Want roommate divorce from my very own personal Eeyore.
March 24, 2012 9:11 AM   Subscribe

My socially awkward roommate/friend is hampering my social life. I don't know how to kindly set boundaries without really hurting him.

(Me, female. Roommate, male. Both in 30s.) My friend/roommate of two years has some major social anxiety issues. He is a shy, introverted homebody and I am his only real local friend. He has no local family. Any other social contact is through my friends I have introduced to him, but he is always a hesitant tagalong rather than an initiator or participant.

My friend can be pretty good company. He is comfortable in our apartment and when comfortable he is a smart person with a dry, cutting wit and many interesting observations. We get along very well as roommates and enjoy having the odd dinner/movie night, to the point that I suspect we have settled into a faux-relationship (just the day-to-day stuff, with no sex or deep emotional intimacy). I think he very much likes this. I like my friend and clearly see his good qualities and often tell him so, which has had the unintended and undesirable effect of giving him enough positive interaction that he does not seem to want to seek any outside social connection. Doh!

Back in November my friend's work schedule changed to match mine. This means when my friend is not working, he is in the apartment and I have no solitary time (which is much coveted by both of us because then pants become optional and porn can be watched and whatever else one might wish to do without someone a thin wooden door away). I am an introvert myself and I wouldn't want to spend this much one-on-one time with a SO. I told my friend that we both needed to make sure to get out of the apartment on our own to give the other space, lest one of us fall victim to roommate atrocity. Friend agreed. For a month or so he popped out for a social thing with a coworker once a week, and then it stopped. He got a flat tire in January and did not get it fixed until this week (and this is a temporary repair he needs to make permanent), so he took the bus to and from work. Any other occasional transportation is courtesy of me. This means he has not gotten out on his own, but I can't really bitch at him because he does have money woes.

This is driving me a little batty.

I have made efforts to get out. Most weekdays I go for walks by myself, and I have spent time with friends, sort of sneakily on the side so he doesn't feel excluded. I want my apartment alone time so I can chill out, but even social time without roommate is a big relief.

A good friend of mine who often hangs out with roommate and I invited us to join a social group activity. The activity involves 6-9 people, most of whom I know in passing but are strangers to roommate. We've attended about 4 of these activities, at which roommate seems completely miserable, like a mouse in a viper cage. Last week he sat in a chair off to the side of the group and radiated awkward vibes. The others made attempts to involve him, but he doesn't like their approach and feels insulted. Roommate has told me that at the past couple of events he hasn't had any fun at all. Christ! He hasn't tried, either!

Meanwhile, I am making friends and want to do things with these people, who are funny and nice. Ideally without roommate, who gives every impression of being in a personal hell in their company. I am tired of checking in with roommate, making sure he doesn't feel ignored, and feeling pressure to cut my fun short to take roommate home (because I am the driver, because roommate can't afford to fix his car).

Last weekend I went out to meet a couple of them for a St. Patrick's beer. I told roommate I was going (I had to, to break away from our dinner/movie thing). Couple of days later, roommate is in a serious funk and expresses how hurt he was that he was not invited out with me, how he stayed up until 5am cleaning the kitchen because of it, and how frustrated he is with the social activity. I told him he wasn't excluded, but I did not think he would have a good time. Truth is, I didn't want him to come. I tried to straighten out some of his perceptions of people's interactions with him. Obviously, due to roommate's social anxiety, this is like bailing out the Titanic with a dixie cup.

Last night I brought roommate with me to a little movie/social thing with a couple of the activity participants. I had fun. Roommate sat in a far corner, barely spoke, gave every impression of undergoing torture and counting every minute until he could escape. I cut the evening short to take roommate home.

I am very frustrated. Roommate cannot help having social anxiety, and I am sure it is awful for him, but I am very tired of being the caretaker. Roommate is unhappy when he is included AND unhappy when he thinks he is being excluded. There is no winning.

I am planning on sitting roommate down and having a talk with him, explaining that I am going to do more social things by myself from now on, that I need my friends to be my friends and not "our" friends, and that he needs to go out, get his own friends and fix his transportation.

This "abandonment" from me is going to hurt him deeply. This will make him even less likely to find his own social opportunities, and it will give the apartment a miserable atmosphere. As an added complication, I am going to be moving far away in a few months (roommate has known since January). Roommate will definitely be on his own then, and I don't know what is going to become of him. He could easily end up homeless. This may really send him into a depression at a time when he needs to be thinking about the future.

I genuinely like my roommate/friend, seriously, when it's just the two of us hanging out we get on like gangbusters, but he is a clinger and needs some serious professional help. He definitely has access to free/low cost resources (he went in and filled out forms!), but does not aggressively pursue the matter to actually get the help. He says he doesn't know what will help him.

How should I go about talking to him? What would be the best approach? I'm looking for advice from people with social anxiety, or people who have dealt with others with social anxiety.

I don't think he's in danger of suicide, but he's rattled off some nutty plans like tossing his stuff, packing a rucksack and walking/hitchhiking/being a vagrant a la Chris McCandless.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I really think you should have a sit-down with him and compassionately tell him everything you have said here. EVERYTHING.

And then start implementing changes in your life that preserve your own sanity and quality of life. Do not continue inviting him to events where he has sat in the corner and not engaged.

This will be uncomfortable, but it is humane to him, it asserts your independence and autonomy, and it will allow you to enjoy your life.

And if he continues to drag you down, start plans to move out.
posted by jayder at 9:28 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

My sister used to have a roommate who sounded very, very, similar to yours. Nice guy, pleasant roommate, but had little to no social engagements and never left the house except to work.

he did, however, find a girlfriend and this caused him to leave the house more eventually. Is there any way you can try to set your roommate up with a date?
posted by bearette at 9:57 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The one difference between my sister's roommate and yours is that my sister's roommate seemed basically happy with his life and did not have much interest in tagging along with my sister and her friends.
posted by bearette at 9:58 AM on March 24, 2012

Stop beating around the bush.

Just at a note the OP is indicating she's going to talk to him and is saying, This "abandonment" from me is going to hurt him deeply so that definitely seems to be the plan and she is looking for advice on how to best approach it.
posted by XMLicious at 10:22 AM on March 24, 2012

as you are leaving soon anyway, i would spare his feelings for the time being, and just do what you can to deal with being 'somewhat annoyed and frustrated' as opposed to 'living with a roommate who is hurt, confused, and upset' ...as someone who has had VERY loud, annoying, and law-breaking neighbors recently move in behind my house, i can assure you that there are MUCH WORSE living situations to be in. (not that i mean to belittle your situation, i understand it sucks) seconding bearette's suggestion to find him a date or someone else to hang out with...don't know anyone appropriate? ask your friends.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:27 AM on March 24, 2012

Who on earth could you set this guy up with, someone you hate? If he's as awkward as you say, sounds like a dead-end path to me. I'd focus more on setting your own boundaries and let roommate deal with his SO situation.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:34 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

He is miserable and he needs to do something about it. A lot of people will avoid doing necessary things until it becomes an issue where they have to deal with it. Most people are prompted to seek help by family, friends, co-workers unless it is totally taken out of their hands because they can't function.

Social anxiety inhibits the development of social skills, which causes more social anxiety. A lot of people think they have no choice but to be miserable and this is a serious problem in general, but it's better that he gets help know while he still has someone in his life.

You need to take care of yourself and he needs to learn how to take care of himself. If setting clear boundaries, explaining how this effects you, results in an irrational reaction from him, like him thinking his feelings and reactions are more important that yours, it's better to know now. He needs to assume responsibility for his own well-being.

My roommate has anxiety issues. At first, I tried to accommodate it, but as we became better friends and got to know each other, she's gotten more comfortable with things that use to be more of an issue. But, also, I helped her find therapeutic help.

In a lot of cases, part of dealing with anxiety is exposure. The less he has, the worse it gets. He needs to get out for both your benefits.
posted by provoliminal at 10:56 AM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

As an added complication, I am going to be moving far away in a few months

Which will solve the problem, as far as you are concerned.

So there is no reason to wade into trying to fix him or change his behavior or making the next few months more awkward and uncomfortable than they need to be by having The Talk. You are not his therapist, and even if you were it would take more than a few months to cure his social problems.

Just don't go there. Put up with the status quo for the short time you have remaining, and then move, and then this won't be your problem anymore.
posted by ook at 11:00 AM on March 24, 2012

I think there might be a middle path here. The list of things you wrote that you want to talk to your roommate about--

I am planning on sitting roommate down and having a talk with him, explaining that I am going to do more social things by myself from now on, that I need my friends to be my friends and not "our" friends, and that he needs to go out, get his own friends and fix his transportation.

--is pretty long and might be too much for him to take in at once. I also feel like it's probably healthier (and in a way easier for him to hear) for you to focus on saying what you need and what you're going to do. Does that make sense? So I would recommend saying something like, "Hey, I need to do social things without you sometimes. I like spending time with you and I'm okay giving you rides to some events but sometimes I need to go off and do my own thing."

Because really he doesn't *need* to get his own friends and fix his car. If he wants to sit around and sulk alone, he can make that choice. It sounds to me like part of the complexity of the situation for you is that you've taken on responsibility for making sure he's okay. But you can't ever really do that for someone else.

So, of course, there's this internal shift that you probably need to make as well. What I mean is reframing inside your own head what is your responsibility and what isn't. I think once you make that shift, figuring out what to say will be easier.
posted by overglow at 11:25 AM on March 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

As someone who has dealt with crippling social anxiety and depression, I really feel for your roommate. You are his "safe person," and it's going to be very difficult for him to lose you.

How you approach this issue will depend on how much you care for him as a friend. If you continue putting up with the status quo until you leave, or cut him out of your life completely while you're still there, he's likely to be crushed sooner or later. If I were you (and this is just how I would handle it personally; I'm not saying it's right or wrong), I'd try to be as compassionate and gentle as possible. You might consider framing it like this: you're moving out soon and you want to make sure he's ok afterward. You want him to start establishing his own friendships and social activities. Encourage him to see a therapist. Let him know you're not abandoning him, but want to help him move toward a more healthy lifestyle. In other words, make it clear that you're doing this for his sake, but at the same time be firm that you need your own space and your own friends.

As others have said, you're not his therapist; but you can still be a supportive friend and help him transition toward a more sociable life. For example, a lot of people with social anxiety feel overwhelmed in groups. Is there anyone in your group whom he might get along with one-to-one? If so, you could maybe invite this person for dinner/movie for the 3 of you so your roommate can get to know this person, while still having you there as a "safe person." If they seem to get along, encourage roommate to hang out with this other friend, just the 2 of them. Things like that might help ...

This of course places some burden on you, which you may or may not want to carry. If you're worried about him feeling abandoned, it might be a good way to go. On the other hand, you should keep in mind that ultimately he's responsible for his own happiness.

Feel free to memail me if you'd like more insight on what it feels like to have social anxiety. After a lifelong battle with this problem, I've managed to make a lot of progress over the past few years.
posted by phoenix_rising at 11:29 AM on March 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can relate to both you and your roommate here. I'd separate the conversations as overglow suggests. There's the "I need some time socializing on my own, too" conversation. There's the "have you ever considered doing ___? I'm a little worried about you" conversation. There's the "dude, you seriously need to fix your car" comment. And if you really want to, there's the "you might not know this, but it comes off like you really don't want to be there sometimes" conversation. I do this, too, so I relate, but you've kinda created a theory about him. But you really don't want to have the "you know what your deep-down problem is?" conversation. He can't fix that.
posted by salvia at 11:47 AM on March 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I feel like you are taking a lot of responsibility for roomie's emotional well-being when he is a man in his 30s who presumably clothed and fed himself for the many years before you two ever met. I wouldn't want to get into his mental health issues at all in your shoes and would instead say things like:

"Hey, Roomie, I would really like to have the apartment to myself one night a week. I'm happy to clear out for you one night a week, too, so you can decompress. What night will work?"

"Roomie, I feel you on the finances, but it seems like you want to leave our social events earlier than I do. Can you arrange your own way home from now on?"

"I need some more flexibility in my schedule right now, so I'm only able to help you run errands on Thursdays from now on."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:03 PM on March 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might consider framing it like this: you're moving out soon and you want to make sure he's ok afterward. You want him to start establishing his own friendships and social activities.

I think that sounds like a great way to frame it. I used to be that roommate you're describing--intensely depressed with crippling social anxiety (it was a big deal even to go get groceries), clingy with codependent tendencies, etc.

I doubt that you'll be able to convince him that you're doing it for his benefit, but I think he probably does need someone to directly address social interactions and how they tend to go. I'd bet that he genuinely doesn't know.

Unfortunately it's possible you won't be able to help him: if he's as insecure as he sounds, he's likely to view any correction--no matter how it's phrased--as an attack or a rejection.
posted by johnofjack at 8:31 PM on March 24, 2012

It's very nice of you to be so concerned for him. A lot of people would have given up already.

You might consider framing it like this: you're moving out soon and you want to make sure he's ok afterward. You want him to start establishing his own friendships and social activities.

I agree that this sounds like a good way to approach it.

Is he on any anti depressants or anxiety meds? If not, can you maybe firmly (but gently) nudge him into seeing a doctor? It'll probably be easier for him to socialize if his biosystems aren't bombing him with brain-terror-chemicals the whole time. (Hopefully he has access to health insurance and a quality PCP?) You mentioned that he has anxiety; perhaps the reason he sits to the side so stiffly and awkwardly is that he's afraid?
posted by Estraven at 3:51 AM on March 25, 2012

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