Question #82: The violent roommate

Dear Captain Awkward,

 I recently moved in with two of my good friends from college. Two of us are attending the same graduate program in the fall, and the other is graduating next spring. The two guys I moved in with have been living together for the past three years, and since moving in several very awkward situations have developed. 

One of the guys, lets call him Undergrad, has been treating me very differently since I moved in. I think he may be viewing me as an intruder into their relationship. He has been very passive aggressive and obviously trying to assert his authority over me and my other friend (Graduate student). This has escalated rapidly and frictions are developing between graduate student and undergrad student. Undergrad has taken to randomly walking in to Graduate’s room without permission, and refusing to leave. When Graduate asks him to do something he doesn’t wish to do, like leave his room, Undergrad either ignores him or gets angry. Now this is awkward enough, but I’ve been brought in to mediate these disputes. I have talked to undergrad, but he refuses to acknowledge my suggestions or give any confirmation. He won’t even assure Graduate and I that he’ll leave the room when Graduate asks. 

 Then last week things escalated even further. When Graduate yelled at him to leave his room Undergrad responded by attempting to choke him. I was forced to break it up. since then I have seen undergrad shove Graduate student aggressively. I have also talked to Graduate student and he says this has occurred before. Normally I would just kick Undergraduate out of the apartment, but we’re all supposed to be friends. The domestic abusive stuff is difficult to handle because we are all guys and are expected to handle this on our own. I really could use some advice.


Abusive Relationship?

Dear Abusive Relationship!

Yeah, I’m turning your question into an exclamation point.

You need to get this guy out of your living space and out of your lives before he seriously injures or kills one of you.  If your fellow roommate won’t help you with this, get out of there yourself and let him know he can come sleep on your new couch where you will soon live.  Resist anyone who tells you that it’s not that big a deal.

All I can offer are imperfect solutions – I hope the commenters can give you more.

But before you do anything, I think you should go visit the mental health office/student counseling services at your school tomorrow, and tell them what’s up with your roommate.  They may be able to get you and your other roommate out of there and onto campus housing temporarily and help direct you to legal advice on breaking your lease or evicting him.  They may be able to give you scripts for dealing with the roommate and some backup for when you need to take it to the cops. They may be able to direct you to emergency funds you can access.  They may be able to help you guys coax him in for a visit.  Ask them – you don’t want to start handling this without professionals at your back.

Also, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline.  They know a lot more about this than me and might also be able to suggest resources. Do this AND talk to the school.  You need all the backup you can get.

I highly recommend The Gift of Fear to you.  Some things from the book I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Give the guy a way to save face.
  • Do not escalate, retaliate, threaten, or mock him.
  • Treat him like you know he will do the right thing and that he has many alternatives open to him. Try to get him to talk to you. “We’re really concerned about this behavior – it’s not like you, and it’s really not okay? What’s going on?  Can we help?”
By that, I don’t mean coddle him or the situation. He can’t live with you anymore. Either he’s leaving or you’re leaving. But there’s a fragile period where you get your ducks in a row to either leave or kick him out, and in that period you can take care of yourself by saying a simple “That’s not okay, Undergrad. You really scared me today. What’s going on with you?” and otherwise keeping a low profile and polite, noncommittal responses.

Get any pets or valuables you like out of there. Lock your computer in your room when you’re gone.  Ten years ago, I had a controlling roommate who wrote long incoherent counter notes berating me for my “faults” and worrying about our “friendship.”  She threatened to move out in one of the notes, and I circled those words and wrote “How soon?”  That’s when she began casually mentioning that she had a gun in her storage locker and  then letting my cat “escape” into the snow.  I stayed quiet, nodded and smiled at her, agreed with everything she said, saved up money, and waited until she left town on a vacation and moved, leaving her no forwarding contact info. Sometimes I run into people who know her who try to talk to me.  I walk away from them very quickly. Would she have actually hurt me? Who cares.  Not sticking around to find out.

So. Get a lock for your door and use it. If he puts his hands on either of you again, call the cops, and if he’s not removed from the house make sure you have a safe place to go. Also, this is not the time for pride:  Don’t be afraid to ask your parents for emergency money if you need to get out of there in a hurry if things go to shit.  Let them know what’s going on.   Let your friends know.  Make sure there is a place you can sleep if you need to.  But most of all, get people at your school to take this seriously and have your back. Something very serious is going on inside this guy, and it’s not going to just go away on its own, and hopefully the school’s mental health services can reach out to him and get him some help before it gets worse.

Take care of yourself, and please, please let us know what happens.  Readers, I could really use some backup here.

33 thoughts on “Question #82: The violent roommate

  1. “The domestic abusive stuff is difficult to handle because we are all guys and are expected to handle this on our own.” fuck that shit. let’s role play here. if it were three girls? what would that look like? two girls and one guy? i mean, come on… you walk in? and your male roommate is strangling your female roommate? and it isn’t the first time? not cool. start with the school counselor. if s/he is a tool? move on to other resources. you’re right to be concerned. go with your gut.

  2. Jennifer,
    You’re right on every count. Behind every “room mate murder” in the news there’s a story much like this one.
    The impulse to minimize the problem is understandable but DON’T listen to it. Get out.

  3. Consider calling the cops now. It’s not escalating to call the police; Undergrad has already assaulted Graduate in a potentially life-threatening manner.

    And like Capt. A said, get out as soon as possible. Put down a deposit, take a half day, borrow a van, and move. I have been there and done that and I’m really glad I did.

    1. You could call the cops and ask them for advice, but I would very cautiously say say hold off on calling the cops to arrest him until you know that you have a safe place you could go. Call the hotline tonight, talk to your school tomorrow, and save calling the cops for Saturday (unless he does more stuff – then, CALL! AND GET OUT!)

      Sometimes involving law enforcement doesn’t make it better for the victim, if they can’t hold the abuser in jail and have to let him come home (there are laws on how and when you can evict someone, he’ll still have keys to your place and not be really happy after a night in jail). It’s a really delicate time when you involve the police. Restraining orders aren’t magic, they only work on people who give a shit about whether they violate a restraining order, which is not something you can count on an abuser to be. That’s why I say consult the experts first.

  4. Listen, I’m a GIRL and my roommates didn’t believe that my male roommate literally tried to kill me (but that was a tidy piece of victim blaming since i had had sex with the guy so a whole other thing maybe). Anyway, you are absolutely living in an abusive situation. Here’s the thing: the situation between Undergrad and your friend is shitty, but you can’t be in the middle like that because you are now a target of Undergrad’s anger and awful behavior. Have you seen the safety videos on the plane? Put your own oxygen mask on before you help anyone else. Get the f out of there- plenty of people on craigslist etc are looking for someone to sublet their place for a few weeks or months so that can give you some stalling time if you are short. When you are in a safe place, help out your friend.

    I would keep your friend abreast of what you are thinking and what is going on. Maybe take him out for a beer or coffee or whatever now, be serious and be like, “I feel unsafe in our apartment. I am leaving. Here’s when.” That way, if you two are on the same page, your roommate can be like, “Great, me too.”

    Warning: some people deal with domestic violence (which means violence in your home, btw and doesn’t have to mean you’re also partnered with the person) in different ways. You need to be prepared for your friend to not think it’s a big deal/not want to go/not want to blame Undergrad for things. Whatever the situation, don’t wait around for him. It took me two years to get over the four months of utter helpless fear of being dirt poor and living in a house with someone who tried to kill me plus other roommates who don’t care/won’t get involved. Please do not blame yourself for this guy’s dickish behavior, also.

    1. OMG, I am so sorry that happened to you. Glad you got away from that person.

      I agree with your approach of sitting down with the other roommate and being like, “Dude, this isn’t normal, we both need to get the eff out of this apartment”. Obviously LW should skedaddle ASAP, and alone if he must, but it seems like the other roommate is also well aware that shit is fucked up, too.

  5. This is all really good advice.

    The letter-writer and/or his roommate might also consider calling the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence hotline: whether or not there’s been any kind of sexual relationship or either of these guys identifies as gay doesn’t matter, GMDV is just going to be more experienced in talking about safety planning in situations of male-on-male relationship violence. Also, the writer of the letter frames it as ‘relationship’ and ‘domestic abuse’ rather than just ‘roommate,’ so they might as well get informed & experienced support treating it respectfully as such without a whole lot of explaining.

    The Gift of Fear is an extremely useful book, which, among other things, makes clear it’s about de-escalating a dangerous person until you can get rid of them/get away. Which, when it gets to this point, is the only point.

    Support/intervention from the school might also help them to be the ones who get to keep the apartment if they want to. Which they should be able to do, in any kind of just world.

    It may or may not be the best option, but fingers crossed. A restraining order/relief from abuse order could also accomplish them being the ones who get to stay.

    Good luck to them.

  6. As is eloquently mentioned above: OUT. Acquire Useful Local Advice –> Safe Place to Go –> Flee –> Help Graduate

    Now, when you talk to Graduate, I do want to speak up about how you are all dudes and that will impact the words you choose to use with him. He may have a (pretty common) bias that “domestic abuse” is only between people who are in a romantic relationship. All of us here may know that isn’t the case, but I’m interested in making that conversation easier, and biases make things hard.

    So, let’s focus on assault. Choking is assault. Assault is a crime. Like, a possible jail time kind of crime. Undergrad has committed a crime against Graduate. Bros do not let bros live with assholes who commit crimes against said bros. So get out, let Graduate know that you REPORT CRIMES and that you have a couch.

    “Hey Graduate. Remember that time Undergraduate choked you? That’s a crime. If it was a stranger choking you, I would have called the cops, and looking back on it, I really SHOULD have, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I don’t want to live in fear that Undergraduate is going to commit a crime on ME, so I’m leaving. And if he hurts you again, remember, that’s a freaking criminal action and you need to call the police. Or call me. And then *I* will call the police. This shit does not stand.”

    But as the Cap’n notes above, your local avenues of help may have better scripts than this. Good luck! Stay safe!

  7. I think a lot of these comments are concentrated on making the LW understand how dangerous this is, so that he takes this seriously and gets out and then we will all breathe a sigh of relief.

    But I want to throw out there (also in the hopes that it gets the LW to move out) that things don’t have to be The Worst Ever to break a lease. Your roommates don’t have to be criminals in order for you to justify a move. They just have to be not good roommates. I moved out of an apartment when one of my roommates turned out to be a giant homophobe. I’m not gay, but that’s enough to make me feel super-uncomfortable. And it turns out breaking a lease is totally worth it.

    I guess I’m saying that I also agree that the answer to “Abusive relationship?” is “Abusive relationship!” but you don’t actually have to answer that question before getting out of dodge. You can answer it later, from a distance.

  8. Tough situation. The Captain’s advice is great. Since Grad student has a long history of living with this Undergrad and tolerating this behavior, it may not be easy to convince him of the gravity of the situation. He may not want to kick out Undergrad.

    Number one priority is getting yourself out of there. You are the last one in, so that makes the most sense. I worry that kicking out Undergrad would be harder, since he has been living with Grad student for a while. School is hard enough without a whole lot of personal drama in your own home. And Undergrad seems unstable. If you think your presence is making the situation worse, that’s even more reason to get out of there. Remember, you are not abandoning Grad student. He has to make his own choices.

    I don’t know who is old enough to remember Chandler’s roommate on Friends. Things only got better when he kicked that guy out! It does not seem workable or resolvable.

    Good luck- I will check back for an update…

  9. I agree with Blythe that your main priority should be yourself right now. This being said, while you have to accept your roommate has to make his own decisions, always make sure he has your number or access to some help line if necessary. The absolute worse thing you can do to an abuse victim is to leave them alone and isolated with their abuser. People in relationships with abusers are constantly manipulated, to the point where they begin questioning their own instincts. I have watched a sister and a good friend go through this now, and it isn’t easy. Sitting down and talking to your grad friend, you might not get the results you want. You might not even find yourselves on the same page, yet. However, when he does get to that point, he’s going to need a good friend – and that’s where you need to be available.

    1. I wish to “like” this comment. Damn you, facebooks!

      I think the best thing that the OP can do for his friend is to listen when he is needed, to be honest about the situation, and to offer help. When I was going through what I was going through, I just wanted someone to BELIEVE ME. Full stop.

  10. I work in the DV sector in Australia and would just like to say that everyone’s comments (and CA’s advice) are all appropriate and useful. I felt it pertinent to add that research indicates that choking is a ‘red flag’ incident – this means that the ante has officially been upped, the abuser’s behaviour is becoming increasingly (and possibly rapidly) more dangerous and unpredictable, and the risk of further injury or death are a very real possibility (research in Oz indicates that up to 89% of all domestic homicides are preceded (not necessarily immediately) by at least one choking or strangling incident (not to mention how dangerous this form of assault is in and of itself).
    Also, kicking out the abuser may serve to escalate his abuse, so the best option is often to get to a place of safety That He Does Not Know About – totally unjust but the current systems that respond to abusers are imperfect and not to be relied upon in instances such as this (I agree with CA’s assessment re calling the police).
    I hope we get feedback that this guy and his roommate/friend are ok.

    1. I have to add a huge heaping of agreement here, particularly the “Place of Safety That He Does Not Know About” part.

      This man has already shown that he has no respect for anyone’s boundaries by invading personal space, not leaving when asked, and strangling. Should he be ‘kicked out’ there is nothing to say that he will not come back, and come back feeling *vengeful* as well as *entitled* to occupy that space, just as he felt entitled to occupy Graduate’s space before. True, a restraining order might be an impediment to that, but those don’t have a track record of working very well when someone places in just-violent-enough-not-to-pop-up-on-the-radar-YET.

      So yes, as others said, getting away should be first priority, I think.

  11. I echo all of this — get to a safe place, and find help. This is not a situation anyone should have to deal with alone, and most universities (at least in the US) have some way of helping students in abusive situations. Many communities also have support lines and/or shelters that are plugged into local resources.

    Many campuses have services specific to students who are suffering from abuse in a relationship (roommate relationship or otherwise). Calling the counseling center is a great start, but you could also see if there’s an advocacy service — they’re usually found in the Women’s Center, Dean of Student’s office, or Student Health/Counseling. They can be a great resource because they know specific steps that the university can take to help a student, including getting a student into on campus housing and alerting campus officials about a potentially threatening student in case the violence escalates and starts occurring on campus. Our Dean of Students is also able to issue “restraining orders” barring a person from being on campus or certain places on campus, which for many people is a reasonable compromise between getting a criminal order of protection, and not doing anything.

    In terms of getting to a safe place quick, local DV shelters can help if the school can’t. Even if you just need a couple weeks between leaving the current place and getting into a new place, hopefully they can find a way to put you up if you need it.

    Gavin de Becker has developed an online threat assessment tool called Mosaic, found here:
    The Domestic Violence assessments are free.

    Good Luck! You don’t have to do this alone!

  12. It takes three people to make a drama triangle. Much as I hate the term, it’s a really useful game to be aware of, and is one many of us (myself included) have been playing it, unnoticed, for many years. In this psychological game; there’s a victim, a persecutor and a rescuer. As long as the three remain together, the game can be never-ending, and the roles even interchange as the game gets more complex. I’d support the advice of all those above who recommend getting out of there, into a safe place, and helping your friend. I wish you good luck – there are plenty of non-judgemental people who can help you with your situation, regardless of your gender or living arrangements.

    Eric Berne’s (admittedly of-its-time-misogynist) “Games People Play” covers the ‘Drama Triangle’ in plain, engaging language, should you wish to know more about it.

  13. LW, you and the graduate student need to get out. Call the National Domestic Violence hotline–abuse is abuse, and it doesn’t matter if you’re roommates, lovers/spouses, friends, or relatives–it is not okay. Frankly, the undergrad roommate refusing to leave graduate roommate’s room when asked scares the crap out of me, let alone the choking (!). That right there is assault.

    You cannot just handle this among yourselves–everyone here has listed good resources for you to use, and I cannot stress enough how important it is that you use them. Your safety comes first. I’d also talk to grad roommate and stress how undergrad’s behavior isn’t normal, safe, or appropriate, and find out what’s been going on with the undergrad (and the grad student). Is your grad student roommate in denial? Does he think it’s no big deal? (Doubtful.) Is he afraid (please make sure he knows it’s okay to feel that way–you can tell him you’re pretty freaked out).

    Please post an update because *I* am seriously worried and freaked out right now!

  14. Okay just as a quick reply to all the wonderful advice. I’m not afraid for myself. This guy can literally do nothing to harm me. The only problem is that he may take that frustration out on graduate. If i move out alone the situation will be similar, and nothing will be resolved. Thank you all for the resources you’ve recommended. After speaking with graduate we’ve decided to ask undergraduate to move out. I hope this all goes smoothly.

    1. 1 – AWESOME. Hope that works out!

      2 – Eh, whether he can actually hurt you with his piddly fists is kind of irrelevant. Attacking with the intent to harm is assault whether anyone is actually hurt, and if Undergrad intends/intended to harm anyone, well, he deserves bannination from your abode. Because again, crime. I’m glad you and Grad came together on this!

    2. Oh man, congratulations on making the decision to take action and double congrats for doing so together! I wish you guys all the luck in the world and hope all goes as well as it can.

    3. I’m glad the two of you are standing together and getting him out. I hope it goes smoothly, too. I really will ask you to talk to your school’s mental health services about his behavior and what you’re doing. Get ready to change the locks, and maybe you can both stay somewhere else for a few nights after you have the conversation and let him cool down.

      You kicking him out = humiliation for him. If he’s acting this way when things are “normal,” you have to be prepared for the worst after you tell him now not normal things are. Please don’t underestimate how dangerous and unstable he can be.

      Look, if it all goes fine, and we’re making a big deal out of nothing, then those are good problems. But I want you to be prepared for the idea that he may not go quietly.

    4. Echoing the others… Please talk to the authorities about this person and be prepared to make sure he STAYS out of your apartment.

    5. One more suggestion, from Gavin de Becker – have the talk OUTSIDE your place. Go to the bar or the coffeeshop. Neutral territory.

  15. “This guy can literally do nothing to harm me.”

    Is he breathing? Then he can do plenty to harm you. Like set the apt on fire. Or, set YOU on fire.
    Don’t be lulled into underestimating the capacity of the deranged.

  16. National domestic violence hotline? The police? Puh-leeze. Not to be an asshole or belittle the struggle of the O.P., but nothing in this letter jumped out at me as assault or domestic violence.

    Number 1, grad and undergrad have been living together for 3 years before this new stuff. If grad felt uncomfortable or threatened, he certainly had ample time to remove himself.
    Number 2, you don’t exactly know their dynamics. Maybe undergrad was pissed bec. grad had too many dirty dishes. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe they shove each other sometimes.
    Number 3, As I’m sure the OP knows, in “guy culture” a little choking between friends is really no big deal. I once had a proper fist fight with a friend that left me with bruises for days. We’re still friends years later.

    I’m sorry, I’m really coming off like a jerk. You neglect to mention how grad feels about the interactions. Is he threatened? Alarmed? etc. He’s obviously not afraid of undergrad if he is willing to yell at him. Maybe they just need to fight it out? Who hasn’t wanted to choke a roommate?

    The problem is that he’s messing up your life, and that is not ok. Ask him what his fucking problem is! And try to heal it. Being a roommate is about compromises and healing problems. Chucking somebody for a couple shouted words doesn’t help heal wounds.

    If that fails, and he’s committed to being a jerk, definitely ask him to leave or leave yourself. It’s about your comfort at the end of the day.

    1. Wow, this Guy Culture you describe sounds awesome! I’ve never heard of it before! Except…I have.

      The roommate, by refusing to leave someone’s room and engaging in escalating violent behavior (like choking) is showing that he no longer gives a shit about the social contract. And we don’t know what he does when the letter writer is not around – what happens next time he decides he’s just got to choke someone and there’s no one to intervene? That’s a sign of some serious instability going on. But we can’t call an expert or ask for help! No, GUY CULTURE will save us.

      Big-time violence – people who shoot up their office or their college or kill their roommates and then themselves – never just comes out of the blue. There are always indicators. The roommate is displaying some of those. So why not trust our instincts that something really not okay is going on and maybe talk to the school’s mental health facility to find out some ways of dealing with it? No! GUY CULTURE says we have to laugh it off as no big deal!

      Whatever. Guy culture can suck my balls.

    2. Being a roommate is about compromises and healing problems.

      what? How exactly does a person compromise with an individual who enters his personal space and won’t leave? And chokes him? “Hey, I’ll meet you halfway on this – would you mind if maybe you just get to stand in my doorway and creepily stare into my room? And if you feel like choking me, just twist my arm a little, ok?”

      I agree with your philosophy on living together, but I think people who share an apartment need to have some basic ground rules in place, such as whether or not it is cool to cross the line from wanting to choke someone into actually choking someone. Just for example. And let’s face it… neither of these dudes are Undergrad’s therapist. And not all problems can be “healed” by negotiating a new rule about dirty dishes or getting into a fistfight.

      Plus, would that “you don’t exactly know their dynamics” b.s. hold any water at all if these two were a guy and a girl? Two female roommates? A straight couple? A gay couple? Dude, please. Guy culture doesn’t negate the fact that choking is extremely dangerous. Even in the context of TOTALLY CONSENSUAL kinky sex, choking is a big no-no because there is no reliable way to ensure that fun sexy choking doesn’t turn into scary cardiac-arrest-causing choking. “A little choking between friends” can still kill you, no matter how much testosterone and jocularity are involved.

      Basically, if “guy culture” normalizes the kind of thing that’s going on in these dudes’ apartment, then guy culture sure seems to turn a blind eye to toxic friendships and physical abuse.

      1. “… what? How exactly does a person compromise with an individual who enters his personal space and won’t leave? And chokes him? “Hey, I’ll meet you halfway on this – would you mind if maybe you just get to stand in my doorway and creepily stare into my room? And if you feel like choking me, just twist my arm a little, ok?””

        This wins for comment of the day, and it’s not even 6:30 in the morning.

        1. You don’t even know how many italics tags and capslock phrases I removed from this comment before publishing.

  17. Ok, this is an old thread, but I’m having a lazy Sunday read-through of old threads, and I realized that there has been no secondary followup and also, too, that no one addressed the fact that all 3 of these men are in the same graduate program. Which: Danger, Will Robinson!

    I’m very concerned by the guy seeming to actually believe that this other person ‘can literally do nothing to hurt’ him, despite the fact that they will be in a the same graduate program and thus presumably the same working environment, which will lead to ample opportunity for career sabotage as well as, oh, knives, guns, ninja stars, accidental car encounters in the parking lot, poisoning, etc etc? And, too, if the school has a grad student that is choking people all willy nilly, they should know, probably, and bar him from holding office hours behind closed doors, possibly? Abusers gonna abuse, and even if LW and friend got out totally ok from the housing situation, crazy abuser could still make their lives difficult/miserable/over.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’d like a follow-up as well!

      The trouble-causing roommate is an undergrad at the same school, so he’s not RIGHT UP IN their program or not likely to have an office/position of authority. But the school should know about him and would definitely be able to recommend some help to the LW.

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