7 Things That Helped Me and My Roommate with OCD Find “Homekeeping Harmony”

published May 30, 2024
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2 roommates or friends at the kitchen counter together, one opening a cabinet
Credit: Maskot/Getty Images/Maskot

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It takes a careful approach to live in harmony with roommates. Establishing quiet hours and cleaning up after yourself can go a long way to keep the peace. But even if you both know not to leave a sink full of dishes, or if one or both of you have mental health issues that impact homekeeping efforts, there’s another layer to consider. I learned that last one when my best friend and I decided to share a home. He has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, also known as OCD. Soon after we moved in together, I felt like I was walking on eggshells. This resulted in hurt feelings and disagreements due to our lack of communication.

Content warning: The content in this story discusses mental health disorder(s). If this content isn’t for you, we understand. But if you are struggling or experiencing any mental health concerns, please take a look at our resources section below and seek help from a professional healthcare provider.

With the right approach, you can maintain harmony at home. I’ll share what my roommate and I do together to cultivate a supportive and empathetic living arrangement — from understanding OCD to communicating openly and setting clear boundaries.

Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

“OCD is a mental disorder characterized by the presence of obsessions and compulsions,” explains Cody Holmes, clinical director of The OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center in Bountiful, Utah. Obsessions can include repetitive or distressing thoughts, images, or impulses. The compulsions are the physical or mental behaviors done to stop the fear and distress the obsessions cause. 

According to Holmes, a sign of possible OCD in someone is repeated behavior. “Overly repetitive and ritualistic actions like handwashing, asking others if everything is okay, and checking are all common types of compulsions.”

My roommate’s triggers center on germs and contamination. For instance, a package left on our doorstep and then placed on a table or carpeted area of our home would cause him distress, as would shoes tracking in dirt. When these happened, he’d either raise his voice or become silent. In both cases, I felt anxious, wondering what I did to upset him.

Something I learned about my roommate is he’d recognize his fears were illogical but couldn’t help doing them anyway. Knowing this, I became more empathetic and wanted to understand his perspective. 

What made our living situation difficult was understanding how to create a safe space for each of us. We started by opening up to each other using effective communication strategies.

What Helped Us

Consistent, open communication helped me and my roommate understand each other’s perspectives and establish a peaceful space. Here are the ways we do that.

  • Being open and honest: When we first moved in, I felt criticized by my roommate. It seemed like I rarely put things in the right space. I thought I’d cause more problems by bringing this issue up. However, when I shared how I felt, the opposite happened. He shared that due to his contamination concerns, he felt threatened if I put things like packages on our kitchen table. By speaking honestly about the situation, we found a solution and created a designated space in our home for packages. Direct communication that focuses on the situation instead of the person allows us to openly and honestly discuss issues. Our motto is, “We can’t fix what we don’t know.”
  • Speaking early about issues to avoid resentment: Critical comments and annoyances can build up, creating anxiety and anger. Addressing an issue early allows us to remedy it. During a grocery trip together, I felt disrespected by some of my roommate’s comments. Because of other plans, we wouldn’t see each other for the rest of the evening. I texted him to set a time to talk the next day. We shared our perspectives about that grocery trip and learned why our vibe had been off. This allowed us to solve the situation without lingering hard feelings.
  • Choosing appropriate times and settings for conversations: This allowed us to feel comfortable and avoid interruptions. We designated our living room as our safe space.
  • Using “I” statements: These help us frame our concerns from our perspectives instead of placing blame on each other. For example, “I feel like we’re spending a lot of money on Clorox wipes. Can we find a solution together?” instead of “You’re using too many Clorox wipes because of your OCD.” 
  • Asking my roommate if he felt comfortable sharing his OCD experience with me: This helped me see his perspective and foster empathy.
  • Reviewing our living situation monthly to see if we need to make adjustments.
  • Validating my roommate’s emotions and struggles instead of altering my behavior for his symptoms: I found this difficult. Initially, I changed my behavior, thinking that it would best help my friend. I later switched my communication approach to validate my friend’s emotions and struggles instead, based on the guidance of my therapist at the time. This turned out to be a more effective way to support my roommate with OCD while supporting myself, too.

According to Holmes, “Often those with OCD depend on the accommodation of others to enable their rigid routines and rules. Validate their emotions and struggles while being clear about holding boundaries and not altering your behaviors for their symptoms.”

Ways to validate include statements like, “I admire how you handled that challenge,” or “It sounds like you’re struggling with your worries about germs. That must be hard.”

“There’s a lot of shame associated with OCD,” my roommate says. “Validation helps lessen that shame. Being able to feel heard and understood is so helpful.”

Why Setting Boundaries Is Important

We set boundaries for each other and our housekeeping. One of the boundaries we set with each other related to the same issue.

There were times I felt disrespected by his comments toward me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he’d say those comments during stressful moments while working through his triggers. Oblivious to what he was going through, I’d talk to him like normal. That made the situation more stressful for him. We agreed on him telling me when he was experiencing a triggering situation. This way, I knew to give him space, and he agreed to be more courteous with his comments.

Some housekeeping boundaries we created consist of the following:

  • No shoes on carpets. My friend’s triggers center on germs and contamination; however, I also enjoy no shoes on carpeted areas to keep them cleaner. I felt like this was a boundary we could create that wouldn’t alter my behavior for his symptoms. We designated a space in our home for shoe removal.
  • My roommate requested that bathroom cleaning supplies and items stay in the bathroom. I considered this a fair request. We use separate cleaning supplies for other areas in our home.
  • If we need to touch or rearrange personal items, we ask permission first.
  • We take turns removing the trash from our home to the outside dumpster.

Achieving Housekeeping Harmony

It took time, patience, and empathy regarding my roommate’s OCD. After several open conversations, my relationship with my friend improved. I felt a level of trust in him I had not experienced. By communicating openly and setting boundaries, we achieved housekeeping harmony.

Mental Health Resources

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with mental health and need support, visit one of the following websites below or call any of their helplines: