Dear Captain Awkward,
My husband and I had our first baby almost three months ago. We rent a house and sublet one of our bedrooms to a thirty-something woman who is causing me a lot of aggravation. While I would gladly DTMFA, she is friends with an awful lot of my gaming friends, and it’s not as if there’s any one problem that I’m having with her. It’s more like a steady patter of tiny incidents that reached my saturation point months in the past.
She moved in a little more than a year ago with many, many plans. As a graduate of a culinary school, she immediately set to playing Warcraft on an Australian server more than ten hours a night. Eight months later, she finally figured out that when I said “I don’t know what that is.” It mostly meant that I wasn’t interested in enthusiastic discussions about DPS. And while I know I should be direct, I also fear that confronting her on what has become increasingly irritating behavior may damage the friendships we both have with the same group of friends, cause her to enter a deep depression, or even cause her to move out.
Problem 1: The Man Trap
I had never seen anyone over the age of thirty pass a note to someone they thought was cute. But yeah, that happened. And while that alone might have been an indicator of immaturity, she did this during a board gaming session, putting the recipient on the spot, and after being quite gently rebuffed basically worked her way around the table. She presented a totally bizarre mix of entitlement and desperation that I’ve now grown accustomed to. Eventually she remarked to me- “Well they’ll regret that after I lose all this weight.”
Misery loves to share, and she shares entirely too much. “Do you love me?” Was apparently the question that broke her last relationship; when applied repeatedly with the most syrupy tone possible, it will garner a short and snarky answer. As of a few weeks ago, she finally got herself a boyfriend from our pool of mutual friends. He’s a very nice guy who lives out of town. He is in his mid-thirties, and she is, honestly, the first person to touch his penis. He’s a very nice guy, probably too nice. Any anger and frustration she expresses is automatically his fault and he absorbs the blame eagerly, because god forbid she get so pissed at him for not bringing her flowers when she’s had a bad day that she ends the relationship.
But it’s none of my business! It doesn’t affect me, even when she comes out of her room with a new cookie kit and talks to my husband about how maybe they can make cookies together sometime. When I’m sitting right there.
Problem 2: Horse Blinders
She does not notice things. And I’m not talking about not noticing small things. It took her two days to notice that her cat was peeing on her bathroom rug. “Oh, I’m sorry.” (Always the exact same tone.) “I didn’t see that there.”
I used to be okay with her borrowing my dishware, but it disappears into her room for a month at a time. I’m constantly counting my dishes. When I asked for one of my clear plastic water jugs back, she couldn’t find it. I asked again after searching the kitchen, and it was still absent. So I stood at her door and looked in. It was easily visible. “Oh, I’m sorry.” Yeah. She didn’t know I meant THAT clear plastic water jug.
Now there’s also boxes of stuff that was never unpacked by her. And that’s just fine, it’s a small room. But these boxes are everywhere. And she’s forgotten that they are hers. Or she doesn’t see them. When she moved in I put one of her items I found in an inconvenient place in front of her door, she called a house meeting to “discuss what that meant.” It meant it was in a bad place. Now I feel like I can’t move her piles at all. But she didn’t actually say I couldn’t, so I’m just crazy.
Problem 3: The Pit
One year on and she still has no job. This is blamed on a variety of things, including a crippling anxiety about rejection. It also has something to do with that economy I’ve heard so much about, I’m sure. Her brother pays her rent, and pays for her psychiatric visits to his practice. His wife prescribes her the medications that aren’t really helping. (No conflict there, right?) I suppose he must feel in some way responsible for her depression, as every time she talks about her family it involves some kind of trauma- literally every time she has discussed them she raises the issue of their abuse of her. And while I felt sympathy for her at first, I just don’t feel the same way anymore. At what point does my shoulder to cry on crack? When being told that her parents wouldn’t buy her a cabbage patch doll. Oh the inequity! Some of her grievances are legitimate, but there seems to be a problem for her in distinguishing. If I choose to call her out on any of her behavior, I would feel at fault for the immediate predictable downturn in her mental health.
Problem 4: Baby
I had my first baby almost three months ago, and he’s with me 24/7. That part of it is fine. What isn’t fine are the comments she makes every single time she sees him, whether he’s asleep or awake. “Oooooh, are you sittin on mama?” “You’re so cuuute!” “Are you giving mama a hard time?” Which is just the worst to hear when he’s having a good scream. The only way to keep her from commenting is to have a tit out with him on it.
My skin literally crawled when I saw her bending over his crib, or that memorable moment when she offered to watch him sleep. I might write this off to motherly protectiveness, except that I’ve let everyone else under the sun pick him up. Perhaps she knows in some small way how I feel because she hasn’t asked to hold him. I must stress that I haven’t acted crazy…that I’ve noticed.
The other complication the baby brings is the elimination of a lot of renters. Not many ideal housemates want to live alongside a kid, even when they do have control over their bowels. And this baby obviously doesn’t. Also, the future holds childproofing for the entire house, including her space and her bathroom.
Problem 5: Friends
Her and I have a few mutual friends. Booting her is not a preferred option. These friends saw her moved in to our place and even come around to take her shopping and out to eat. They are, to say the least, highly giving people whom I would hate to inflict drama upon. I am also reluctant to tell them my grievances, because I know it makes me feel like a steaming pile of crazy poop. The friends that she and I share are really the only friends that she has outside of the internet.
In addition, I seem to be alone in wanting her gone. My husband will put up with her until she lights the house on fire, for his cardinal rule in life is to not cause or partake in drama.
Worst of all, I fear that I might actually just be too sensitive for my own good, and might actually just be crazy. I’m also afraid that the solution might not be something I can put into motion until we’re able to move into cheaper digs.
This is a case of Geek Social Fallacies run amok. Your husband’s willingness to continue to live with someone who drives you nuts to avoid causing “drama” is a case of all the fallacies combining into one giant super-fallacy. Let’s call it Geek Social Fallacy #6: I can keep the peace. If I never ever speak up for myself, then everything will always be okay and everyone will always like me and each other and there will never be conflict or drama because by effacing my own needs and always being nice I can totally control how other people treat me and each other.
This is false. It is very common (and as a Middle Child, I am not immune to its siren call), but it is false. Actually, you can only take care of yourself. You can’t control what other people will do.
So let’s talk about what drama is, and what it isn’t.
If you, an adult human, have needs or grievances, and you directly state those needs or grievances to the person who can help you clear up the problem, you are not causing drama. You are directly saying what you need out loud to the person who can do something about it.
Speaking up for yourself DOES NOT EQUAL creating drama.
Now, if you were to go to all of your mutual friends and bitch about your roommate while staying quiet about your problems at home and insisting to her that everything is fine, that would be some passive-aggressive drama creation.
And if you were to say directly to your roommate “Let’s set some ground rules about what’s ok around the house” and talk to her about those ground rules, and she yelled at you or cried or called all of your mutual friends to talk about how mean you are and stormed around the house and made snide weird comments and made a giant stink about it…
There would be drama, oh yes.
But not drama that you created.
When people create drama in this way, what they are trying to do is control your behavior without ever directly stating what they want and what they need. They hope that the tantrum shitstorm be enough to make you back down. They hope that mutual friends will carry the news – “So and so is really upset with you.” It is incredibly manipulative and adolescent behavior.
Here’s the secret about that behavior:
- It is really unpleasant. It’s supposed to be.
- If you appease the tantrum-thrower on this one thing, they will hold the threat of future tantrums over your head forever and you will never be safe from it.
- It can usually be sidestepped and/or defeated if you remain firm and calm and insist on dealing with the person directly.
- You can’t teach people how to be, but you can mostly teach them how they can be around you.
Let’s get some facts on the table.
- This lady is not your friend and you don’t like her. If it weren’t for mutual friends, you’d cheerfully never see her again. Just accept that in your heart. Sometimes giving into the Dark Side and really letting yourself hate in private gives you the strength to be neutral and polite in public.
- Her personal problems – mental health, boyfriend, joblessness, childhood abuse, etc. – are not your problems. You’re not friends. They don’t really impact on the roommate situation, really, they are just side issues that crop up because once you dislike someone everything they do plays into that narrative of how you dislike them. So, when you do end up talking about ground rules in the house, you have to leave this stuff out of it, just like it’s not fair to carry housegrudges into the friendspaces.
- Your husband is not going to magically grow a spine and do a Geek Social Fallacies exorcism, so if any serious talking needs to be done, you’re doing it. But you CAN and SHOULD ask him to back you up on whatever you decide and make a plan with you.
- You need a long-term plan and a short-term plan.
Long-term plan: She does not live with you and your husband anymore. Whether that means you guys live with no roommates or find another roommate, there is an end date where she no longer lives with you. What is that date? Does she have a lease? If not, make one, and put an end date on it. After that date, she must move. Period.
This is a conversation with your husband. “I know you don’t want to create drama, but having Roommate live with us is really not working for me. A lot of her behaviors are just incompatible with what I need from a living situation, especially now that we have a baby. We need to trust that we can find a non-annoying roommate and set a time limit for how long she can stay. I’m willing to be the bad guy and handle the discussions, but I 100% need you to back me up all the way.”
Do a little legal research, and make sure you absolutely adhere to the terms of her lease in giving notice to move out, as in, 2-3 months in advance you give her notice that you’re not renewing her lease. “We’ve decided not to renew your lease and wanted to give you as much notice as possible so that you can look for a new place.” If she asks why, repeat the words “With the baby, this really isn’t working out for us anymore” as many times in as many variations as necessary. She doesn’t have to know whether you’ll find a new roommate or specifically what your reasons are. “I’m sorry, it just really isn’t working out for us. Hopefully you’ll find a place soon.”
Short-term plan: You have a very direct talk with her and take some concrete steps to improve your living situation now. It may create some tension and drama. Stick to your guns and ride it out.
So let’s plan out a strategy of boundary enforcement. The birth of your baby actually gives you a bulletproof, stellar reason to readjust the ground rules of the house, and it allows you to show some compassion – “I realize this is a big adjustment for you, as well, in living with a baby, so I appreciate you being flexible as Husband and I try to figure out this parenthood gig.”
- She needs to stop talking to the baby when he’s sleeping (or crying). You need to handle those situations without commentary from other people. It is interfering and annoying. The best way to do this is in the moment. She starts her commentary, and you simply say “Could you please not do that? Thank you.” Say it every single time she does it. Keep sarcasm out of your voice as much as possible. At the end of a week, if she’s still doing it, escalate to A Talk, like, “Hey, when you talk to the baby when he’s sleeping or crying, it is annoying and unhelpful, and I’ve asked you several times not to do it. This is me officially asking you to not do that anymore. Thank you.”
- You yourself need to find a way to cut her off when she starts babbling endlessly about her stuff. “Sorry to cut you off, but I’m in the middle of something/getting some quiet time now that the baby is asleep/trying to read. Can we talk later?” (Later will never come, but you can leave that part silent.) If she corners you for a WoW chat, just say, “I’m sorry, I don’t play the game. Can we talk about something else?” The evil side of me is tempted to ask her to tell your husband her personal problems instead of you, like “You should talk to Husband about this! He’s really good at sorting that stuff out!” (and then throw down a ninja smoke bomb and disappear) but she might take that as license to “bake cookies.” My point is, if he had to deal with more of it, would he be so blithe in wanting her to stay?
- With household items getting lost in her room, wait until the next one goes missing, and then have a talk about it. “It really bothers me when I have to chase down items that get lost in your room. It’s happened enough times that I think it would be better if you just used your own dishes from now on.”
- With clutter and cleanliness, pretty much you don’t want your baby crawling on cat pee or perishing under a pile of boxes, so start figuring out what childproofing would entail and make a list of what needs to happen.
She may threaten to move out. It’s a bit tricky – the temptation is to jump in and say “HOW SOON?” and “CAN WE HELP?” but when you do that the other person never moves out, they just dig in further. Really what you need to say then is “I want you to feel comfortable here, but some of this stuff really isn’t working for me, so I need us to find a solution.”
If she brings the friends into it, that’s not drama you created, right? You tried to have an adult conversation with another adult about adult stuff, like the fact that you have a baby now and some things have changed. “Sorry, friends, you shouldn’t be in the middle of this. We’ve had to set some new ground rules in the house since the baby was born, and Roommate is unhappy. I hope she’ll talk to me directly about what’s bothering her.” Don’t let them be the ones to bear her grievances to you. She needs to tell you directly.
I think you have to trust your friends to know, that if one friend is saying calmly “I know she’s upset, but we had to make some changes” and the other friend is all “WHYYYYYYYYYYYY DOES SHE HATE ME?” people will figure out the source of the drama pretty quickly.
So here’s what you’ve got:
1. Admit in your heart you’re not friends. Sounds like you’ve got that one down, since your email subject was something about a Gordian knot.
2. Decide on an end-date for the living situation and stick to it.
3. In the meantime, get used to calling out her negative behavior in the moment, as clearly and neutrally as possible.
4. Be fair and stay focused on the facts. “I need you to clean up cat pee as soon as it happens.” “I don’t play World of Warcraft.” “Please stop talking to the baby, he’s sleeping.”
5. Don’t get sucked into lengthy explanations as to why. The point of a lot of this is that you don’t want to engage with her all that much. You’re going to end up saying “I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for me” a lot. “I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for me” is a good enough reason.
6. Talk as little about her personal life as possible. You’re not friends.
7. Your husband doesn’t have to have the exact same set of problems with her that you do and completely agree with you on everything. The fact that it doesn’t work FOR YOU is a good enough reason, ok? He needs to back you up.
8. If drama happens, the friends will figure out pretty soon that one person is being exhausting and the one person is being calm and reasonable.