#747: Being the unwilling emotional caryatid in your house

The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion, Athens, 421–407 BC
The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion, Athens, 421–407 BC Shared by Thermos, used under a Creative Commons License.

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

Dear Tongue-Tied:

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?

You: …

Hold the blank/confused/annoyed look.

Say nothing.

Let the silence hang there.

Let it get so 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….

Suggested script:

“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.

101 thoughts on “#747: Being the unwilling emotional caryatid in your house

  1. Massive literary-nerd points for the phrase “Unwilling Emotional Caryatid” — how perfectly apropos!

    Good advice, as per usual! Breaking patterns can be a real challenge, but this script should hopefully stand you in good stead, LW 🙂


    Captain, I love your scripts and “if/then” analyses for these types of situations. I’m not the LW, but thank you thank you for your answers like this. I save them all, I know I need them. I really appreciate the identification of these types of behaviors as *habits* that *can* be changed. LW, I have nothing better to add to this response–it’s so fantastic. I wish you luck in your roommate situation! I hope you can re-establish patterns that work for you.

  3. ‘Also, I appear to have named your roommate “Dave.”’

    Not a bad bet all told. It’s the most common men’s name in the English-speaking world.

    1. “Wanna go to the party on Saturday with me?”

      “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

    1. Great Fallen Caryatid of Rodin. Rainer Maria Rilke described the sculpture as follows:

      “It bears, as in a dream one bears the impossible and finds no deliverance.”

      The word “Caryatid” originally referred to “women from Carie” (a region around the ancient cities Halicarnassis and Cnide) who were taken as captives by the Greeks. The Rodin site writes that
      “Rodin also had a monumental version of ‘The Caryatid’ planned, since at his death in 1917, an enlargement of the first two variants was still on the Collas machine of his collaborator Henri LeBossé. The Joconde database mentions two plaster versions”.

      So he was gonna make a really big version of it. Would have been excellent if he had been able to finish it.

      Captain’s advice for getting out from under the burden shifts it gradually back to the sender to deal with differently, in a nice way, for you should not have to bear all this man’s emotional burden yourself.

  4. “Dave, can’t talk right now. Do you not see my Jo-March-Inspired Cap of Go Away, set menacingly low upon my brow?”

    This is brilliant. If necessary, escalate to the Horsehair Pillow of Boundary Enforcement; I suggest placing it outside a closed door rather than on a couch, though.

      1. My ex-four-year-old called it the Wall of Peaceness. It consisted of every pillow, cushion, and stuffed animal he could put between his pouty self and me. Would that his teenage iteration might invent such a creative boundary.

  5. This is spot on. I had to do a lot of this when I had a similar living situation. Not with anxiety, but my roommate was one of the types for whom there is never enough social interaction. I, on the other hand, cherish my alone-time (even though I’m primarily an extrovert.) My bedroom had a door but my computer nook did not. I hung a curtain to put a physical boundary up and we had a discussion that physical boundary also equals social boundary. It sucked that I basically did not feel comfortable ever being out in the “communal” areas of the house, but at least I had my own space. I also made a point to, at least once a week or so, hang out. And then moved out as soon as I could.

  6. Writing as someone who fears she may have been an unfortunately version of Dave during a break up years ago – I whole hearted support this response but especially the part about disrupting the home cycle for a few days. When I broke up with my ex from that time who I lived with, I was lucky to be able to move in with a good friend at the time.

    In addition to having other anxiety issues, I was also just used to having someone around all the time. And my self-soothing and impulses on how to do things alone skills were entirely off. This definitely made for aspects of how I saw my roommate and what I expected of him in terms of attention suffer. It did ultimately work out and we are still friends, but handling those issues on my own – it’s not just about being scary or unpleasant – but it wasn’t even a thought. So when all of a sudden I was in an apartment at home at night totally alone with no idea where my roommate was, those were some of the first steps of going “ok, this is the new reality, now what?”

  7. This happened to me with a friend of mine, and one day I just told her straight, something along the lines of, “Hey, C, I love you, and I’m really sorry about x (she was having relationship and work issues), but you need to see a therapist, because I don’t have the tools to give you the help with what you need. They can give you a framework, and a safe space to confront your issues. Besides, I have my own things to deal with, and I need to have my space too.”

    I was working in a call centre and bar then, where you have to be ‘on’ in terms of dealing with people and whatnot, so when I was off work, I just wanted to decompress. She got the hint (bless her), and saw a therapist. She’s abroad now, and still seeing a therapist off and on when things get too tough, so that’s nice. So yeah letter writer, it will be hard, but stick to your guns.

  8. Captain, could you recommend scripts to push back when Dave makes sarcasmy noises about the LW’s boyfriend?

      1. Or, if you’re feeling more poetic, you could go with something like:

        Dave, the day may come when the bonds of fellowship between bf & me may break, and when your thinly veiled barbs will shine like beacons in the night, revealing the manifold error of my ways…but, today, is NOT that day.

    1. I also like ‘well *that* was unnecessarily unpleasant’. It can be followed by an immediate subject change if the person is just being thoughtless, or allowing them to hang there in the Breeze of Silent Awkwards if they’re being actively shitty.

    2. Also, a long, awkward pause while staring at Dave as if he just turned into a cockroach, followed by a flat “Wow” before returning to talk to Boyfriend.

      1. I’ve had success in similar sorts of situations with a cheery “Wow, that was rude. You must be so embarrassed.” Or pretending you haven’t heard and asking them to repeat it (and continuing to do this until they get the message if necessary) can also work.

    3. “Dave, I’d appreciate it if you would keep your comments about my honeybear to yourself. We don’t say nasty things about you when you aren’t around and I don’t think it’s too much to expect the same courtesy in return.”

    4. I’ve once used something along the lines of “Friend, these comments you’re making about New Boyfriend are totally inappropriate. I want these to stop. You and I are not dating and you have no business saying these things about him.”

      Yes a bit harsh, but to the point and it worked.

    5. when someone tried doing that to me I basically said to him “why on earth do you think it’s acceptable to be rude about the guy I love TO MY FACE?”
      he backed off pretty bloody quickly after that 😛

    6. In my experience “Why on earth do you think it’s acceptable to make those sorts of comments about the guy I am dating to my face?”

    7. I’m a big fan of, “Well, that’s your opinion”. I also adore the Captain Awkward reply of, “OK”. (Just, “OK”. Nothing else. It works so well!)

  9. LW – I feel your pain. My flat-share with a friend (best friend of 14 years, no less) imploded because of a situation like this. I was her sole emotional support and confidante through some horrific experiences. From the age of 13 I helped her see that her family was not the norm and that one day, with help and hard work, she could break out of that lifestyle and be free.

    Long story short – as soon as I need space and time (to finish my dissertation for my MSc) and emotional support about the relapse of a serious illness, and my crushing sense of lesbian inferiority, well… she flipped her shit. It came to a head on June 14th 2004, and I haven’t seen her since. And you know what? I grieved for my lost friendship, for being unable to graduate (becauae homelessness and being penniless is not conducive to academic success), and then I realised something. My life wasn’t pointless without her, and I’d eventually be OK.

    I feel like relationships are the colour on the blank canvas of our lives. I think of my life as a long roll of white fabric; there are thin but more-or-less continuous threads that travel the length of my timeline, usually family members. There are shorter, thicker thread trails that represent great friendships, and there are the huge, bright splotches. They’re those amazing, passionate relationships that burn fiercely and brightly, and don’t last for long, but leave fabulous memories Some lines are consistently thin or thick, they may stop and start. A purple thread might reappear twisted with a yellow thread, as part of a couple instead of going solo. Whatever the length, colour, or direction those threads take, they all go toward making the unique pattern on the fabric of my life. As corny as it sounds, the image comforts me. I can see all of the threads in my mind, and how they run through all of the hardships and loneliness, and I know I wasn’t with support or love, even if it felt that way.

    So if this is the straw that breaks the camels back, and you’re forced to redefine this relationship for the sake of your own mental health, you will be OK.

    1. I have nothing to add to your comment, but that image of a life-tapestry is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it!

      1. Thank you! Double thanks actually, as you’ve provided the word that my brain wouldn’t give up because it was too busy going “Errmahgerrrd these meds are delish!”. Tapestry. ☺

        1. Just upped the meds and I know your pain. It’s driving me bonkers, the lack of word connectiveness, like there’s this giant card catalogue in my head, and someone let their three year old at it – some of the connections are still there, and some take some work to put back in the right place :-/

      2. Seconding this! Reminds me of that Rilke quote:

        “She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
        Of her life, and weaves them gratefully
        Into a single cloth –
        It’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
        And clears it for a different celebration.”

  10. I mighta shared this before, but many years ago I remained friends with an ex.

    We were both kind listeners for each other and for a while things were even as we each navigated new relationships and careers.

    About two years in, she found her feet. (Lots of self-work/awareness/therapy etc) And an imbalance set in. She didn’t need me for emotional stuff at all any longer while I cartwheeled on, still requiring her ear every now and then, and then more, and then often, so then all the time I could just call my sweet ex up and say “Yer never gunna believe what happened to me in line at the supermarket/work today grrr….”

    Then one day she cut in. And said one of the lines in the Captain’s advice. Not sure which, a composite of them all, pretty much. As far as saying she cared, and is prepared to provide help for a problem at hand, but for unchangeable situations in the past or outside the room, she is no longer available.

    I was for sure stunted. Humbled. Cut down, as she said “You can have a top ten list of the worst things going on in your head and make a radio show out of it, really give it fire to rain down on everybody in town if you want. Or you can throw the list away. But you cannot call me up with a weekly chart show while I try manage (all this real serious adult proper life stuff in background) so please, I am going to hang up. Now. See you at the summer picnic…”

    And I rushed to open some of the books she had said had helped her during her self-improvement campaign…

    So yeah… I know what it’s like to be a drag. And the person I was a drag towards deserved better.

    But it is a lesson we can learn, to be cast alone and told to tie our own shoe laces.

    And to this day I try limit the ear bending and destroy the list. Even though, yeah, the list comes back now and then. And I work on rippin it up.

    Another friend would just stop me in the middle of a story/anecdote by saying “I am sorry. This story sounds like it involves trauma and peril and doesn’t end happily which is making me nervous, and anxious, so please can we talk about something else?”

    It felt like being shut down, but in fact, it was helping to rip up the list.

    So really help rip up the list, not create a show for it.

    1. This comment really spoke to me, because oh my god I have that list. Well, I have MY version of it. My list is written by brainweasels who do not have my best interests in mind, and learning to rip it up is freaking hard work. Thank you for sharing your story and giving me another way to frame the work I have to do. I hope your life is full of good things.

    2. “And I rushed to open some of the books she had said had helped her during her self-improvement campaign…”

      Would you feel comfortable sharing the books? I always need ideas…

  11. Say nothing.

    Let the silence hang there.

    Let it get so awkward.

    Let it get ALL THE AWKWARD.

    I am SO bad at this. I always dive in with Words Plus Sliding Eye Contact to rescue them and I hate it when I do that. (I haven’t been in LW’s exact situation but I’ve been in similar ones.)

    1. Me too. My brain starts screaming “Say something. Say ANYTHING, DO IT NOW! Hairybumblebeegypsumfantasticpizzacrustwellybootboobies!”

    2. It is a learned skill which takes practice, though it does come more easily to some than others. I believe in your ability to learn how to harness the awkward for your own!

      1. ^ this!

        And I can say as someone who this doesn’t come naturally to that I have in fact massively improved my ability to do this. In all sorts of situations. While there is a place for debate and lots of words and making things easier for others silence is sometimes very powerful. Especially when you back it up with actions.

        It feels ridiculously selfish and rude at first. Keep reminding yourself that the other person is the one who brought the awkward, and you are allowed to react negatively to it (whatever it was that led you to this place of awkwardness). And then with practice I’ve found you start to actually believe in your right to have opinions and express negative emotions and take up space socially. And then you realise that you had that right all along, society had just convinced you that you didn’t, that it was your place to make everything nice and pleasant even if you had to tie yourself in knots to do it. And then you start to notice that some people have always been granted this privilege by society and that they do it like breathing and expect people like you to shape themselves around it…

        There is a place for kindness and smoothing things over. But keep up the practice in *not* doing that. Apologise less (save it for when it’s actually warranted). Explain less. It helps in all kinds of situations. Letting a silence hang is probably the best practical lesson I’ve learnt here. That and identifying when the bees are coming from inside the house. 🙂

        1. There is a thing I have started doing with email. I’m less good at doing it in speech.

          I’m British. We say sorry all the time. And my job involved juggling multiple projects, which sometimes means I pick up project A and then more urgent project B bumps it down the line a bit. Now, when I send back the delayed project A, I go back through the email, and delete out the apology I automatically put in to account for the delay.

          I no longer apologise for reprioritising work as part of doing my job.


          1. Yeah, we Brits get a big dose of “If you can’t say anything nice…” hammered into us. Combine that with the socialisation of “You go last. Take care of everyone else first, sublimate yourself, never say anything unkind” shoved down your throat from the second someone sees that you’re a non-boy, and you’ll happily throw yourself over a puddle/rabid honey badger/IED rather than be seen to… well, make a scene!*

            *Note for Non-Brits – “making a scene” typically refers to such atrocities as saying “No” to someone older/wealthier/more testicular** than yourself. See also:

            – Doing anything other than smiling sweetly and saying “Thank you so much, this is delicious!” when someone offers you refreshments that you are deathly allergic to. Mustn’t offend!

            -Going into anaphylaxis, having a seizure, or ceasing to breathe as a result of ingesting the aforementioned refreshments. Acknowledging your mortality in auch a way is terribly vulgar and attention seeking, and is likely to upset your host.

            -Displaying emotion. There is nothing more common or wretched than seeing someone perform such attention grabbing outrages to common decency as acknowledging an injury beyond saying “My my, it’s nothing, certainly not the first time I’ve been shot. A cup of tea will sort it out!” or “Don’t fret, I’m sure I’ll be quite fine with the one arm. Mustn’t grumble, some people have no arms!”

            **No actual testicles or Y chromosome necessary. It’s all in the attitude and bearing, that air of unquestioned authority and divine right to bend others to your will

      2. When you learn to negotiate (money, contracts), there is a very powerful lesson which says: whoever speaks first, loses.

        A chap I know who runs a charity uses this to persuade local companies to sponsor him – basically asks and waits. If he has to speak again to explain himself or to persuade… well he might not lose but he’s lost ground. If he stays silent until the company person has to speak… he nearly always wins, because that person is listening so hard to their own thoughts and how those thoughts will sound out loud.

        Big silence… what am I going to say… how will it come out… if I say no it will sound bad…. can I say yes without committing?… he’s waiting… I’ve got to speak because he’s asked and I must reply…. “Well this certainly is a very interesting proposal” and BAM.

        SIlence is very powerful and can be misused or overused, but it’s a great tool and if you are inclined to fill silences yourself, it’s good to try being the silent one yourself. Especially if you are cornered in a situation where all you find yourself doing when you talk is giving away your power.

    3. Picture the Awkward Turtle, swimming in its pool of awkward.

      The turtle is not disturbed by the pool of awkward. The turtle is sweet and cute and is busy swimming.

      Be friends with the turtle. Do not disturb the turtle. The other person will disturb the turtle when it is time. While you wait for them to do so, just watch it swim.

      1. I like this visualization. Gives my brain something positive to latch onto, instead of feeling like I’m drowning in that pool of awkward myself!

      2. Given that I’ve described Mr. Darcy as an Awkward Turtle, when defending him for the good character under the aloof and snobbish manners, I can now picture Colin Firth in a wet shirt in these situations, which will bring great joy to my life. Thank you.

    4. As somebody who has employed this strategy a couple of times, let me tell you that it doesn’t come naturally to anyone. But it doesn’t have to come naturally to work. It will work even if you’re as uncomfortable as you’re attempting to make the other person.

      1. Yes. Initially I had to follow the advice of one of my mentors to count slowly and silently to myself a count of at least 10 before trying to “fix” a silence. After I got used to doing that, simply sitting quietly with an expectant expression became easier and easier. Sometimes it’s still awkward, but sometimes it’s rather interesting, as you get to observe other people trying to figure out what to do with the silence.

    5. I have to do this with students sometimes – let a silence hang until it gets horribly awkward and someone will say something to my question just so the awkward silence ends.

      I get through it by counting in my head so I know how long the silence actually is. It feels like it’s going on forever, but I’ve never gotten to 300 seconds (5 minutes) yet.

  12. Sometimes it helps to think through whether or not the things housemate is doing with you is the same sort of thing they are doing at work that has them worried about being fired. These are basic boundary violations.
    I say this because I have been told that I am the only one who objects to x inappropriate behavior.

  13. Esteemed Captain, I am struck that after you wrote “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,” three of the four examples of disengaging leadup scripts you offer, are also proposing solutions (the final two) or further free therapy-listening (“catching up”). I suggest that LW not offer solutions for Dave’s problems. At all. Doing so reinforces Dave’s hope that LW will do so—irregularly enough that he’ll keep pressing the buttons hoping attention to his problems and some emotional support will fall out.

    If LW wants to propose a get-together or activity, it would be better to do it in a context that doesn’t make it a reward for Dave’s annoying behavior. Separately from other interactions, in email, later, but not as a sop tossed to shut off the word flow.

    1. Yes. I have a proposition that’s somewhere in the middle of helping/disengaging or for days when LW feels like listening, but not working: What are you going to do about it?

      Hand the work back.

      1. Alas, I’ve tried this on numerous occasions in my long and unwilling career as a ventee. What usually happens is that the venter, without missing a beat, responds “I don’t know what I’m going to do!” and then continues whining for another half-hour solid.

        Venters gonna vent. It’s a good idea to have another strategy ready as a follow-up

      2. When people do this to me while I’m venting, it’s (a) transparent, and (b) insulting. For me, venting isn’t about finding solutions; it’s about getting social validation for my negative feelings and experiences. If you can’t or don’t want to offer that validation, you don’t have to–but you need to say so, not just try to manipulate or shame me into going away. It’s not my “job” to self-validate in a vacuum. That’s not possible. If it were, I’d have learned it in childhood.

        I do think it’s possible to be solution-oriented with a venter, but you (or they) have to focus on the actual problem: that this person feels bad and wants validation from you. If you can’t provide it, you can at least acknowledge that that’s what’s going on and that it’s making you uncomfortable.

        I think that’s the underlying problem for the LW. When you’re uncomfortable but can’t say so, that’s a big deal with a person you see every day. But it also sounds like the real problem that’s worth solving–for everyone involved.

  14. I apologize if this is a double post but my earlier comment is not here. I would caution LW that if this is the same boundary violating behavior that housemate is in trouble for at work you could be in for a major meltdown comprised mostly of how you are just like all the other people who are mean.

    1. Yes, this was my thought – not so much the work connection (although that could also be a thing) but the fear that he might respond by anger rather than shame-spiralling. And that’s a horrible thing to have to cope with. LW, just in case… if you reach the point of sitting down to have A Talk with him about his behaviour, best do it at a time where getting out of the house and going somewhere else for a few hours is going to be an option, just in case you need to physically disengage from a situation where he’s turning unpleasant. And be prepared to give a very firm “I’m not going to listen to that. Goodbye” if need be. Hopefully that won’t be necessary, but… just being prepared for all possibilities.

      1. This is a valid concern, certainly, but presumably LW would know if her friend and cohabitator of many years were just This Way, immutably, and unable to turn it off.

        1. Although, having just read myself having said that, I scrolled back up and reread the opening of the letter, and am no longer so sure that she doesn’t know exactly that thing. Hmm.

  15. I had a similar situation with a housemate. What worked sometimes was, when she started her regular “bitch about some insignificant work thing for 15 minutes” rant, I would deliberately change my style to “half-listening and a bit bored” – just act a bit disinterested and cut my responses down to “hmm” or “huh”. Not outright rude, but not actively participating in the bitching. After a minute she’d get it and go, “sorry, I’ll stop complaining now” and we moved on to other topics.

    Also LW, is there a third housemate at your place? If you’ve got a third bedroom (and your friend’s gf wasn’t just staying in his room), have you filled it? For me, with the situation above, there was another housemate and she seemed to have more tolerance for the angry ranting sessions. So sometimes when housemate #2 was around and housemate #1 started to rant, I’d just throw housemate #2 at her – “You guys catch up, I’m off to my room!” Worked great. So another housemate might help you – maybe you could take turns being friend-sitter? Ignore this if it isn’t applicable to your situation though.

    Finally, LW, is it time to admit you and your friend aren’t perfectly compatible housemates? You shared house with him twice, and twice he was too “intense” (aka emotionally and socially immature) for your liking. You might want to consider moving out with someone who’s a bit more considerate and respectful, aka a better housemate. At least start thinking about an exit strategy, i.e. “If friend keeps being this way and doesn’t change, how long will it be before I really start losing my sanity? I will give friend that long to improve and if nothing changes one of us is out of here.” Again, only if you have the means to, of course.

  16. It is OK for you not to want to listen to him rant and complain. I am married and do not want to listen to my husband complain! It is not part of anyone’s contract, except a therapist and a patient, to listen to ceaseless complaining. It is your right to have peace and quiet in your own home!

    I would be very blunt: “Roommate, I cannot fix this for you. I cannot listen to you complain any more. I am going to my room now.” It makes it a lot easier that you are merely roommates and not spouses – you do not have to manage this for a long-term relationship. 🙂

    But even with that, I have told my husband to shut up – either fix the situation or accept it or complain to the people who are actually causing the problems – but I was not here to listen to him complain (and indeed, I am the only person in his life who is NOT f*ing it up, because of course his anger and frustrations are all about his awful, drunk parents who are in the middle of a medical crisis of their own making, i.e., his drunk 260-lb father fell on his drunk, 110-lb mother and broke both of her knees, putting her in the hospital.)

    1. Yeah, I think the big problem with venting is that it gives you temporary relief from Problematic Situation X regardless of whether it’s actually helping you. Venting can be important and healthy, which is one reason therapists are still in business; but more often it’s just a sign of frustration that won’t go away, and then after a while it becomes addictive (release + distraction = free painkiller).

      In that situation, listeners should definitely focus on themselves rather than trying to find solutions for the venter, because solutions actually take away the pain-relief and feel actively bad. Telling them: “I can tell you’re frustrated about this, but I’m getting uncomfortable listening to it” might work best. If it doesn’t, maybe consider whether this person can be trusted to respect your boundaries.

  17. LW here! Thanks so much, Captain, and everyone else for the scripts and thoughts and support! Means a lot to hear similar stories and possible solutions and general sympathy, which lets me know I have been alone with this sitch too long. Will start employing boundary tactics in prep for a larger conversation. This has been really helpful, thanks so much!

  18. Only tangentially related, but my favourite phrase for people who haven’t taken ‘no’ for an answer (which, thankfully, is generally only small children in my life) is “What part of ‘no’ did I say in Norwegian?”. (This obviously won’t work if you’re speaking Norwegian…). It immediately focuses the listener on the fact that I said it perfectly clearly…

    1. Even more tangential: since the Norwegian for “no” is “nei,” it would be pretty intelligible to English-speakers even if you HAD said “no” in Norwegian. Now, in modern Greek, “nai” is yes and “okhi” is no. THAT is confusing!

      1. Not to mention the whole “Nodding means no, head shaking means yes” thing. That used to get really confusing, especially when a waiter would come and ask if I needed anything else. My mother used to end up paralytic after shaking her head at the offer of more booze!

  19. My girlfriend was doing something similar for a time regarding a change in her work situation which was not to her liking. She would say some really very upsetting things repeatedly, and I was on edge every time we were together waiting for the inevitable “I don’t want to go to work tomorrow” ranging toward “if I drive my car into traffic I won’t have to go back.” I started ending our dates early when these distressing comments came up. I would get mysteriously tired– not really a lie, because these conversations did indeed wear me out– and go home.

    And they have been reduced greatly in volume since that time.

    LW, this is a person with whom you purportedly feel a sense of closeness. Presumably this is someone you have chosen. And these repeated draining rants are killing your love for this person. You may feel like a bad friend by cutting him off, but by letting him talk when you do not have the resources to listen you are hastening the day on which you will be no kind of friend to him at all.

  20. Oof. Self check. Roomie and I talk for a bit when we get home from work about our days, but I’ve definitely been more ranty lately. I’ll have to work on toning that back.

    Humans are creatures of habit–I nth the recommendation of being out for a few days in a row, so roomie can find a new just-home-from-work routine. Part of my routine is grabbing a mug of coffee/tea/beer and sitting on my porch for a bit–it helps a lot to settle my nerves/anxiety/stress from the day so I can enjoy my evening. When you do offer to listen, going outside may help moderate his emotions or shorten his ranting.

  21. The spouse sometimes falls into the offload-anxiety-onto-me method, and this —

    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.

    This is the bit I most needed to hear. It’s also the bit I’m going to have the most difficulty with. It’s a lot easier to say, “I still really think you ought to be back in therapy,” than it is to say, “I have enough emotional resilience to handle my own problems, but not mine and yours both.”

    1. My partner tends to be blunt, but I greatly appreciate when he says, “I can’t deal with more than 10 minutes of ranting today. Ten minutes starts….now.” And then he cuts me off after 10 minutes with, “I love you. We’re done with ranting for a bit. Time to do something positive.” I appreciate it because it means I don’t spiral for a whole evening, and because it prioritizes my ranting, and makes me realize that if the same thing is at the top of the list for several days, it’s something I actually have to fix in one way or another.

  22. Oh LW, no suggestions, only empathy. Finding oneself doing another grown-ass human’s emotional labor is disheartening and shitty. This letter was timely for me as well, and I’ll be able to apply many of these suggestions and strategies to my own life.

    Many thanks, Captain et al. ^.^

  23. One thing that’s been tangentially alluded to here, but hasn’t been explicitly said: What your roommate is expecting of you is basically the job of a therapist. Even leaving aside the consent issue, therapists get several things that you don’t. First, they get paid, and they (in my experience) use some of that pay to pay for their own therapists to help them unload the emotional burdens that they’re picking up. Second, they have schedules, and they only do this at pre-specified hours when they’re working; they have time away from it. Third, they generally only do this for someone once a week, because even when a trained professional does it it’s not helpful to do it more often than that.

    Which is to say: Your roommate is expecting you to do, for free and on demand, something that professionals get paid over $100/hour to do. If they would even do it on the schedule he expects, which they wouldn’t.

    So, if you’d like a mental image to help augment your resolve to say no, you can use that one: Imagine that your roommate is asking you for $100 every time they want you to spend 45 minutes listening to them.

    (The other thing about therapists is that, unlike you, they have training in how to be _actually helpful_. A bit of which involves how to interrupt people from just whining like what your roommate is doing. And all of which is why your roommate would be better off finding someone to professionally listen to him, rather than having you do it even if you were willing and able, which it is more than reasonable for you not to be.)

  24. I loved the Jesse Zimmerman piece. (And you totally get to brag about her being your friend!)

    I liked her point about sex work, especially bc in my experience sex work is a lot of emotional work. I think someone should totally try to monetize “friend work!” I would, except I think it’d burn me 😦

  25. My sense from this letter is that you guys are maybe better friends than roommates, and it might be time to start figuring out a different living situation. I have been roommates with various friends over the years — sometimes it turns out we are also really compatible as roommates (yay!) and sometimes it turns out that in order to save the friendship, we really really need to not live in the same house or apartment! That’s not because they are evil people — we just did not work out as cohabitators. In all but one of those cases, after we moved out and gave things some time to cool off, we went back to being friends. Given that you’ve now given it two shots at living with this guy and both times it has descended into roommate hell, maybe looking for a different roommate is the solution you’re looking for? I know for myself, I do really well with suepr chatty/venty friends in smaller doses — I don’t at all mind sitting down and having a big complain fest, but I cannot have that happen every single day…it’s more of a once-every-other-week thing. Which works out perfectly if it’s your “let’s meet for happy hour every other week” friend and really badly if it’s your “we live in the same apartment” friend.

    I will also say I have tried some of these strategies on roommates (especially the “when my door is closed, do not knock unless the house is literally on fire, yes, I really mean it”, as well as the “you cannot rant at me while I’m laying in bed, if we’re going to do it I will come out to a common area”). While they all work to restore sanity at least to some degree, ultimately in any situation that actually reached that point, it was only once we were no longer roommates that I was able to get back to a point of really appreciating the person as a friend rather than someone I was “managing” and constantly laying down boundaries with. So, I absolutely think this sort of thing can work to get you through a short-term situation, and maybe would be necessary for longer if you really can’t afford to move, but I would also see what steps you can take toward a more compatible roommate situation.

  26. Oh, LW. I feel you on this. I’m a mental health professional, and I was working on a crisis hotline when two of my roommates split up and I was the designated therapist for my roommate. I ended up having to call 911 due to her suicidal ideation, and had to quit my job because I couldn’t handle the stress of both.

    For me, it became super important to have clear boundaries (she had borderlinetendencies which also exacerbated the problem). She would start detailing her depression, how she deserved to suffer, all this super triggering stuff for me. Sometimes I let her rant for maybe 10 minutes, other times I’d cut her off immediately. I would basically say:

    “I know you’re going through a hard time, but right now I need to be your friend, not your therapist. I’m gonna be [watching Chopped, eating sushi, reading War & Peace, etc.] and you’re welcome to join me but this will be a rant-free zone.”

    That usually worked with her. Sometimes it didn’t, and she would spiral into “oh you hate me too.” which is when I’d say:

    “It hurts me to hear you say that, but my offer still stands.”

    I also would do a lot of “You should tell your therapist about that” + subject change as the Captain recommended.

    Don’t ever feel like you need to eat away at yourself to accommodate someone else’s pain. Jedi hugs!

  27. When I lived in campus housing with randomly assigned roommates who often wanted to overshare when I was in the mood to not listen, I basically trained my roommates to not try to talk to me if I had headphones in.

    This was especially useful if I was doing chores in the kitchen or if I was in our room, but really wanted some alone time. (4 girls in one tiny room makes for horrible privacy. I do not recommend.)

    I’d be glad to hear work complaints or boyfriend woes if I was just messing around. But if headphones were on, it was Study/Alone time. It was a pretty effective tool.

    The trick is, you put your headphones in and don’t respond. Or if they try to get your attention, look at them, tap your headphones, and then resume work. I’m 97% sure I learned this from the Captain/a comment here. And it works wonders for building boundaries in apartments or public spaces at colleges.

    1. My freshman year dorm mate did not know this cue. I would wear my headphones and she would *just talk louder.* I would tell her I was busy listening to music, watching a movie, planning her assassination via eye lasers etc, and she would say “oh okay” and keep. On. Talking. The headphones meant nothing to her, and the only peace I got was in my friend’s room.

      It was a long year.

  28. Wow. Thanks especially for posting that piece on emotional labor, Captain. It really makes me think about how my male housemate always assumes that I want to hear about his day. I’m going to give this some thought.

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