How to handle delicate roommate dynamics stemming from experience / age / maturity differences without dramatic confrontation?
April 21, 2009 6:05 PM   Subscribe

How to handle delicate roommate dynamics stemming from experience / age / maturity differences without dramatic confrontation?

I am 26, recently completed graduate school, lived alone in a variety of cities for 3 years before moving into my current apartment, independent, and practical. My roommate is almost 23, graduated college 1 year ago, has never lived in an apartment before, needs assistance with basic tasks (e.g. using coffeemaker, mopping floor, vacuuming), and is neurotic. We were not close friends before moving in together, and we met through mutual close friends who live in our new neighborhood.

While we are committed to making our living situation work and have expressed this commitment to each other, we've encountered a number of snags in the 6 weeks we've lived together. A few examples:

*Roomie has accidentally permanently blackened an All-Clad pan, burned dish towels, and flooded the coffeemaker because the lid was left off during brewing (all things I brought into the apartment)
*Roomie has avoided telling me things I need to know until after I discover and mention them (e.g. my room was inhabited by a mouse before my arrival and littered with pellets when moved my things in)
*Roomie's computer will not connect to any of the routers we've tried, a problem that tech support confirmed stems from their computer, though Roomie wants to attempt to fix problem independently on my computer and chalks problem up to Mac/PC differences
*Roomie has a somewhat dramatic style of dealing with problems (e.g. verbally ruminates to our mutual friends), while I handle things more privately and try not to draw others into the situation

I intuit many of these problems stem from our different "places" maturity- and/or experience-wise. I also realize living with someone after living alone for a while is an adjustment, and I have tried to address our incompatibilities with humor, "how-to" sessions, and compassion, as I want to be accommodating and friendly.

However, I am unnerved because I feel like I'm doing my best to make the best of the situation, yet things similar to the above scenarios keep coming up. The things that have transpired are not necessarily confidence-inspiring on my end, as they've slowly deteriorated my trust in my roommate to handle things without fumbling in some way. To top things off, my roomie tends to be very anxious and has difficulty remaining calm unless intoxicated or medicated (a phase I grew out of years ago). Roomie and I have many friends in common, and I don't want to rock the boat, but how do I communicate my feelings and remain assertive in this situation without freaking out my roommate?

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1. She replaces them pronto.
2. Lame, but maybe she just didn't want you to back out.
3. "Dude, I'm sick of hearing about your computer problems."
4. Suck it up.

About trust, I learned that it's bound to be violated. Stay above board with all the stuff that concerns you both and leave it at that. It sounds like you may have to be the apartment's CEO, but nine times out of ten it's gotta be someone. Be businesslike about the common responsibilities, matter-of-fact and undramatic (don't let her rope you in to her drama).

On a lighter note, the movie "Ghost World" provides some relevant illustration here in Rebecca and Enid's approaches to adult life.
posted by rhizome at 6:53 PM on April 21, 2009

Honestly, I think you should look to get your own place ASAP. I think that there is an age window in which people become a little more particular about their living situation, and you have crossed through that window. You've become accustomed to living alone, and that's fine. The grievances you list are annoying, but the sort of completely mundane stuff that happens when you live with another person. You should ask her to replace the pan she ruined, but that's about all you can do. You can't change change her personality or the fact that she annoys you, and face it, she could be a lot worse- dirty dish leaving milk finishing never takes out the trash late with rent won't pay cable but watches tv all the time etc...

Seriously, though, move to your own place, and you'll be a lot happier.
posted by emd3737 at 7:08 PM on April 21, 2009

It sounds like you are doing all you can. Remain calm and understanding, and set a good example whenever you can. But it might help you to deliberate separate yourself and your things from his or her space.

So, ask that they not use your cookware and kitchen tools, but maybe take them out to buy their own. If they own it, they might be more responsible with it. If they ruin something of yours, demand that they replace it asap.

As for the things you need to know and lack of info problem, this comes with experience, only. As they figure things out, it will get better, as long as you don't alienate them or make them feel unwanted. I have definitely been your roomie, and the person who was you made me feel like an unbearable dullard. It would have worked out better had they explained to me that they wanted to keep things smooth and above board, and that they weren't judging me for anything other than my inexperience.

Computer problems are whatever. Either throw money at the problem until it goes away, or tell them to suck it up, but I wouldn't encourage them to mess around with your computer, same as with your kitchen tools.

As for them talking to your mutual friends about the problems, some people just work like that. As long as your friends understand that your roomie is going through a learning process, they are apt to refrain from judging you, and may even help educate your roomie in things they might need to know ahead of time.

Growing up is very hard to do. I would have loved to have an understanding older person to help me out. Heck, I could still use one. Either way, I bet your roomie is extremely frustrated and worried that you might hate him or her. But, if you don't think you can handle having a Student Driver in your home, you might want to look into switching places and finding someone else to live with your problem roomie. Best of luck.
posted by Mizu at 7:10 PM on April 21, 2009

Put a password on your computer, pronto. I had a roommate do some serious damage trying to hook up a printer to my computer when I wasn't home.

I agree that you may have crossed into the no-more-roommates zone. In particular, living with someone who bitches about your situation to mutual friends is a recipe for resentment and disaster. Most of the things you mention are really common themes that you're going to face with whomever you live with but they're going to be exacerbated by someone straight out of college.

Are you locked in to a lease for a while?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:27 PM on April 21, 2009

No offense, but these seem like trivial complaints to me. Most of this just sounds like what it's like to live with other people. Perhaps not the pan, but people make mistakes. Does your roomie even know it's ruined? If not, you should explain it and ask for a replacement. I once had a roommate go through the roof because I washed a cast iron skillet with soap. I just didn't know better, but I think it'd be a little over-dramatic if they made a thread about it.

Disclosure: I've lived with all kinds of terrible roommates (drugs, parties, stacks of dishes, TV on all night, late with bills, etc), so maybe my standards are pretty low. But I just can't see getting worked up because they are having computer problems or spilled some water when making coffee. I would go so far as to say that if these are examples of their worst behavior, you have yourself a decent roommate. One can only assume they aren't flooding the coffeemaker or burning dishtowels on purpose, it just sounds like they don't know their way around a kitchen yet (this is something you learn). Maybe they are letting off steam to your mutual friends because you are getting very aggravated over their mistakes.

My advice is to learn to live with the little things or find your own place where you can be in control of your space in the way you want. Of course if they ruin any of your possessions, you have a right to ask for them for a replacement. Beyond that, you're not going to have much luck micromanaging their personality to fit your standards.
posted by cj_ at 7:50 PM on April 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, I'll tell you what's not going to help. Being all patronizing about how much more "experienced" and "mature" you are at 26 than the roommate is at 23.

I'll tell you what - I'm 38 and have lived by myself, with roommates, and now I'm married. I can still be a bumbling idiot when my mind's on something else. I've started the coffee pot without the lid on it and better yet, put the coffee in without putting the filter in. I've burned pans, I've washed a cast-iron skillet with soap (just trying to be helpful, right?) Usually only once, but you know, stuff happens. I'll replace your pan, ok? Relax.

If you're going to be all Miss (or Mr., I guess) Know-it-all to me "with humor, "how-to" sessions, and compassion" with that whopping 3 years you've got on me, we're going to have issues. We probably shouldn't be roommates in the first place, though.

Just don't let the roommate handle anything irreplaceable or crucial, like old sentimental family photos, or a computer with the only copy of your next research paper. Think of your roommate like a pet who occasionally chews up your favorite sneakers, if it helps, but don't treat them like a child.
posted by ctmf at 8:31 PM on April 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

Sounds like you're living with the fucking Rain Man. Don't let them use your shit any more.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:55 PM on April 21, 2009

Does the name Felix Unger ring a bell?

posted by ook at 9:20 PM on April 21, 2009

Having made the same mistake myself, you're not doing yourself any favors by thinking you're so much more mature than your roommate. That will get you nowhere and you'll be annoyed by EVERY. SINGLE. THING. this person does (see above).

The problems you complain about do seem trivial, as mentioned by others, and seem like, if you are so mature, they would be great instances to exert your 'maturity' to help your roommate learn how to live on their own.

It sounds to me like you're more upset that your roommate complained to your friends than anything and you wanted them to be on your side and not hers, and really, is complaining here really that different?
posted by messylissa at 10:28 PM on April 21, 2009

This isn't so much different experience/age/maturity as different styles. Nthing emd3737's comments: you can't change someone's personality (including your own). You might not be able to tolerate this roomie and that's ok. But the next one will have a unique set of issues, too.

It's hard to find a good roommate. I had one who, in stanky NYC summer heat, liked to sit all over my furniture in her threadbare white t-shirt. No bra, no panties. In front of my boyfriend. Did I mention she was really sweaty?

If you share possessions/living space, there will always be burnt towels, broken coffee makers, etc. If you prize your possessions that much, don't live with a roommate. Or live with a roommate but don't let them use your stuff. (They will anyway when you're not home.) You can hope for a roommate who operates with the same level of calm and care as you, but no guarantees.

I would make a pros/cons list, compare notes with like-minded friends who have roommates, assess my tolerance level, then decide if I prefer the enemy I know.

P.S. the idea of a 26 year old claiming maturity over a 23 year old is funny to me. I'm 40, recently returned to graduate school, and I'm surrounded by 23-26 year olds every day. They all blend into one big, overly-confident mass with all the answers and nice skin tone.

P.P.S. you can probably fix that blackened pan with baking soda or vinegar or Borax (not at all once). Do a Google search.
posted by Majorita at 10:33 PM on April 21, 2009

I wonder if you had the conversation that few roommates have, but all should: the ground rules conversation. Seriously. Many people don't, because they fear being perceived as an uptight asshole. But I've often seen people who didn't have the conversation get increasingly angry, as they lose trust in the other person and all goodwill erodes.

Great if you have it up front, but it's never to late to have the 'if we're going to live together I think it will help if we get some ground rules down. It will decrease the drama, and help us respect each other's stuff, privacy, etc.'-conversation.

The conversation covers the cleaning, visitors, what to do if you break the other person's stuff, cost of joint expenses (toilet paper, etc.), usage of each other's stuff, bill paying, and walking into the other person's room if they aren't there. It can take about 30 minutes - have it over a meal, beverage, whatever.

Pick something, say joint expenses, and ask the other person how they want to handle it. Try not to share your perspective first. Find out what they think, share your opinion, come to an agreement, and stick to it. That way, when they don't do the agreed upon thing, you can say: Joe, we agreed that you'd give me the money for dsl by the 4th of the month. Can you get that for me? Then, if they don't pay you in two months, you get to say: Joe, I've got the change the password, cause if I'm the only one paying for it, then I' the only one using it. Happy to give you the password whenever you decide you want to use it and have the money.

I think people assume they have common understanding around living together, or that they will just 'figure it out' becuase both people describe themselves as 'easygoing'. They just get frustrated when they find out two coffee makers and broken dishware later, that they don't actually have a common understanding around the appropriate response around something like: you break it you buy it, or no, you don't get to eat my last two eggs because it was there without replacing it, or were you in my room? Life's too short for those arguments in a space you call home. And they are avoided if people set ground rules.
posted by anitanita at 10:47 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

To those older people commenting about how funny it is to see a 26yo talking about maturity over a 23yo : emd3737 has a bit of a point about a 'maturity window' or threshold around that time.

I'm 40+. I'm at uni with a bunch of mainly 20~26 year olds, with a couple up around 30~35. There's a threshold, somewhere around the 23-24-25 year mark for most of them, where actual mental maturity kicks in. Although we all generally get along OK, there's precious few 20~22 year olds I'll happily work on a project with, but quite a few of the 23-26 year olds and almost all of the 26+ year olds.

(Or maybe I'm just using this to vent about being stuck on a project with a 21 year old who - while actually quite mature and interested in learning & doing shit - is a bit out of her depth, and a 25 year old who, quite frankly, is distracted by both being 25 and shiny things...)

Having said that: grad school toughens you up; you either mature real fast or you fail. It also isn't up to you to help this person (how to || learn that they need to) grow up. Get them to replace your stuff they broke, then get out.
posted by Pinback at 1:00 AM on April 22, 2009

It's hard to live with roommates. Some people have to know their limitations and realize that they just aren't good at it. I am one of those people, and it sounds like you might be as well. If you have nice things that you care about, or at all particular about your environment, living with roommates can be incredibly difficult. To answer your specific questions, though:

1. Get some Bon Ami and tell her to try scrubbing the hell out of the pan. If it doesn't come off completely, she buys you a new one. All-Clad pans are expensive, so let her make a few payments if she can't go out and buy a new one all at once. Tell her to go to a thrift store and pick up her own cookware/dishes/appliances and not to use your nice things. I'm very particular about my cookware, and I told the same thing to roommates when I lived with them in the past. It goes over fine, because they're happy with cheap stuff, and don't want to be worried about replacing your $100+ if they accidentally burn something or forget it's on the stove. Do this immediately, do not pass go, and apologize for not explaining it to begin with. Some people really don't realize that pans cost more than $10 at Target. If you're okay with her using your appliances, don't assume anything, but give her step by step instructions for each thing. Tell her not to use them without your permission. If she wants to use the food processor, supervise her the first time she does it.

2. This sucks, but there's not much you can do about it. Tell her that problems like this are easier to handle if you nip them in the bud, and that you won't get upset about it, but that you'll both be able to handle it better if she tells you as soon as she notices something.

3. Express sympathy with her computer problems, but tell her not to touch your computer, ever, in no uncertain terms. Password lock it, put it in your room. Give her the tech support phone numbers and let her work it out with them. If she never gets it working, tell her where the library is and just pay the whole internet bill yourself until she figures out how to use it.

4. Some people are just like this. Ignore it or find a different roommate.
posted by booknerd at 10:07 AM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

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