Are You Friends With Them, or Just Housemates?

“I romanticised the idea of living with mates so... I ignored the fact that most of the time we’d spent together had been whilst drunk or high."
Flatmates Enjoying Themselves

At 9AM every weekday morning in lockdown, my housemates and I would emerge from our bedrooms, one by one, to begin our version of Groundhog Day. In a synchronised shuffle around our tiny kitchen, greetings were exchanged, breakfasts were made and plans for the day were shared. All armed with a cup of coffee, we returned to our desks, opened our laptops and began a morning of university study.


Before we knew it, we were eating the same meals, doing the same workouts and watching the same TV shows. Our relationships now – ranging from passive-aggressive bickering to goodnight calls before bed – resemble the kind you’d have with family members, not friends.

But for many houses of flatmates around the country, the story went very differently. Forced by endless months of collective isolation, some co-tenants bonded while others found themselves in a state of constant conflict or irritation. Contrasting standards of boundaries and courtesies clashed daily, and the grey zone of friend or flatmate became murkier than ever.

“I romanticised the idea of living with mates so much... I ignored the fact that most of the time we’d spent together had been whilst drunk or high,” said Kate, a university student. She chose her flatmates based solely on bonds forged in kitchens at 5AM, unaware that they would be spending every hour of every day together for the next six months. “When lockdown came, I quickly realised we had nothing in common. I felt trapped. Privacy didn’t exist and every second was shared with people I was growing to dislike. We were always in each other’s spaces and it sparked an unspoken animosity between us.”


Housemate relationships are a constant diplomatic quandary. Heated arguments about the bins are as common as nights together on the sofa cringing at Love Island. But despite not always seeing eye to eye, the general rule is to remain friends or at least civil. But being together constantly meant that the goodwill in Kate’s house collapsed. “If we had been able to have a life out of the house, I’m sure we would still be friends,” she said. “But we discovered our differences at an overwhelming pace; lockdown was the catalyst for a living arrangement that none of us actually wanted.”

Rent, bills and ever-changing rules meant that she felt “stuck” and couldn’t see a way out. “I wanted to leave for such a long time before finally doing it,” she said. “Leaving allowed me to see all that I had sacrificed for the sake of the house. Had we not been in lockdown I would have left much earlier.”

Elyssa made the brave decision to move in with strangers for her second year of university. Having spent the first few months “getting to know each other”, she felt that she was building “solid friendships” with her new housemates. It wasn’t until December that cracks began to show. “After the second lockdown our bubble burst; it was clear that we weren’t all as compatible as we thought,” she said. “We were six strangers learning about each other and lockdown meant we learnt too much, too fast.”

It’s quite natural to lose and gain friends throughout our lives, as we grow and change. But for Elyssa, this process quickened to an intolerable speed. She made plans to move into a new house with one of the flatmates, “but lockdown put a huge strain on our relationship,” she said. “Red flags were showing, tensions were rising and passing comments turned into heated arguments. I ended up dropping out of the house and we are no longer friends.”

But it’s not all negative. After all, the pandemic built as many relationships as it broke. “I grew so close with a couple of my housemates,” she said, “and as we all now move out, it’s going to be hard not having them to come home to and laugh with every day. It’s bittersweet, but I’m excited to live with other good friends and hopefully avoid any more lockdowns and housemate drama.”

Lockdown intensified the already peculiar dynamics of household relationships; whilst some went days without speaking, others started showering with the bathroom door open. As my housemates and I come to the end of our tenancy, we too face the prospect of living separately and beginning to navigate life without each other’s 24/7 input. The ‘break-up’ will put us, and many others, to the ultimate test: Were we ever really friends, or were we just flatmates?