Dear Captain Awkward,
I have a situation similar to #513, except with a housemate.
I (she/her) am in my 30s and I live in a cosmopolitan US city. I have three international housemates (all she/her). It is a chill, tidy shared house. Housemates and I got on well. Recently, I drove one housemate to the far away airport (2.5 hours roundtrip). She had offered to pay me half of what a cab would have been. I agreed. Payment never came. Same housemate then asked for another car favour: couriering a document for her across town in heavy traffic. I again agreed. This time though, I asked for gas money (£10). I felt in my gut that asking for that bit of money would cause a problem but I also knew not asking would make me feel taken advantage of. I needed to set that boundary. She seemed annoyed when I asked and replied that she would only pay me the £10 only because she was thankful. It took her a week to remember to pay.
Fast forward to a week after payment. There was a group chat text that says that she is upset because one of her mugs is ruined and that we all need to find a solution. I reply with an “oh no” and “I put them away last, maybe I damaged one and if so, I’d definitely replace it.” Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have suggested fault. The next morning I’m in the kitchen and decide to check out the mugs. There is no damage. There are some scratches at the bottom of all of the mugs, the type that a mug gets by being placed on surfaces. I bring this to her attention and she quite literally flips out. She calls me names. She accuses me of lying. She says that she “knows” that I damaged her mug. She wants me to admit my lies and to replace the mug (£2 btw at the local shop). Eventually, after a day of looong text messages with more accusations and a house meeting where I was screamed at, I agreed to buy her a new mug but I refused to admit that I ruined her mug. The next day there were more text message accusations, including ones that I lack honor and that I need to admit fault. Whatever this is about is about more than a mug.
There have been repercussions since then, including exclusively receiving the silent treatment, my stuff being moved, not being allowed to touch anything she owns in the shared kitchen, and stomping outside my bedroom door. She has also loudly started locking her bedroom door and I get this feeling that I should lock my door too… because it seems kinda like a threat. Housemates have noped out of the situation and have said hope you two can work this out.
The added kink is that I know that she obtained new mental health medication while on that trip that I drove her to the airport for. I wonder if maybe new meds are contributing to this dynamic because it really does seem like a dramatic shift over such tiny things. But I don’t know what to do with this information. As the object of her ire, I’m a bit concerned for my physical safety. It seems silly to write, but I feel on edge, like I should be careful. My mental health has taken a hit, especially now that I feel like I’m walking on eggshells. She doesn’t respond to or even look at me when I say hello to her. At this point, I think the only thing to do is for me to move out because here I am ill at ease. But also, I feel like this is exactly what she wants me to do.
So, because housemates are increasingly becoming a thing, and bad housemate stories abound, and sometimes even a small boundary sets off unexpected events and sometimes there is a feeling of “this isn’t ok, but is this violence/bullying/aggression or is anyone actually in danger or what should I do,” I wonder what your advice and commentary is for this and similar situations. How to be a responsible person in the world when you become the object of ire? What do you do when you feel uneasy with someone you live with but can’t exactly pinpoint why? How to deal with a housemate’s (passive) aggressiveness when you’re worried about further repercussions?
You could be right that a recent medication change is part of the picture here, *something* seems to be going on with her, and it might have little to do with either crockery or you, but I cannot stress this enough: It’s not your job to “save” your bully or manage their mental health for them. You can feel compassion for your housemate. You can do your best to de-escalate and not worsen anything that’s already bad. If she ever comes at you with a real apology or explanation and the subsequent bad behavior goes away, you can let bygones be bygones. Otherwise, bringing up her mental health is going to come across as condescending and ableist(at best) and supply her with a ready excuse for her behavior toward you, which, may I point out, she has not actually asked you to do. Nor has she apologized, explained why the mug is so important, introduced other mitigating stressors, heard you out, or done anything except double down. If someone wants to sit her down for a gentle “I’ve noticed you’re not quite yourself lately, what’s going on?” talk, I think that’s very worth doing, but it should be someone who likes her a whole lot and someone she trusts and respects in return. That’s not you.
Your job is to take care of you, to maintain your boundaries, and buffer yourself from her bad behavior* so you can be safe and peaceful at home. Some possible care steps:
(*Edited to add: Being angry is not necessarily bad behavior, nor is setting boundaries about how her possessions are used or making sure her room can’t be entered. What I’m really concerned with is the days-long pattern of screaming, accusations, text screeds, scapegoating, and shutting down anything that would resolve the situation in a civil way. Wanting a new mug vs. wanting to blame you is what reminds me of situations where things escalated badly).
Take the feelings seriously. “It’s just a mug, what’s the big deal?” It’s a big deal because clearly the mug is important to her (it’s possible that MUG = HOME in feelingscurrency) and she feels like there is a pattern where people aren’t being careful with her things. It sounds like money is a weighty issue between you. It’s also a big deal that she screamed at you, a fellow adult, in your own living space, over something you didn’t do, and now you feel scared and upset all the time. It’s okay to have “I can’t live where people scream at me and treat me like a liar” as a firm standard, I can’t recommend it enough.
Treat the current Silent Treatment like a gift, because it is, when the alternative is more screaming. The Silent Treatment sucks, it’s so awkward and weird and painful, but it’s also an invitation to disengage from trying to repair this situation. Find the minimum possible level of engagement you can. If she says “Hello” say it back, but keep it all very brief, casual, and on the surface. If she’s friendly and wants to go back to “normal,” great – enjoy it while it lasts, but don’t trust it unless there is real accountability.
Start quietly looking for a new living situation. This one isn’t working out. I know finances and the housing market can make this really, really hard to do. It’s not fair, you shouldn’t have to be the one who walks away, it’s like letting her win, I know! But in my experience, moving is expensive, and staying put with a person who treats you like this is also expensive. The investment you make in getting the hell away from a hostile person who hates your guts is going to pay off much better than investing in getting her to change.
I’ll say it again: Get rid of the idea that something has to get “bad enough” for you to justify leaving a situation that’s making you unhappy. This lady stresses you all the way out over imaginary mug damage! Don’t be roommates anymore if you can help it!
“Quietly” means don’t discuss moving with anyone in your house until after you’ve signed a new lease and made a final decision to leave, at which point you’ll be informing them of a decision, not asking for permission. Keep in mind that people witnessing the fit this housemate threw over the mug and leaving the two of you to sort it out is completely understandable (from a self-preservation perspective) but also means that they are tacitly making room for the bullying behavior. What would she have to do to you to get them to give a shit? Move out before you have to find out.
Get a sturdy lock for your door, actually lock that lock, and keep your valuable possessions in your room instead of in common areas. Back up your important files. Keep track of your car keys and lock them up when you’re not at home.
Become extremely matter-of-fact about money where this housemate & the apartment are concerned. Record any agreements and transactions to the penny (say, in a phone app or a small notebook), and get out of the habit of fronting money for takeout or groceries or bills and having others pay you back. “Can you buy the pizza and we’ll pay you back later?” “Let’s settle it now.” Later, for this person, means never, whereas she is going to dog you for the £2 mug like the kid in Better Off Dead. You know that now, so, don’t get sucked in again. Also, I think your time as her courier/driver is over.
If you haven’t already replaced the mug, it is okay to just not. If you truly didn’t damage it, you don’t owe her this, she is being so weird! On the other hand, replacing the mug can be a pretty inexpensive test before you have to uproot yourself: If you give her what she says she wants, does she settle down, or does she continue singling you out, in which case, yeah, it’s definitely time to move! If you do decide to replace it, probably shove the money under her door and walk away. Don’t respond to further texts about it. Mute text notifications from her if that’s where she’s been the most aggressive with you. Don’t let her send long screeds into your day any time she feels like it.
It’s not so much what is right or fair as it is about your sense of what will work to de-escalate the situation in the way you need. Sometimes making the point is worth it, sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money. You’re going to have to live with this person a while yet, so don’t add blame and shame for yourself if what you need is a little expedience. If you do end up replacing the mug, touch it as little as possible. Absolutely respect her request not to touch any of her things in the kitchen, not least because I get the sense that this “invisible damage” could spread from object to object if this conflict isn’t resolved. There’s also such a thing as the strategic apology. Do you feel sorry in your heart? No. Are “I’m sorry” the words that might get whatever this is to stop? Maybe kinda yeah. “I’m so sorry, I can see that I’ve really upset you. Here is money for a new mug. I will not use your kitchen things anymore.”
I’ve lived with at least two roommates who reminded me of your fears about what this could turn into, one who was extremely difficult, and one who turned out to be actually dangerous (waiting until she went out of town to secretly move my stuff dangerous, harming my cat dangerous, mentioning the gun in her storage unit all the time dangerous). In both cases, it started with giant conflicts about seemingly small things that had me wondering, “Am I overreacting? Is it me?” long after I should have, and I can remember some common threads:
- High charisma matched only by a huge sense of entitlement.
- Bad behavior toward me wasn’t a one time thing, it was a constant, escalating pattern. Things noticeably worse in times when they were unhappy or struggling in some way, but it didn’t go away when they were doing well.
- All attention was good attention, they won as long as they could command my attention (time, money, effort, emotional energy), doesn’t matter how. I left them alone and wanted to be left alone, trying to interact as little as humanly possible to avoid an argument. They made this impossible, continually invading my space and forcing interactions.
- I felt like the frog in water, as they pushed me and other people around them to abandon reasonable norms and standards until it became “easier” to accept bad behavior than to risk setting them off. For instance, the thing where you haven’t ever collected the money she owes you for the airport ride. That’s actually a way bigger amount than the mug, and yet? It feels hard to bring up an obvious thing. Bingo.
- Appeasing and managing their moods & behavior only emboldened them and made them more aggressive over time. “Wait, did I do something to make you so upset?” It’s not that I was the perfect housemate, but the level of hostility was so consistent, and so out of proportion, that it was less about anything I was or wasn’t doing than about feeding their own addiction to feeling aggrieved and entitled. They’d manufacture fights over anything (“Why do you open your mail like that?”) to keep the feeling going.
- The meaner they were to me, the more they felt bad, and the more they treated me like it was my fault for making them feel bad about themselves. Beware the bully who treats you like a free therapist, replacing apologies for what they did to you with tales of how sad they are.
- The Difficult Roommate never apologized. The Dangerous Roommate apologized all the time, she loved a heart-to-heart. The lesson I took away is that once someone crosses into bullying you, they don’t cross back.Any apologies are self-serving, designed to center their feelings and keep you around for more mistreatment.
- They burned through people quick, since once the charisma act stops working the choices are pretty much: fight or flight.
Fight or flight:. If this isn’t an isolated incident, if this becomes a pattern, you’re either going to become the person who screams back (“Oh, is it Dramatic Tantrum time? Hold up, I need more eyeliner”), rolling the dice on whether she’ll back down or escalate, or you’re going to need to find a way to disengage and lay low until you can get to a safe distance away. In my experience, the first path can be temporarily satisfying, but the second is much healthier. I think you are very smart to notice the red flags you’re seeing, good luck handling it while it’s still about mugs.