dealing with a roommate/ assertiveness 2.0
December 4, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I like my roommate, but I don't like some of the things she does. I suck at being assertive. We've only been living together for a short while so I'd like to set some boundaries while it's still early.

Roommate and I met coincidentally a couple of months ago. We're about the same age, have a bunch of common interests, and each have our own social circles but are still able to hang out with each other and watch TV/go out/etc.

The first issue is messiness (original, I know). It's been over a month and she still has a couple of unpacked boxes/miscellaneous things in garbage bags taking up space in the living room. I can't STAND clutter, and it's really been more than enough time. The main problem here is that she developed a back problem a couple of weeks ago, so she can't really bend or lift things right now. This makes it a tender topic. Fine with me-- I offered to unpack some of her boxes in her presence, throwing out most of the stuff and putting the rest in a corner of her room (which is also disgusting, but a nonissue because it's her own personal space). It's just this last bit of stuff that we can't seem to get rid of. When I mention it, she gets defensive. FWIW, unpacking was an issue prior to back problem.

This next one is driving me completely crazy- groceries. My parents live closeby and so they've been helping out by buying some standard household items from Costco for us. In their culture (they immigrated here), hospitality is emphasized above most other things, and it is considered extremely rude not to share things like food, or to ask for money from someone, even if it is owed. I'm having a very hard time finding a good balance. On the one hand, I don't like to make a fuss over money, but on the other hand, I (and my family!) are being taken advantage of.

I am a very picky eater, so while she eats my food I have no desire to eat anything of hers because I don't even like any of it. Also, I shop at organic (read: expensive) places for produce so I'd rather just know what I have, how much it was, and how long it has to last me. I am trying to put a budget in place for myself. Once she asked about sharing food, and said I'm more than welcome to eat hers. I was unprepared so all I said was that certain things like cereal are fine, but that I'd like to keep produce separate. I also really want her to stop drinking my seltzer from Costco (I feel like b/c it's in bulk and my parents buy it for me, it's harder to address). I think keeping separate groceries/drinks altogether would be my best bet to avoid any gray areas.

She never does dishes. EVER.

She obsesses over my eating habits. I eat somewhat unhealthily but I'm not physically out of shape at all. It's my concern how and what I choose to eat. She'll scold me for eating "shit" all the time, meanwhile she eats that same "shit" (like pizza) when I buy it b/c she never has any goodies of her own. The first week we lived together and she saw me eating something junk-y, she told me I was going to get fat. I just wish she would mind her own business. I never meddle in her eating/sleeping/life habits, and I wish she would show me the same courtesy.

This post probably sounds a lot more resentful than I meant it, but that's because it's all been building up and I suck at confrontation and always have. I have a serious issue with expressing my needs and wants to people. I think this could be a great opportunity for growth and maturity if I handle it tactfully.

I should state again that I DO like her, and I don't want this to be some dramatic ordeal with ultimatums and whatever. She's a sweet girl, but living with someone is just always hard.

Please give me advice on addressing these topics directly but non-aggressively, and what steps/actions I can take to maintain the boundaries if and when I put them in place.

Thanks in advance!
posted by DayTripper to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Make a list of the things that need to be changed, and prioritize them. Pick the one or two things that are most important to you and need to be changed right away. Then, ask her about those. Present it so it's clear that some of her behavior is very much not okay with you, but also present an opportunity for you both to brainstorm possible solutions together. So, don't make it all about you telling her what to fix and how. And, ask her if there's anything you do that she doesn't particularly like. This will go a long way in preserving your friendliness towards one another and ensuring that she doesn't get defensive or feel attacked.

If things improve, great! In a few weeks or months, you can bring up the remaining things that you'd like to see changed.

If things don't improve, have the talk again. Each time you have the talk, make it clear that you can't bend on these items but want to work together to find a good compromise.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:44 AM on December 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would be proactive:

1. Move the boxes from the living room to her room. Just say they've been there long enough, and it's shared space.

2. Move your food to one part of the fridge and hers to another. Say you'd like to keep one another's food separate from now on, so it doesn't ever become an issue.

3. Accept that you're cleaner than she is and will be doing more chores around the house. This is the hardest one. Keep your eye on her. There may be something she starts doing instead of dishes, say cleaning the bathroom, to help balance the workload. If this doesn't ever happen, ask her if she wants to take over a job/chore around the apartment.

4. If she obsesses over your eating habits tell her to keep her opinions to herself. If she continues, point out that you don't pick on her for her room being a mess. Say this as good-naturedly as possible.

Personally, I would avoid a sit down. In my experience, this leads to both roommates feeling a bit paranoid / angry at one another, which is a worse problem. Only go there if you've really had it, and have written off having a good relationship with her.
posted by xammerboy at 11:59 AM on December 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

Oh, roommates. Most of the things you mention are issues in most roommate situations. It's good to have clear boundaries, and to enforce those. I think its better not to have one big conversation, but a series of interventions

(1) As far as dishes goes, its easiest just to have separate dishes that are visually distinct. You don't even really need to talk about it, except to say, "Hey, I got these so we have an easier time figuring out who has to wash which ones." And then just wash the ones you use. Learn to ignore hers and she'll get to them eventually.

(2) For food, just casually mention that you find that this sharing thing isnt working, and you don't really eat the same stuff, so you'd like to keep things separate. Clear out shelves in the cabinets and fridge that are yours, and those that are hers. If you have space, keep bulk groceries like your seltzer in your room (under your bed or in a closet). If it doesnt help, and you dont want to confront her, get a mini fridge with a lock.

(3) When she mentions your eating habits, just tell her you dont like people commenting on your eating habits and it makes you uncomfortable. Do this every time, and she'll probably stop.

As far as cleanness goes, and the mess in the living room, you might have to give a little on that. The tidier roomie always ends up doing more cleaning and stressing about living space. If you manage not to let it bother you, you'll end up doing less work.
posted by MFZ at 12:10 PM on December 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

She moved in over a month ago and unpacking was already "an issue" prior to the back problem, which developed a couple of weeks ago -- so you actually expected her to have unpacked these boxes within a week or two of moving in. That's not actually very realistic for a lot of people. I can't say I'm surprised that she hasn't taken you up on your offer to watch you judge the worth of her possessions. If she doesn't know what she wants to do with the things in the boxes, then leaving them packed is neater and more compact anyway. You're gonna have to learn to stand some clutter. It's shared space. That means it's hers too.

As for the food, there's some obnoxiousness there, certainly. Say that it's a sensitive issue for you and that in the interest of removing conflict, you'd like to agree to just put the kibosh on shared food and on talking about what you're eating. Put it in the same "personal" category as clothes and treat it similarly -- presumably you do your own laundry, don't share clothes, and don't make impolite comments about each other's physical appearance, right? Same thing with food.
posted by desuetude at 12:54 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think that if you address these all at once, she might get defensive, because they're tender topics, and people get funny about being called out on their bad behavior.

Because you don't want to cause bad feelings between you two, I'd let the least pressing one, or two, issues go for now, so she feels less bombarded with things she's doing wrong, and focus on the one that is the most important to you.

To me, that'd be the groceries, and it's also probably the hardest thing to address. Again, people tend to get a bit funny when they're kinda called out, especially since up until then she was able to share your things with you. It's going to be a tough convo. I'd personally word it as, "Hey, my finances are tight, and I'm trying to keep a budget, so I'm going to be unable to share my food from now on."

Prepare for the fact she may get defensive and/or fight it, 'but you can eat all of my stuff if you want,' so you'll need counter arguments, like, 'I prefer to eat organic,' or 'There's nothing I really like that you buy, so that won't work for me.' And don't budge. Be prepared to possibly label, and/or hide significant things in your room-- and be prepared for the possibility she may help herself anyway (this has totally happened to me).

If she comments on your food choices, I'd remind her of one or more of the following: everything in moderation is healthy/that you can be healthy at any size/that fat isn't a bad thing necessarily/that you're perfectly fine.

I find that people that say "___ is crap/unhealthy/how can you eat that!" have no idea about nutrition in general, and are repeating things they've heard without ever researching or reading about it for themselves. For example, lets say that she says something about salt to you. The link between salt and high blood pressure is not as clear cut as otherwise believed. Moreover, evidence shows that a lack of potassium is linked to high blood pressure, and that the two are tied.

I find that practically anything has good or bad points, even vilified things, like cholesterol. If you do your research well, there's practically nothing people can say to you, that you can't counter with. For example, tea is good for you, right? Well excess consumption of tea is linked to iron deficiency (especially in vegetarians) because of the way that tannins in tea bond with non-heme iron (the kind found in vegetables). I mean, it's not a huge side effect (iron from meat is not affected) but it goes to show that there are side effects to practically everything-- even healthy natural stuff, and that people don't really realize that. I mean, 'everything in moderation' is cliche, but it's mostly true. So don't let her make you feel guilty for the stuff you're eating. It's probably not even as bad as you think.

Once you've established boundaries with her, and you've gotten over the groceries thing, I'd then maybe address the clutter in the living room, and the dishes. I agree with the suggestion to get your own plates and cutlery, and just doing your own stuff. I'd have to say that I kinda agree with the others-- you may need to change your reaction to the mess so that it frustrates you less-- because it's probably easier than getting her to change. She may never become neater.

If it still really really gets to you, it may be beneficial for you to find a new roomie -- someone who shares your values about cleanliness. The way you're wording everything kinda indicates to me that maybe you and your roommate just aren't suited due to conflicting personality types.

Good luck either way.
posted by Dimes at 1:16 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Be brave - address these problems as quickly as you can. The longer you leave it without a discussion, the harder it will be to change established patterns.

1 - Boxes - inform her she has till the end of the week do do something with them, or else they need to be moved to her room. You must emphasize that shared spaces are SHARED and must be kept tidy accordingly

2 - Groceries - just set your boundaries. "Sorry - I communicated poorly to you regarding the grocery situation when you moved in. Here's how it's going to work from now on......."

3 - Dishes and chores - set a Chore Chart and set one now. The longer you leave this conversation the worse things will become and the worse the resentment build up.

You just need to be brave, set your boundaries and I really think you DO require a sit down conversation - just for 10 minutes or so.

Nothing sets off a housemate war more effectively than passive aggression in my opinion. If you randomly start moving groceries, labelling things as "MINE" and dumping boxes in her room with no warning - be prepared for the shit storm that follows!

Seriously, passive aggression is for cowards, in this kind of situation, you've got to be direct and you've got to act soon! GOOD LUCK... you can do it!!
posted by JenThePro at 1:42 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great advice above! I wanted to add a comment about your parents purchasing things, since I don't think anyone has addressed this yet.

I think this is a bit of a different issue than some of the others you've listed, because people all have different relationships with their parents and often translate those assumptions to other families without really thinking about it. For example, if my parents bought paper towels or a big bulk container of nuts for me and my housemates, I would never consider paying for it or asking housemates to pay for it -- that's just the relationship we happen to have, and they would probably be offended if I did offer up money (especially money I got from housemates). It may be your housemate has a similar sort of relationship with her parents, and so assumes the items from your parents are simply gifts to the house -- it may not even occur to her that she would 'owe' money for them.

So, there are two things to sort out here -- how you approach this with your parents, and how you approach it with your housemate. With your parents, you might decide you're okay with getting these items as a gift, or you might want to include the items in your budget and pay them either the full or partial amount. If they really don't want money from you for the items, that's something you'll need to negotiate with them and figure out separate from anything to do with your roommate. Another option is just to tell them -- this is so nice of you, but I really want to focus on living with financial independence right now, so other than the occasional gift, I'm going to be purchasing my own [paper towels, Kleenex, whatever].

With your roommate, one approach might be to split up items/purchase responsibility for shared household goods. For example, you're responsible for toilet paper and seltzer water (whether through your parents or buying it yourself - doesn't matter), and she picks up the paper towels and dish soap (or however you want to divide it up). Another way would be to work out a budget for these items with her, and each pay in, say $15/month (or whatever) which you guys give to your parents BEFORE their trip to Costco, asking them to pick up some specific items for you - this gets you the cost savings of Costco, but with a very different dynamic (they're doing you a favor to pick some things up rather than giving a gift of items). However, it's definitely not right for you to collect money from your roomie and just pocket it (i.e. not hand it over to your parents) -- so be sure to be clear with them first that they're willing to accept money before you collect from the roommate.

Finally -- on rude comments about your eating habits. I think most people who do this sort of thing are insecure about their own eating habits and seeking either some sort of reassurance that they are healthy and awesome, or just trying to get a rise out of you. Therefore, I would respond in a fairly bland, monotone way -- don't make this an interesting conversation for her. Give her a slightly baffled look and say something like "Wow." "Okay." "Hm." Or just shrug. Give this a try for a while -- in my experience, it mostly shuts this type up pretty fast, but if not you can move on to having a more heart-to-heart "This is super inappropriate, never say that to me again!" sort of conversation.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:20 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The other way to go on the food from segregating yours out is to ask her to kick in. Especially if your folks are going to Costco, be like, "Hey, I know you like those seltzers we get. If you kick me some cash, I can have my folks get you some."

I've had better luck with roomies when I emphasized mutual contribution over trying to police who's eating what food.
posted by klangklangston at 5:24 PM on December 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

It seems to me like your family is gifting both of you, and if this is not the case, then don't leave what they buy in the common areas.

(I'm talking about stuff like paper towels and such, but even the seltzer could count.)
posted by jbenben at 8:25 PM on December 4, 2013

The impression I get is that, despite saying otherwise, you don't like this girl. You liked her once, when you were acquaintances and didn't have to deal with the daily reality of her. It's okay to discover that a person does not meet your standards for a good living companion. I like just about everyone I know casually. Chances are, if I had to live with them I'd think otherwise. You are not obligated to keep liking her because you share taste in movies.

Being roommates is above all things a financial arrangement. I wish I had known this with some of my roommates, thinking it was about friendship first. Nope. I've found the most efficient, fairest way to solve disagreements is to do it financially. If you've got the cash to put down you can negotiate your way. If not, you're going to have to compromise and accept that you just can't have it 100% your way while she's paying 50%. She's entitled to have some things go her way, too.

Messiness: if you want to dictate the condition of the living area and what can and can't go there, pay for it. Measure the square footage of each room. Figure out what you pay per square foot. Pay 100% for your room, 50% for the bathroom and kitchen and shared areas, and 100% of the living room. Bam, you get to make the rules about the living space. Can't afford that? Well, maybe you should relax about her stuff. She's paying for half that space.

Costco: Get the bill, add it up, tell roommate her half is $XX. But generally, I have found it's a bad idea to make someone feel entitled to things that you feel territorial about (because your parents were the ones who did the shopping). Just stop doing it - don't project your bad feelings on her because you find her current level of gratitude lacking. If you want to go halfsies on bottled water or something, treat it as a business transaction. Get the money upfront, then give her the goods. Be prepared to keep things in your room if you are worried about her skimming some for herself.

Food: Let her know that from now on, anything labeled with a person's name on it is not up for sharing. It keeps things clear. Keep a roll of tape and a sharpie by the fridge. Anything you don't want her munching on, put your name on it. If she can't respect that, you have a bigger problem. Instead of trying to cultivate hospitality by "sharing", just make dinner or treats for both of you sometimes. Make food a gift. If she doesn't care for your cooking, leftovers for you!

Dishes: You may consider if she'll pay you to take over that chore. Figure out what would make it worth your time and tell her, "Hey, if you pay me $XX a month, I'll do the dishes and you'll never get nagged again." (I seriously paid a roommate to do my dishes and it was awesome.) If she says she can't afford it, then you can move to the discussion about dish expectations. Maybe you think she never does dishes because she's a "wait until bedtime" girl and you're constantly cleaning them before she can get to them at her preferred time. And she thinks you're being nice by hopping on them so fast - meanwhile you're working up a good seething anger. Seriously, any crappy chore that you like done a particular way - offer to pick it up for cash. Maybe even a 1 day dirty dish pass for $5 or something, so if she's feeling lazy she can hand you a fiver. You like money, ya?

Food comments: See, maybe this girl is just a jerk. Maybe you really shouldn't like her. Next time she pops off with some judgey comment, tell her there's enough meanness in the world about bodies and eating habits without bringing it into the living space. Tell her it would be nicer for both of you if you agreed to leave that stuff at the door. Then, make sure you never ever make a negative comment about her food/eating habits.

Things you really must do:

Sit down and have a roommate meeting. Draw up a proposed list of daily personal chores, and a list of weekly/bimonthly chores that you switch off completing. Buy a cheap calendar, write the person's name on the day they've got weekly cleaning duty and hang it up somewhere. Go through the list of daily chores and talk about dish washing expectations, counter cleaning, etc. Be willing to be flexible about what time she does her chores. Either take responsibility for the small tasks that you want done a certain way or relax your expectations. Then go through the weekly list - one of the points could be "remove personal clutter in the living area" - bring up the stuff in the living area. Figure out how to make it not trigger your clutter hatred. Do you hate it because it's "clutter" or do you hate it because it is her stuff and you can't see a personal use for it? (Betcha some of your stuff seems like ugly clutter to her.) Could she hide it in a rubbermaid tote which would look better? Could you find a more hidden spot so it's not the first thing stabbing you in the eye when you get in the door? Find a compromise. If you bring other alternatives to the table besides "dump your filth in your filthy room this instant so I can pretend you don't live here", you're probably going to have a much more pleasant end result.

As in a lot of things in life, you can choose to be happy or you can choose to be right. If you want a pleasant and affordable living space with a roommate, you're going to have to choose to make harmony a priority over getting your way all the time. Kindness, cash and flexibility are your best bets.

Your other option is to realize you're just plain not going to be happy living with her and figure out how to get a new roommate (and be very upfront about your neatness expectations from now on). Better sooner than later, for both of you!
posted by griselda at 5:06 AM on December 5, 2013

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