Content note for mention of suicidal ideation, and reminder that roommate fights are for “It’s your turn to buy toilet paper,” not “It actually oppresses me when your face does that.”
Dear Captain Awkward,
I have a question about reconciling with friends when everyone involved has made mistakes. Sorry this is so long…
My wife (M, they/them) and I (she/her) used to live with our best friend, C. After a while C’s girlfriend Y moved in too. I thought of us as chosen family. But after about a year, C and Y brought up problems with M. M had several anxiety-related habits that bothered them and made them feel responsible for constantly managing M’s feelings. These habits ranged from making alarmed sounds at messes, to self-deprecating comments, to complaining a lot without taking steps to solve the issues, to dissociating in the common space and making C and Y feel rejected/ignored, to proposing overly self-effacing solutions to conflicts, which derailed the conversation (they were being genuine though, not intentionally manipulative). None of these habits had been “loud” enough to bother me at all, so I was surprised.
We all talked about it. M said they’d work on changing, and that C and Y didn’t need to try to fix or manage M’s feelings, that their anxiety wasn’t as bad as C and Y thought, and they should try to let the moment pass when some of the more minor habits showed up. M didn’t want to talk extensively about their anxiety with C and Y, though C and Y said they had to be honest about it for the issues to be addressed. I thought C and Y should respect M’s boundary, and I thought some of the pressure C and Y felt to appease M came from their own hang-ups and they should work on setting internal boundaries. (I later apologized for this take.) C and Y said it wasn’t fair to ask them to ignore it when M was obviously distressed, called M childish for not managing their own feelings better so C and Y wouldn’t have to, and said M was gaslighting them.
Y started staying in her room all the time because her anxiety spiked around M. C started getting more angry with M. M made an effort, but kept forgetting things. The self-effacing behaviour continued, which really bothered C, but it’s hard not to feel like disappearing when your roommate literally can’t bear to be around you. Even I started hiding. C started calling M selfish and disrespectful over minor mistakes and miscommunications — things like making an alarmed noise in the back seat while he was driving, or asking if they should throw away some things of Y’s that she wasn’t using and had offered M the use of, or saying “next Thursday” during a scheduling conversation instead of specifying the date as he’d previously asked. He said these represented M’s lack of care and attention to other people’s feelings. M did do a couple of genuinely rude things during this time (making a face after eating something C cooked, breaking something of C’s through carelessness), but nothing that I think calls for this level of judgement.
After a while, C told me that Y had felt insecure with M and I ever since she moved in, which was part of why M’s anxiety felt so threatening to her. She came to us at a vulnerable time…she was leaving an emotionally abusive roommate, and couldn’t afford to live on her own because disability payments suck. M and I liked her, but we didn’t put a lot of thought into making sure she felt welcome and safe. C pointed out a couple of specific instances where we excluded her. I realized he was right, that we hadn’t been attentive enough to her feelings…and there were signs all along that this was at the core of the issues, if we had been listening more carefully. I sincerely apologized and she accepted. I still feel terrible about it.
M. tried to apologize too, but…it didn’t go well. They admitted that they’d felt anxious about messing up around C and Y for a long time, and confessed to having suicidal thoughts because of it, and trying to hide it because they didn’t want to make C and Y feel responsible. They apologized for how this had caused tension and made them overlook C and Y’s feelings. They were just trying to be honest finally…but C and Y heard it as “It’s your fault I’ve been suicidal.” They ended the friendship and moved out, accusing M of being a manipulative, selfish person and using systemic violence against them.
I love and trust my wife, and I don’t think these accusations are fair. They made some mistakes, but they’re a good, loving person. Their flaws just don’t mesh well with C and Y’s needs. I understand C and Y leaving, but I’m angry with them for criticizing and judging M so harshly.
They told me they were worried M would hurt me too. I said I disagreed. They said they wanted to stay friends with me; I said we should take some time to process this separately first. Now I’m wondering how and whether to talk to them again. I miss them, but I can’t be friends with them if I can’t talk about my wife without wondering if they’re judging us…so for us to reconnect, I would need them to forgive M, even if they never want to talk to them again. I want to tell them that. But do I have a right to?
— Angry, Guilty, and Confused
Dear Angry, Guilty, and Confused,
I’ve read your letter about 10 times to try to parse what the hell is going on. Here is the part I keep coming back to:
“C started calling M. selfish and disrespectful over minor mistakes and miscommunications — things like making an alarmed noise in the back seat while he was driving… or saying “next Thursday” during a scheduling conversation instead of specifying the date as he’d previously asked. He said these represented M’s lack of care and attention to other people’s feelings. M. did do a couple of genuinely rude things during this time (making a face after eating something C cooked, breaking something of C’s through carelessness), but nothing that I think calls for this level of judgement.”
How is it okay to ask for someone to “respect” your feelings about such minor – and easily corrected – preferences as “Next Thursday” vs. “Next Thursday, the Nineteenth of November in this Most Accursed Year of 2020” and then turn around and police every expression of their feelings, down to whether they perform sufficient stoicism while you drive or convincingly feign liking food that they do not in fact enjoy?
And how, pray tell, is “Literally everything you do, down to the faces you make, annoys and harms us” compatible with “You are far too apologetic and self-effacing (after we told you everything you do sucks), stop gaslighting us!” ???????????
And somehow M. is the one who would need to BE forgiven for all of you to be friends again?
I think it’s time to lose this “both sides were equally at fault” narrative. Roommate fights are for stuff like, “It’s your turn to clean the toilet” not “When we berate you in common spaces and you dissociate or avoid us, it makes us feel awfully rejected.” Accidentally breaking a roommate’s stuff is not the same as deciding that everything one roommate does is secretly a performance in the Theatre of Cruelty and then recruiting everyone else, including that person’s spouse, to gang up on them.
If you’re playing Spot The Assholes Here, I count exactly one person who did their best to apologize and make amends for anything they might have done to offend, and who continued welcoming hostile people into their living situation long after I would have rented the storage unit of “If you don’t like my facial expressions, you’re welcome to GTFO and never come back” and lit their shit on fire inside it. (M., that person is M.) To me, Y. and C.’s “I hate you, how dare you avoid me, it makes me feel bad, ergo you are the real problem” is classic DARVO-logic.
Strongly consider the fact that C. and Y. moving out means that your wife can, for the first time in a very long time, make whatever faces they like in their own home, and they can feel their own feelings without having said feelings re-defined as accusations that they are committing “systemic violence.” I hope your wife can get a lot of help and support managing their anxiety, but don’t ever discount the therapeutic benefits of no longer being surrounded by people who hate them and police their every move!
In closing, probably don’t invite the people who nearly drove your wife to suicide to dinner anymore, there is no “we can probably all get along again someday” to be had here, plus, there’s a pandemic on.
Edited To Add: Some nice people on Twitter have noted that it’s possible to be highly incompatible as roommates without anyone being a villain, and I agree! You can love somebody a lot and be ill-suited to living together, you can have anxieties, triggers, and needs that simply do not mesh well. You can be temporarily GOING THROUGH IT in a way that does not make you fun to be around without being an irredeemable person. C. and Y. could even be right about absolutely everything that rubbed them wrong about M., in which case the way forward is obvious: When you can’t stand one of your roommates to the point where you feel attacked by every facial expression they make, it’s time to move out!
If everyone in this letter had sat down after a year of living together to say, “Hey friends, this obviously isn’t working, so how can we form separate households in a way that takes good care of everyone and remain friends?” I would have zero beefs. But C. and Y. didn’t do that. They said, to paraphrase, “M., you’re the problem, so fix your entire personality.” M. was like, I’ll try, but also, the things you think I’m doing at you, I’m not actually doing them at you. So they doubled and tripled down on constant criticism. When M. didn’t want to talk more about their mental health with C. and Y., the response was “But you have to be HONEST.” Then, when M. was honest that the tension in the house was making them suicidal, C. and Y. responded with, “Fuck this, you’re being violent,“ and severed ties.
Letter Writer, I predict that someday, most likely long after C. and Y.’s relationship implodes, it’s possible that one of them will come back and be like, “I am so very sorry about what I said and did and I really miss you.” At that point you and M. can decide if it’s worth letting bygones be bygones. But seeking out these people now, with “You have to forgive M.” as a precondition? “Forgive” M….for what?