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“How Can I Help My Roommate?”

Witnessing someone experience abuse can be really painful and stressful. Many friends, family or even roommates can experience secondary trauma when they see someone they care about deal with abuse in their romantic relationship. It’s one thing to watch a friend experience abuse, but if you live with a person who is in an abusive relationship, the situation can become much more intense for you. But there are things you can do to support them and keep both of you as safe as possible.

“What Do I Need to Know?”

In college, living with a roommate is part of college life – aka dorm life – for the majority of college students. The single most important factor in opening up to your roommate about abuse or asking your roommate for help with abuse that you may be suffering is to listen and try to trust.

Abuse is a pattern of controlling behaviors that leads to an imbalance of power in a relationship, so one of the most important things you can do to help a roommate is to try to empower them to make their own decisions about their safety and how they want to move forward. At the same time, you also have the right to set boundaries for yourself and your own safety.

What is Relationship Abuse?

First, if you feel like your roommate may in an abusive relationship understand the warning signs of abuse. Dating abuse is a pattern of destructive behaviors used to exert power and control over a dating partner. While we define dating violence as a pattern, that doesn’t mean the first instance of abuse is not dating violence. It just recognizes that dating violence usually involves a series of abusive behaviors over a course of time.

Warning Signs of Dating Abuse

Because relationships exist on a spectrum, it can be hard to tell when a behavior crosses the line from healthy to unhealthy or even abusive. Use these warning signs of abuse to see if your relationship is going in the wrong direction:

  • Checking your cell phone or email without permission
  • Constantly putting you down
  • Extreme jealousy or insecurity
  • Explosive temper
  • Isolating you from family or friends
  • Making false accusations
  • Mood swings
  • Physically hurting you in any way
  • Possessiveness
  • Telling you what to do
  • Pressuring or forcing you to have sex

Learn more about how unhealthy relationships work by exploring our power and control wheel.

“What Can I Do?”

Every situation is different, but the following are some general tips that you may find helpful, whether you’re living with a roommate on a college campus or elsewhere.

Safety Planning with Your Roommate

  • Talk to your roommate about if and when they might want you to call the police on their behalf.
  • Create code words to use for when your roommate needs help, when they want you to call the police, etc.
  • Identify safe rooms or places in the home, such as a room with a lock, as well as items you can use in self-defense.
  • If abuse happens less frequently (or less severely) when more people are around, try to plan to have friends or study groups over when your roommate’s abusive partner is most likely to be around. It’s true that there’s strength in numbers!
  • Have a plan in place in case your roommate’s phone/money/keys are lost or stolen. Think of creative ways you could help out, like transferring money to your roommate’s mobile wallet if they can’t access their debit card.
  • If you live on a college or university campus, notify campus security of any incidents (if your roommate feels safe agreeing to this).
  • If you do not live on a campus, let your neighbors know who or what to watch out for.
  • Help your roommate create an emotional safety plan that includes self-care activities you can do together. This is a great way to show support!
  • Identify neighbors or friends nearby who can help/call the police/provide a safe place for you and/or your roommate when necessary.
  • Document any abuse you witness, listing dates and descriptions. Keep your documentation in a hidden, safe place. This can be helpful if your roommate decides to take legal action.
  • Keep copies of your roommate’s identification (driver’s license, school ID, passport, etc.), in case their abusive partner ever takes theirs.
  • Connect your roommate to resources that can offer emotional support and help with safety planning, such as a school or community counselor.
  • Encourage your roommate to contact loveisrespect, or you can contact us on their behalf, for specific safety planning help and local resources.

Remember, Your Own Safety Matters, Too!

  • Add a lock to your bedroom door if you don’t already have one. A door stopper wedged under the door from the inside can hold you over until you get a solid lock installed.
  • Keep a charged cellphone on you at all times.
  • Practice lots of self-care! You can’t support someone else if you are not taking care of yourself.
  • Ask nearby friends or family if you can stay with them for a night or two if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe staying at your place.
  • If you are attending college/university, you can visit the school counselors as well. On many college campuses, counseling is free or low cost for students. If you are experiencing stress or secondary trauma because of your roommate’s abusive relationship, you have a right to seek support around that!
  • If things are physically violent or seem like they may become violent, you may feel like you want to disrupt the situation. It’s important to use caution when getting involved and avoid putting yourself or your roommate in physical danger. Asking a question about something unrelated may distract from the situation at hand and allow time for it to de-escalate. Or, standing nearby and making it clear that you are watching could also help.
  • Remember, it’s not your responsibility to “fix” the situation or “save” your roommate from their relationship. If you do not feel safe or comfortable living with your roommate, you have the right to move out or request different campus housing if possible.
  • You always have the right to call the police/emergency services if you ever feel like you are in danger.

Related loveisrespect Blog Posts

WikiHow: “How to Keep a Roommate’s Abusive Partner Out of Your Home”

Four Parts:

  1. Talking to your Roommate
  2. Safeguarding your Home
  3. Reporting them to the Authorities
  4. Making a Safety Plan

WikiHow says, “A home is often the place you go to get away from the world and to find peace; however, if you have a roommate who has an abusive partner, then that peace is sure to be disrupted. You can keep yourself and your home safe by putting certain protections in place, contacting the authorities when necessary, and making a plan of escape if violence seems imminent.” Check out WikiHow’s “How to Keep a Roommate’s Abusive Partner Out of Your Home” for the full illustrative description.

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