I used to share an apartment with two roommates (both she/her). We all met and went to college together, were friends, and needed to save money – the usual. They were a couple, and ultimately I was in their wedding, but things ended very badly.
I hesitate to say it was abuse, but they used a lot of the same behaviours as their – and my – abusive parents during the time we lived together. Aggressive tone policing, gaslighting, manipulation, trying to exert control over my relationships, raging over where and with whom I spent my time, and lies upon lies. I’ll admit that by the time I left I was not my best self, and responded defensively to even normal conflict. I left abruptly after a “small” argument devolved into a scathing rant about my “toxic“ personality and perceived mental illnesses. I have never spoken with either of them since, and I told only a few people, including a therapist and only one mutual friend who sought me out to ask, about the reality of living in that home. My roommates have, of course, told everyone the version of events where we had a minor scuffle and I stormed out never to be seen again.
It’s a couple years on and I still occasionally get offers from our (large, close knit group of) mutual friends to “mediate” a discussion between us, or comments about how it’s “so sad” we don’t see each other anymore. I saw one of them at the local grocery once and had a panic attack – I don’t think it’s very sad. But explaining this to every busybody we know feels like too much to ask of me when I can barely talk about it at all. I believe that some friends think less of me for “not trying”, and I know that I did lose my temper in that last conversation, so sometimes it seems like it would be the right thing to do. How should I respond to these requests and comments?
– Bun (she/her)
Do you want to be in touch with your former roommates again? Do you want to talk over what happened and make some sort of peace with these people?
It sounds like you deeply do not, so I suggest embracing that truth: You were friends, you lived together, it was awful, and now you’re free and would like to stay that way. If you let that truth ground you when you interact with well-meaning diplomats in your life, maybe you can remove pressure to justify yourself or explain.
You don’t owe anybody the whole story of what happened in your former living situation, nor do you owe anybody keeping it all a secret forever or telling only versions that make everyone look good. Freeing yourself of those obligations can be another source of truth, and strength, if you let it.
Here’s another truth: Your former roommates know how to find you. If they wanted to apologize or make peace or ask you what “really” happened from your perspective, they could speak with you directly. If you wanted to seek them out, you could. The fact that that hasn’t happened is its own kind of truth.
With the warning that “asking questions” leads to “discussing it more,” you might find it useful to ask questions of closer mutual friends who have brought this issue up more than once:
- “You seem really invested in this. Why?” Is this concern coming out of care for you, carrying water for your former roommates, curiosity, “just wanting to help,” nostalgia for the old days, etc.? Don’t assume, ask them to explain why they keep bringing it up.
- “Where is this coming from? Did [Former Roommates] ask you to talk to me?” Are your mutuals being deputized to find out what you’re saying or ‘clear the air’ by proxy? That’s good information.
- “It’s been two years. Why is this still a thing?”
- “What do you hope or imagine will happen at this so-called mediation session?”
- “What if I told you that [Former Roommates] and I are never going to be friends again, no matter what anybody does? Would that be enough to make this stop?”
Hear them out, so if you need to shut it down again you’ll have a better idea of how.
Additionally, here are some catch-all scripts that tell the truth without inviting further discussion:
- “I’m not sure there is an explanation that will satisfy everyone, but I know ending the friendship was the right thing for me to do.”
- “I know you want to help, but the way to help is to leave this whole question alone.”
- “I know the story is that I snapped ‘over nothing’ all of a sudden, but I’d been unhappy living there for a long time, and I’m not sure ‘talking through it reasonably like adults’ or whatever would have made anything better than it turned out. Anyway, it’s over, and I’m better off than I was before I moved out, so I’m going to keep going with that.”
- “I value my friendship with you very much, but ‘all of us being together again like before’ just isn’t a goal I have. I prefer to keep my distance from [Former Roommates]. Can you hang with that?”
- “Can you and I hang out without having to talk about [Former Roommates]? I want to put it all behind me, not relive it all the time.”
- “You’re kind to offer, but I’m pretty set on keeping my distance from [Former Roommates]. If I ever change my mind, trust that I’ll handle it myself or ask for help outright.”
- “I’m afraid that we were incompatible enough as roommates that there’s no friendship left to fix. Please, let this go!”
- “I appreciate you telling me, but I really need this topic to die. Former Roommates and I are not friends anymore, and I don’t want to try the question of the time our living situation completely unraveled in Friendship Court. Can I trust you to accept that and let me move on?”
Since this is an emotionally fraught topic, it probably wouldn’t hurt to practice different scripts (and adapt them into your own words) with your therapist and/or a trusted friend before you try them in the field. I also want to leave you with three possible goals or questions to mull over:
A) What would it mean to cultivate friendships with people who know your former roommates in a way that is not about The Whole Group Being Together? Which of these friendships do you truly want to keep? Is “doesn’t keep bugging me about this” a good selection tool for who can hang with you for the long-term without trying to drag you into the past?
B) Imagine yourself seeing your former roommates in the grocery store. Is there something you, they, or anybody could say that would allow you to just nod “hey” at them, no panic attack, and get on with the rest of your day? Can you imagine a future where they are relegated to “vaguely irritating background noise”?
C) What is the potential upside–or downside–of completely leveling with these dedicated Middle Children of your former social group about how very bad it was and getting as visibly upset as you actually feel? “I realize that the story is that I’m The Toxic One who blew up over ‘nothing,’ but honestly, living with them was a nightmare for me from beginning to end, and the last straw was them telling me outright I had ‘a toxic personality.’ My exit may have been less than graceful, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t final, or, it would be, if everyone else would let me move on in peace. Does that clear things up? Great. Now DROP. IT. and TELL. EVERYONE.”
I don’t like losing my temper, and I always feel ashamed when I do, but neither of us owes the world a facade of perfect calm. I’d argue that losing your temper amid constant needling, criticism, correction, and lies in an escalating conflict zone doesn’t mean you were wrong about leaving or why it needed to happen. Whether or not you ever say something like that, getting some clarity about who your avoidance of these people and this topic is meant to protect might help you put some of this to rest for yourself.