Dear Captain Awkward,
I am currently having issues with a roommate, who is also a friend of many years. We had lived together once before for a short period, and while I had noticed his intense reactions to stressful situations then, I was given the impression he had developed strategies to cope with his anxiety since we first lived together. But now he is in a bit of a tailspin, and has been since our third roommate broke up with him and moved out four months ago. He is also incredibly stressed about work, and is worried about getting fired, and comes home every night with a new bout of anxiety to work out. Unfortunately, this takes the form of his unloading all his anger, disappointment and anxiety onto me as a listener. I understand expression of one’s feeling is super important, and his feelings are one hundred percent valid (work does sound awful and getting dumped blows), but I am feeling incapable of knowing how to help, or perhaps more importantly, how to get time to myself in the apartment. I am a teacher and feel “on” most of the day, so I do not know how to listen and get time to myself at the end of the day.
I feel like we have gotten trapped in a ritual where he will come through the door and tell me every terrible thing about his day for forty-five minutes, and I try to listen, but all I seem to be doing is reinforcing a cycle of negative thoughts. My roommate is feeling very unstable with his life right now, and I don’t want to shut him out, but at some point, it’s probably not good to allow him to fixate so much, yeah? At times, I feel like I am his only outlet for his feelings, and that I have let him take advantage of my listening ear. Often, he will seek me out if I am not in common spaces, not to check in on how my day was, but to unload. He did it just now when he ostensibly knocked on my door to ask if I needed anything from the grocery store, and then ranted at me for thirty minutes, despite knowing it was my writing time. I absolutely should have said, “Yes, it is my writing time, you are correct. I don’t need anything, I will talk to you later,” rather than hand-waving my scheduled time away and listening; I give him permission to do this. But what would be a good script to start a larger conversation?
I don’t know how to talk to him about this issue, given his stress level. I don’t want to give him more anxiety, but I feel this routine we’ve gotten into is creating bad habits. For me, I am not asserting my need for my own space and time. For him … well, it’s almost like he’s treating me as a girlfriend, like giving me all his emotional turmoil as if I am required on a partner level to help him carry it, which isn’t helping him move on or cope on his own? Even in one of my own crises (a cancer scare in my family), he spent all day with me, only to unload an intense amount of anxiety on me at the end of the day (which he had set up as a distracting, “let’s do fun things to get your mind off this cancer scenario” sort of day). This summer, I began dating someone, and my roommate started saying kind of mean jokes in my direction while the new boyfriend was around (though his humor runs more sarcastic generally), and I can’t help but wonder if this happened because I let him lean on me too much in the early days of the break-up and now he’s gotten our relationship parameters confused? He’ll invite me to events these days, and I will say no if I don’t feel like it, or that I have to check my schedule, but then he’ll repeat the invite three times after I have responded. I don’t know. It’s just a lot.
How can I be a good friend and understanding roommate while reinforcing boundaries? Do you have scripts for this, Captain?
Tongue-Tied In A Two-Flat
You are perceptive when you note that he is treating you like a certain value of girlfriend – slotting you in as “automatic social plus one” and “unquestioning absorber my emotional stuff at the end of a every day.” I mean, about that, I am someone’s girlfriend and I have also had to have the “This thing where you come home and rant about your job, sometimes telling me exactly the same thing in exactly the same words several days in a row, is BUGGING ME QUITE A LOT” talk. That talk has ended happily, thank goodness, with the acquisition of a good therapist and a farewell to jobs that cause hours and hours of ranting. I offer it as an illustration that “girlfriend” does not equal “every feeling your man has is yours to process with him in real time!” You can love someone, empathize with them, want to know most of their thoughts, share most of yours, and still set limits and still expect “Is now a good time to talk?” to be a real question where “nope!” is one possible answer.
If you haven’t read it yet it’s probably a good time to read this piece on emotional labor by my friend (YES I AM BRAGGING) Jess Zimmerman and maybe some of the follow-up discussion so at very least you can go “grrrrrrrrrr” and “arrrrrggghhh” in recognition. Acting territorially toward someone you are dating is the awkward icing on his uncoolness cake. He may not be self-aware or deliberate about any of it, which makes it extra hard to call out because you risk invoking the Maximum Defensiveness Protocol: “You Didn’t Actually Think I Was Hitting On You, Did You?”
You sound like a good and loyal friend and a great listener. You sound like you have a good sense of your own needs and boundaries. So I feel confident that the short course in
Tough Assertive Love below will not turn you into some kind of selfish a-hole.
Step 1: Interrupt the Routine
Can you be somewhere else when he comes home from work, just for a few business days?
I’m not talking about fairness, because duh, it’s not fair that you should have to leave your house b/c your roommate has no sense of boundaries right now. And I’m not talking about a long-term solution. I’m talking about 3-4 business days where Unhappy Hour literally cannot happen because you are elsewhere like on a bike ride or writing from the library or a cafe during Complain O’Clock. You can do your own thing uninterrupted, and he can find another way to unwind at the end of the day.
That might mean that he feels anxious and lonely and has to sit with a lot of uncomfortable feelings without you there to help process them, and that’s okay – that’s not you elevating or causing his anxiety, that’s just you refusing to take his anxiety on as your own. Discomfort is inevitable because the situation is uncomfortable. The whole process of resetting good boundaries involves him re-learning some self-soothing behaviors and you learning to let his discomfort be his own. Forgive yourself if it all happens in fits and starts, and keep reminding yourself that a) you are not a therapist b) you are not HIS therapist c) people professionally trained to listen non-judgmentally to people’s problems charge money and do their listening in discrete sessions scheduled in advance (vs. on demand in their homes). Friends can listen and support, but being a good friend does not require you to be an on-call amateur therapist.
Step 2: Interrupt the Routine, Part 2: “Hey Knock It Off”
When you are home, and when he comes and finds you to unload, here are a variety of strategies for stopping the cycle.
2.a. Affirm & Postpone “That sounds like a crappy day/That sucks/How unfortunate. Sorry to interrupt you, but I need to focus on _____. I’ll come find you when I can give you my full attention.” Or, as you aptly suggested: “Yes, it’s my writing time – can’t talk! I don’t need anything from the store, thanks for checking.” + visibly switch back over to writing. It’s okay to be blunt/terse. “I can’t talk now” is not an unreasonable request that needs justification!
Important: Do not use words like “later” or “when I’m done with work” to describe when you will talk/listen. This is not an invitation for him to keep trying you, this is a notification that you will come find him when and if you have time to talk. Also important: You were taught that interrupting is rude and wrong. However, you are allowed to interrupt people who talk at you.
2.b. Change the venue & budget the time. You know by now that if you hide/avoid him, he will seek you out. So, when he comes to your room to talk, stand up immediately and go to a “public” part of the apartment. Make some tea, and say very clearly “Hi, nice to see you. I have about 10 minutes, what’s up?” Focus your attention on him fully for those 10 minutes. Don’t try to multitask. Make soothing noises and then when 10 minutes are up/the tea water has boiled say, “Aw, that sounds hard, and I’m sorry you are dealing with that” or the soothing noise of your choice, followed by “I really do have to get back to work now. Hope the rest of the evening gets better.” Then go to your room and shut the door. Put on headphones. Imagine that the door of your room is the gateway to another dimension and that you no knowledge of what’s out there.
Important: Your private space is no longer Venting Land. He is not allowed in there right now. He is not allowed to linger in the doorway. Make like the boss in “Do I Smell?” (4th letter down) and get up.
2.c. Make it your goal to have to say “no” only once.
You mentioned that when he invites you to social things he asks multiple times even when you say no.
For the record, women are not responsible for expressing their “no” in some perfect way in order to have it be heard and respected by men, and a bad actor who wants to ignore a “no” will find any excuse to do so. However, in an ongoing relationship like a friendship where everyone likes everyone and can be trusted to at least try to act in good faith, I think there are strategies you can use to increase the power of your no…for you. It means saying “no” more strongly and clearly and brooking less bullshit and freeing yourself of the automatic way you’ve been socialized to accommodate and explain.
One strategy you can use is to make the first “no” gentle and the second “no” less gentle and the third “no” a blank look followed by an exit.
Additionally, if your “no” usually has a lot of explanation or apology about why you can’t do whatever it is, see if you can trim that down to a minimum. Reasons are for reasonable people who respect boundaries. Boundary-pushers see reasons as proffers in negotiations.
How this works in practice:
Him: “Hey, want to come to thing with me?”
Previous you: “No thank you, I have a riding lesson with Serge that morning, followed by flower arranging and a theater rehearsal.”
New you: “No, but thank you for thinking of me. Have fun.”
2 days later:
Him: “Hey, I’m still going to that thing. Sure you don’t want to come with me?”
You: “No thanks!“/”No.”/”Already told you: No.”
The next day:
Him: “Sure I can’t convince you to come to thing?”
Hold the blank/confused/annoyed look.
Let the silence hang there.
Let it get so awkward.
Let it get ALL THE AWKWARD.
He might say a lot of words. Say nothing until or unless some combination of “sorry, you already told me. I’ll stop bugging you” comes out, at which time you can say “Roger that” or “Cool.” Unfortunately some people are super-oblivious, some people will steamroll right over you when they are in their own cycle, so you may have to escalate to “I’ve said ‘no’ twice already…am I missing something?”/ “Hey, when I said I need to focus, that means I need you to go somewhere else. I will come find you when I have time to catch up on the day, but right now is not that time.“/“FRIEND. Did you hear me? This is my writing time. I don’t want to talk to you right now.” You may have to raise your voice, especially initially, but it will most likely get much easier with time.
I think mentioning the girlfriendzoning vibe is counterproductive at this time unless he makes some more specific move about that. Focus on the behavior and let the reasons why go. However, if he escalates behaviors and refuses to respect your boundaries, “I know you miss (girlfriend/roommate), but I am not her and it’s not fair to slot me into her place in your life. It’s especially not fair to do it without even asking me if I want to” is there for you as a nuclear option.
Step 3: Imagine Your Best Case Scenarios
How do you want your roommate relationship and friendship to be? Can you foster some more pleasant interactions and routines, and figure out where you’d like to set the boundaries in a way that helps both of you be more consistent?
3.a. Institute some pleasant rituals
When I last lived with roommates, we would try to go to dinner and a movie together roughly once a month. We’d meet away from the house, discuss no house business, catch up on each other’s lives, try a new restaurant, see a cool movie, go home to our separate corners of sweet delicious introversion and reading.
I don’t know what a good routine looks like for you, but I suggest that you sketch out roughly what your ideal amount of outside and at home socializing would be. Breakfast at the corner diner once a month? Jointly hauling your clothes to the laundromat on a certain day? Hosting a monthly game or movie night where you both invite some friends? Right now the cycle is: He asks you to do many social things and you refuse. He interrupts you in your room, you allow it but feel resentful. Try to break the cycle where he chases and you run by suggesting a low key activity you can do together sometimes. This also allows you to deflect serious conversations or offload socializing pressure onto your regularly scheduled thing, as in “I’m sorry you are having a rough week. I’ve gotten some serious family news, too. I don’t have time to talk right now, but can we catch up on Laundry Day this weekend?”
3.b. Doors and their uses
I think it’s time for a fairly strict “If I’m in my room and my door is closed, I do not want to be disturbed unless it’s something serious that needs immediate attention – fire, flood, winning the lottery, alien invasion, etc. If I’m in my room and my door is open, you can knock and say hi” policy. See also “You’re always so nice to offer, but I’m willing to miss out on the occasional trip to the store or pizza ordering in exchange for some uninterrupted writing time.”
Knocking and saying hello does not mean open door = PLEASE COME IN AND TELL ME ALL YOUR FEELINGS, so use the strategy of getting up and moving the conversation to a public space in the apartment for a tea & talking break when you want to engage with him and then returning to your room and putting a period on the conversation when you’re done.
Steps 1-3 are not long-term solutions. Having to try to constantly & “politely” & invisibly deflect someone to enforce a boundary in the hopes that they will catch on is too much effing work. What these are for:
- Giving you practice in asserting yourself in small ways, closer to the moment,
- Laying the groundwork for the big talk you need to have happen,
- Helping you preserve your boundaries even when you don’t have the energy for a big confrontation or talk,
- Giving your roommate an opportunity to change how he interacts with you, and giving yourself a chance to gauge how he responds when you set boundaries. If he reacts with respect and evidence of self-awareness, GREAT, it sets you up well to have the bigger talk in a low-key way. If you setting a small, reasonable boundary brings on The Great Pout of ’15, it opens the door for a “Okay, then, let me tell you some things” talk.
Step 4: “We Need To Talk”
Suggested venue: Not your private space or his within the apartment.
Suggested time: Not in the middle of the Daily Despair Download, unless you have asked for a time-out and he has responded poorly, by steamrolling you, pouting, or with an Eeyore “You probably get so bored listening to me talk about all of this….”
“Roommate, I need to talk to you about something that is bothering me.
I know you are going through a really rough time right now, but this habit where you come home from a hard day and immediately tell me all about the worst parts of it is not working for me. I want to be there for you as a friend, but not at the expense of my own writing time and my own need to unwind after a day of being ‘on’ all day at school. I need a break from Dave’s Daily Download.”
Especially initially, keep the conversation focused on your own needs and not about managing his troubles. As much as you may want to, it is not your job to solve his job situation, relationship regrets, or treat his anxiety. It isn’t even your job to spoon-feed him every single solution that might help give you what you need. It is your job to tell him what you need and ask him to stop a behavior that is bothering you.
Also, I appear to have named your roommate “Dave.”
He will respond…somehow. Maybe with some version of:
- “I am sorry, I didn’t realize the burden I was putting on you”
- “Oh god I am so embarrassed why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
- “Wow sorry to be such a terrible person that I bore all my friends”
If a shame spiral begins, DO NOT ENTER IT WITH HIM. Cut him off. “–Dave, this isn’t about you being a bad person. It’s about making you aware of a pattern and restoring some boundaries in our living situation. For example, when my door is closed, that means I want to be alone, and I’d like you to not knock on it unless it’s a true emergency. Maybe we can institute a daily tea break around 6pm, and you can rant for 10 minutes and I can rant for 10 minutes and then we high-five and go to our separate corners. When you are so obviously suffering, it’s hard for me to know how to end conversations with you gracefully when I need to get back to work. So I also need you to be aware of that, and for you to exit gracefully and swiftly when I say ‘no thanks I don’t need anything from the store, got to get back to writing.‘”
When and if he agrees to be more aware, and if the conversation is going well, then turn the conversation to his ongoing struggles. If not, save that talk for another day. That talk is something like:
“Dave, I don’t need an apology. I just needed to tell you what’s going on with me. I know you’re not doing any of this on purpose, and that you wouldn’t be behaving like this if you weren’t genuinely worried and suffering. So I have to ask, when was the last time you checked in with a professional about strategies to manage your anxiety and stress? You were doing really well with it for a while. Is there someone you can call for a tune-up?”
Depending on your relationship and how open he is to gentle mocking, “6 hours a week with me vs. 50 minutes a week with a trained pro who actually knows how to help seems like an awesome tradeoff!” I like being gently mocked by close friends when I’m really sad because it makes me feel like I belong and like they aren’t handling me with kid gloves. I realize not everyone is this way, so use with caution.
“Dave” may seek help and he may not. He may immediately list the 10,000 reasons why he Just Can’t Therapy Right Now. The reasons might all be valid ones. Say what you need to say and then disengage as much as possible from problem solving mode.
In fact, that is your mantra going forward: Say the thing + disengage
“Dave, can’t talk right now. Do you not see my Jo-March-Inspired Cap of Go Away, set menacingly low upon my brow?” + DISENGAGE
“Dave, that totally blows! What jerks! Hey, want to go to the laundromat with me Saturday? We can do our laundry and catch up in depth.” + DISENGAGE
“Dave, you already asked me to that party twice. Why don’t you ask (mutual friend)?” + DISENGAGE
“Dave, I saw on Facebook that my friend’s company is looking for a (what you do). Her email is _____, she said you could send a resume right to her.” + DISENGAGE
Disengage emotionally from solving Dave for Dave and see what happens. If bad, sulking, pouting, boundary-violating things happen, well, your living situation has run its course and it’s time to look for a new set-up. If good things happen, hopefully you can hold onto your friendship and your happy home.