat to your own corner once in a while go a long way toward success in friendship—and love.