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Becoming The Roommate Coach


Are roommate problems, like death and taxes, really inevitable?

I am convinced that roommates can get along, that most of the problems they encounter can be solved or at least improved, and that the benefits can be far greater than is commonly realized. A crucial element for success in almost any field is the ability to work well with others -- and learning to form and maintain healthy and successful roommate relationships is a great way to develop this skill.

Why do I feel so strongly about this that I am writing a book, maintaining a website (theroommatecoach.com), have a YouTube channel and a local radio talk show, all dedicated to helping with roommate problems? A few key events in my life helped put me on this path:

  • An early Cold War story shocks my young mind
  • An Englishman explains the "flip side" of freedom
  • I get into therapy with a "maverick" psychologist
  • I learn how a damaged society damages people

Click a title below for more background.

A Cold War story: "They are people just like us!"

I grew up with a lot of conflict, much of it in my immediate family. But it was a global conflict that provided me with my earliest glimpse of the absurdity of it all. This was somewhere toward the beginning of the Cold War, when Americans were learning to live in fear of those evil Soviets. I was pretty young -- maybe 7 or 8 years old -- when I read an article in a magazine that has stuck with me ever since.

The article, the name and author of which I have long since forgotten, started out with a typical family scene, kids at the breakfast table waiting to be fed, Dad getting ready to go to work, that type thing. All of a sudden, the sirens began to sound in the background and the long dreaded attack was on the way.

At this point the family began to head for their shelter. The attack had come; these people were now in mortal fear for their lives and getting ready to do whatever they possibly could to survive.

The reader was obviously encouraged to identify as strongly as possible with the family, because, after all, this could happen at any time. We were rapidly learning to live with fear on a regular basis.

Now the author sprang the trap and revealed what to my young mind was a lesson never to be forgotten: this was in fact a Russian family, and the long dreaded attack, the missiles which were headed to destroy them and all that they lived for, were coming from the good old United States of America.

This just blew my young mind! The point was not to demonize either side -- it was that the roles were completely interchangeable, and it really didn't matter which side of the fence you were on when the missiles started to fly. Life was life, death was death, and the great equalizer was in play.

All through the story, as the family was becoming more and more anxious about the impending attack, my young mind was visualizing someone… maybe someone like… me! And my Mom and Dad! — being terrified by those evil Soviets who had initiated this crisis and were seemingly on the verge of wiping us out. This was a frightening time for the grownups; for the little kids it was terrifying.

The story drove home a crucial point: the people on the other side of your situation, whether it is a negotiation, an argument about roommate duties, or even a nuclear war -- these people are real, and their lives are every bit as important to them as yours is to you. If some unknown force was to suddenly transpose your situations, you would be just as passionately committed to their side of the story as you are to yours.

My lifelong habit of questioning the "official" narratives and coming to my own conclusions -- open to further revision, certainly, but they had to be mine -- had begun.

Freedom does not mean license

Freedom does not mean license.
— A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill School, Suffolk, England

The one thing that I couldn't seem to figure out in my younger days was that as stupid as conflict appeared to be, why was it so popular? There didn't seem to be any part of life that wasn't affected by conflict - again, most of it unnecessary. And stupid.

It wound up being an Englishman from the early part of the twentieth century who helped me to understand where conflict, or at least much of it, comes from.

The Englishman was A. S. Neill, founder of Summerhill School. Summerhill was one of the early free schools, founded in England by Neill in the early part of the twentieth century. The somewhat quaint phrase refers to the principle on which the school operated, today more commonly known as “live and let live.”

The school caused quite a stir in its day by breaking with the tradition of compelling students to attend class. They didn't have to attend classes at all if that was their preference. But the rest of the rule was crucial: they were not allowed to interfere with or disrupt in any way the function of the school, including the other students who were in fact attending classes. (And doing interesting stuff — something that gradually dawned on even the most reluctant of the “refusers.”)

Freedom does not mean license.

This was really an eye-opener for me! I was in my mid-twenties at the time and busily trying to figure out how the world works. I was already aware of and highly suspicious of the massive amounts of conflict in our world, although I really didn't know what if anything could be done about it.

I was somewhat familiar with various freedom philosophies and ideas, but mostly they seemed to imply that if people were free to do what they wanted, all Hell would break loose and the result would be chaos and destruction. This simple yet powerful statement by the British school teacher opened the door for me and made me realize that freedom was only half of the equation. The rest of it, the part frequently left out by those wanting to dismiss the idea of freedom as impractical, is responsibility.

This, I realized, changes everything.

As important as it was, however, this was only part of the realization that dawned on me as a result of reading this book. The other principle was Illustrated by the school's experience with difficult children, usually those coming in from more traditional schools with a high emphasis on compulsion.

Sometimes these children would do nothing at all for long periods of time, almost daring the new teachers to go back on their principles and force them to do something.

In other cases, the students would go out of their way to disrupt classes and generally make as much trouble as possible in the new more relaxed environment in which they found themselves. In these cases, the unruly students quickly discovered that the “does not mean license” part of the saying was not an empty threat or a paper tiger. They were simply prevented from disrupting the others, although they were still allowed to avoid classes for as long as they wished.

Freedom does not mean license. You don't have to go to class, but you can't mess things up for those that want to.

The really interesting thing was that after a while, virtually all the students wound up going to classes and generally getting involved with the school. When they realized no one was going to force them to do anything, at some point their natural curiosity kicked in and got the better of them.

This is the part of the story that convinces me that roommate conflicts, like many conflicts, can frequently be reduced if not eliminated. Many people believe that some people are just difficult, it's part of human nature, and you can't really do much about it. If this was the case, it would be difficult to do much about many roommate problems. But the experience at Summerhill led me to realize that the world affects us, and we in turn affect the world.

More to the point: the difficult students at Summerhill apparently were in many cases simply reacting to the prior environment that they found objectionable. When this environment changed - and a sufficient amount of time had passed - their behavior became much more tolerable.

Therapy helps a lot -- the outer as well as the inner

I realized early in life that much of the trouble we have getting along with each other is artificial or just unnecessary. Many of those in my typically contentious family were so busy bickering with each other that they failed to realize that they were actually after the same things -- a decent life, the chance to raise their kids, hopefully a chance for some fun from time to time. But the endless squabbling and fighting used up a lot of the time and energy that could have gone toward making these things happen.

I was 26 years old, trying to figure out what to do with myself, and just beginning to comprehend the enormity of the mixed-up world in which I lived. It was almost 10 years since my own rather explosive parting of the ways from my chronically unhappy-and-unwilling-to-even-discuss-it family; I had rather naively assumed that once I got "out into the world" all would be well, or at least understandable.

Somebody gave me a copy of Nathaniel Branden's book The Disowned Self, written shortly after his professional and personal alliance with author / philosopher Ayn Rand ended dramatically.

I got into therapy with Nathaniel and wound up with an entirely new understanding of myself, the world around me, and how a dysfunctional society can create dysfunctional people who in turn support and continue the dysfunctional society.

Had to work on conflicts. But which ones?

My experience with psychotherapy was so positive that I seriously considered a career as a psychologist. My interest in technology, however, won out and led me to a long run as an independent IT consultant, specializing in sales and accounting systems for small businesses.

My interest in psychological issues, especially as they relate to human interaction, remained strong and in fact became somewhat of a "subtext" for my technical work. I developed a reputation as a "techie" who somehow still "talked like a normal person," as one of my clients put it; this was a big help in dealing with people and coming up with ways to solve their problems using technology.

Conflict — large and small, local, regional, or global — has remained at the top of my interest list; as our civilization continues to deteriorate, my desire to apply some of the things I have come to understand has become more urgent than ever.

I have developed a good understanding of many of the reasons people disappoint or mistreat each other, resulting in endless friction and problems. As important as this is, however, what's even more important is the maddeningly obvious yet largely unanswered question: why do these problems continue? Everyone intuitively understands how to treat others well yet much of the time this is ignored.

My need — maybe “obsession” is more accurate — to understand and, hopefully, to do something about this disconnect between what most of us say we want and the conflict-ridden world we have created has led me to become The Roommate Coach. My goal? “World peace — one roommate at a time.”