unempathic roommate?
December 20, 2013 6:55 AM   Subscribe

I work in a human services discipline, and recently one of my clients passed away unexpectedly, most likely due to natural causes. I was shocked and very sad to find out about this, but also had a number of other clients to see that day, and so coped with it during the day as best I could. That evening, when my roommate asked about my day, I briefly told her what had happened and that I was pretty affected by it. She, a nurse, gave a response best paraphrased as "Yeah, that sucks, when my first client died it was really hard for me, it could have been suicide, did you think about that?" and then launched into a long description of everything that had happened to her that day. I was rather stunned by her apparent disinterest in my experience, and didn't say anything, but I've been feeling pretty annoyed since then, and am not sure how to best deal with this.

Just a few more details:

-My roommate typically talks my ear off every night about the stressors she is going through at her work, until I tell her that I'm tired and am going to bed. Until I reach my breaking point, I am typically attentive and engaged, asking questions and offering my thoughts on her situations, so I'm feeling especially frustrated at this apparent imbalance in emotional availability.
-In other ways, my roommate is quite sweet and thoughtful, taking care to make me feel really welcome since I arrived here (new apartment, new city, new country) several months ago.
-I have numerous other supports in my life, who were really lovely at being available for me to talk out my various emotions following the death of my client, so I don't really feel needy for support in general.
-I understand that different people have different skill sets, and that empathic listening just may not be one of hers, but I'm really dreading spending eight more months of our lease listening to all of her stuff while not feeling like she is willing or able to listen to mine.

I'm wondering whether I should a) somehow talk about this with her, b) just recognize the limitations of our relationship and cope with it as best as possible, or c) think about moving in with some friends who have offered me a (much cheaper) room in their apartment, or d) something else entirely. I would appreciate comments and suggestions, as well as similar experiences from either side of this situation.
posted by ribbit ribbit to Human Relations (33 answers total)
I'm an introvert and all that talking would drive me crazy, so it's fine that you are annoyed. She sounds annoying and self-centered and I wouldn't want to live with someone like that. But in this specific instance, her profession likely has a lot to do with her reaction - I come from a family in which almost all of the women are nurses and death just doesn't faze them the way it does most people. It's just a part of the job. So keep that in mind when gauging how you want to deal with her going forward.
posted by something something at 7:00 AM on December 20, 2013 [13 favorites]

She's a nurse, so she's probably used to having people die, and is used to dealing with it in a very clinical way. If you two are close, I'd mention that it upset you, but don't take it too personally.
posted by xingcat at 7:00 AM on December 20, 2013 [19 favorites]

B. Maybe also C, but that is really a separate issue.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:02 AM on December 20, 2013

I'm wondering whether I should a) somehow talk about this with her

You're "really dreading spending eight more months of our lease listening to all of her stuff", but you're not even sure you should bring this up with her? How about a simple statement of "I'd rather not talk about work right now" the next time she brings up either your work or her's? It's somewhat odd that you criticize her listening ability but don't appear to consider yourself as having any talking ability. Communication goes both ways; if you don't provide feedback about what you want to talk about, she's going to talk about what interests her.

I was rather stunned by her apparent disinterest in my experience

Death is part of a nurse's job. To be quite frank, your exceptional experience is a normal daily experience for her. She should realize that, but I consider this at most a small faux pas than something to move to a different apartment over.
posted by saeculorum at 7:04 AM on December 20, 2013 [25 favorites]

B, and C if you fail at B.

I agree with xingcat re: the potential cause for her apparent disinterest. But I don't see why it matters that much...you are roommates, not best friends. If you're so bothered by the imbalance, just make yourself less available for her to bend your ear.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:05 AM on December 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

She's your roommate, not your partner or therapist. =) Of course, your not her partner or therapist, so I think it might be helpful for you to back away from being her listening ear, too.
posted by kavasa at 7:07 AM on December 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think it's weird that this would be something worth moving out over.

A lot of people just have a roommate for financial/practical reasons. They don't expect to be best friends, cry on each other's shoulders, etc.

I once had a roommate who would occasionally unload on me about deep childhood family trauma. We were friends and all, but we weren't that close. It's not that I'm not an empathic person, but the arrangement we had was mostly financial, and to the degree that we were friends, it was in a cheery splitting takeout and watching movies type of way, not, like, a talk about your demons kind of way. We'd bitch about work stress and stuff, but there was a finite degree to which I was interested in helping her work through her life drama.

You might be happier living with close friends if you need a deep emotional connection with the people you live with.

I'll also second that it's possible she didn't understand how much this particular thing affected you, being a nurse.
posted by Sara C. at 7:08 AM on December 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Good points on her reaction being linked to being a nurse. I should also say that I have come to feel that we are friends, which is what makes this a bit trickier for me. And that I have also tried various ways to change the talker/listener relationship, including being more assertive about what I want to talk about, staying in my room, or saying that I'm not available to chat because I'm in the middle of something else. But these only take care of the imbalance for that period of time, and are a bit exhausting for me to do on a regular basis, as I am definitely an introvert and so feel like quiet time at home is really crucial to my mental/emotional health. Anyway, this isn't so much of an issue about whether or not she talks my ear off, it's more the resentment I feel because of all the reasons listed in the immediate question. But I think keeping in mind the different realities we inhabit as nurse vs. non-nurse helps with that quite a bit.
posted by ribbit ribbit at 7:14 AM on December 20, 2013

I'm a doctor who sees people die (like literally sees them die) a lot. I tried to save someone's life yesterday and failed - but hopefully with others I succeeded. It was still very sad.

I'd like to hope that I would never treat someone telling me about a death lightly, but the truth is that I have to stand at arm's length from death. If I let it get too close, it will crush me.

I hope you can take something from that to help you parse your experience with your roommate.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:14 AM on December 20, 2013 [31 favorites]

a) Trying hard not to be cynical about "types" or some psyc-mumbo, but some 'talkative' folk sure seem to have basically the same awareness about talking as breathing. So other than closing a door or some degree of "stop talking now", talking about talking may be ineffective.
posted by sammyo at 7:21 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Data point: I found out that something very, very awful happened to a distant coworker's son this week. VERY awful. It fucked me up in the head a little, because I couldn't stop imagining what it must be like for the coworker. I told my boyfriend. He patted my arm and expressed sympathy, then walked away to do something in the kitchen. I found his actions completely understandable, because:

- Awful, soul-destroying shit happens all the time, for no reason. It can happen to any of us at any minute, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It is like we are all drunkenly stumbling around the edge of a sucking vortex of blackness, and,

- A lot of people do NOT wish to stare directly into that vortex (which is to say, voluntarily dwell on Awful Shit) because they know it will harm them (because they're very-empathetic, or because they have to be close to it professionally, or for other reasons).

Which is to say: cut her some slack on this one.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:27 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I understand that different people have different skill sets, and that empathic listening just may not be one of hers, but I'm really dreading spending eight more months of our lease listening to all of her stuff while not feeling like she is willing or able to listen to mine.

This is your biggest problem. This one incident could be called either way because she's a nurse, but the ongoing issue is one that anyone could have. You have to either dial back your willingness to listen or be less shy about making her listen to you. This will bring balance to the relationship either by making her listen more or talk less.
posted by bleep at 7:31 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

For some, sharing parallel experiences is how they express empathy. She's telling you she's been through something similar and it was hard. I don't see her behavior in this situation to be particularly egregious, though perhaps it wasn't maximally sensitive.

As for her other behavior, it sounds like she's simply a kvetcher, who, given the option, will always unload in this way. If you don't want to hear it, and don't want to work on maintaining those boundaries, I'm not sure if you can do much beside move out. She's not likely to fundamentally change as a human being, you know?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:35 AM on December 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

Yeah, some people are real talkative like that. If you want to stay (option c sounds perfectly reasonable depending on the commitment you made to this person), you'll probably have to be somewhere between a and b. Every roommate is not guaranteed to be a good friend; your relative aggressiveness and conversation styles might not match up.

TB is also correct that depending on what kind of nurse she is, death may be something that happens to somebody she knows every day and not always a terrible thing, or it can be uncommon and fairly traumatic. People deal with this in different ways and often become outwardly nonchalant and pointedly don't talk in a meaningful way about their experiences with death and don't really listen to those who do. I think even the most hardened healthcare worker has a few deaths that really bother them (first, a preventable mistake, a suicide you knew, first child, someone who reminds you of family) that they don't want to think about.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:37 AM on December 20, 2013

I just want to say it's ok if you decide to move out. I know I could not deal with that much chatter from a roommate. I spend all day dealing with other people's needs (ha! I almost launched into a description of my day here) - anyway, I know I need quiet and peace at home, and this lady is apparently not going to give it to you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:57 AM on December 20, 2013

So many good points here-I like PhoBWanKenobi:
For some, sharing parallel experiences is how they express empathy. She's telling you she's been through something similar and it was hard. I don't see her behavior in this situation to be particularly egregious, though perhaps it wasn't maximally sensitive.

In addition to protecting yourself -going into other room with a mild explanation 'Have a few things to do chat later' sort of thing, I would use this imbalance as an opportunity to expand my own empathetic abilities-for myself and the roommate. Acceptance makes life so much easier. This is the way she is. You have others to talk to and can protect yourself from her garrulousness if necessary.

Moving might solve one problem and cause another. No place is ever perfect. I would be inclined to see this a learning and growth situation, grist for the mill.
posted by claptrap at 7:58 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

This Brene Brown video that I keep linking to might explain some of the trouble with empathy. Empathy is a skill. It's like walking, we have to practice it. And learning to walk on a flat surface does not guarantee that we'll do a good job hiking in the mountains. Terrible metaphor, I know. But it sounds like she's trying to overlay her "nursing coworker" empathy onto her "living partner" empathy. And that isn't working for you.

My stance with roomate relationships is the same as with romantic relationships, either party can leave for any reason.

This relationship is not working for you. And so you can leave. Of course, do the right thing and don't be a jerk about it. Having "permission" to leave is not the same as having permission to screw anyone over.

Before you get to that step though, consider that you have not yet asked for what you need. You want her to purposefully and concientiously change her pattern of talking with you. But you have only hinted at it.

And that I have also tried various ways to change the talker/listener relationship, including being more assertive about what I want to talk about, staying in my room, or saying that I'm not available to chat because I'm in the middle of something else.

I know those tactics might have felt very direct, or abrubt, or clear to you. But I promise you, they clearly were not because she keeps doing the thing. She is reading those signs as temporary, rather than indicators of who you are. So sit down with her and tell her that you need more time to recharge, and tell her what a more comfortable conversation balance looks like to you.

Careful of course to avoid words like "always" and "never" because that will put her on the defensive almost immediately.
posted by bilabial at 8:07 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the people up-thread who wrote that people who deal with death every day develop a hard shell of humor or apparent indifference that can be shocking to outsiders. The second issue I wish someone had told the "young me" back when I was still living with room-mates: "They are just room-mates. Not spouses, not family members. Don't dread your interactions all day-- just move out. It is better for everyone. You have no obligation to get along with someone whose primary relationship with you is commercial. Think how much happier you would be every day not having to deal with this." How many years of stress this would have saved me-- I am much like you-- if someone had just taken me aside and said that until I believed it.
posted by seasparrow at 8:41 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

People have already adressed the "she's a nurse" thing, so I'm going to adress the chattiness issue. Why are you putting so much effort into being a good listener for someone who doesn't reciprocate?

I have a coworker like this- she seems incapable of stopping talking. If I don't feel like engaging, I just ignore her. I read or eat or play with my phone and ocassionally grunt or go "oh yeah?" Or "no kudding" or laugh or whatever. She seriously doesn't care if I am paying attention or not- talking is like breathing to her. And if I want a chance to talk, I have to take it- like, interrupt her and just start talking. Some people are just like that. Don't put up with it if you don't feel like it. You can always put in headphones, right?
posted by windykites at 10:13 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

With respect, I would be kind of boggled if I were your roommate and you wanted to have a Talk about how I didn't respond with enough empathy in a conversation - this is something I might expect to discuss with a significant other or maaaaybe a very close friend, but not a roommate, even if we were casual friends. It would feel a little like you were expecting more out of our relationship than I felt comfortable providing.

And yes, I know you've been listening to HER all along, but I think you're going to make yourself miserable if you think of this in transactional terms. Sure, it would be ideal if she listened to you since you listen to her, but I don't think that chiding her into this would really work out. For your own sake, be realistic about the level of attention you're likely to get from her, rely on your friends and family for support, and if you feel that you're giving HER more support than you really want to be giving, address that separately (but DO address it - that kind of thing is so draining!).

I'm truly sorry your client died and hope you are processing things in a way that brings you peace.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:30 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your roommate reminds me of my family (and me a little bit). I think it's a lack of empathy, like you said, and a bit of narcissism. People can be friendly and well-meaning, yet not take a moment to really imagine how another person is feeling and what they can do to affect those feelings. My family can be socially oblivious and annoying in other ways, and I find it utterly exhausting to stay with them.

c) since you have this option and the easy excuse that it's cheaper, why not move out? You can still meet up for coffee occasionally if you want to stay friends with the roommate.
posted by Gravel at 10:43 AM on December 20, 2013

Oh, the nursing is a red herring. If she'd made a callous remark about the death of your client and then moved on and had a normal conversation with you, that'd be one thing, but her tendency to talk your ear off even when you're upset just means she's self-centered. I have a friend like this who wants to talk for hours about trivial problems with her man of the moment, but tells her friends they need to find therapists when they want to vent.

Also, you should move if possible, or find ways to cut off the conversations after a while. Easier said than done, of course.
posted by ziggly at 10:48 AM on December 20, 2013

My parents both work in medicine and are both surprisingly blase and sometimes callous (making jokes, etc) about death. It's a protective response built up because they see people die all the time and they have to put a bit of a wall up.

Yes, she should have made more of an effort to comfort you and been more aware that for you this is a Big Deal. But cut her a little bit of a break.
posted by amaire at 10:57 AM on December 20, 2013

It might be helpful for you to tell her what you've told us about being an introvert. Rather than focusing on her reaction to the death at your job, you might want to say something like: "I really enjoy living with you. You're welcoming, clean, and always pay rent on time (or come up with other positive things about living with her if those aren't true). You're a good roommate! However, I am really one of those types of people who needs a lot of space - and I'm finding that after living together for 4 months that I'm actually not getting as much space as I need. I'm going to start hanging out in my room a bit more, and when we're in the common areas together, I might not always want to talk as much as I have been."

See how that goes. I think the current issue was a catalyst for opening up some of these feelings that you're having, and that it's not really the issue at all - there's something underneath, and that is that you need more space.

Hope all goes well for you and that you can find the alone time you need and the support you need right now. Here are some virtual hugs through the Internet-tubes.
posted by k8lin at 11:07 AM on December 20, 2013

Sounds like you are giving more of yourself than you feel you are getting back. You listen to her as an investment in your budding friendship with her; she kvetches just because she can. She does some nice things for you, but this still may be small in her mind.

So I'd stop investing so much in this "friendship" and realize that it is just a roommate situation. She's not gonna be your best friend so don't give so much. I repeat: this is not a friendship. She's a bit of a vampire, sucking out attention and not giving in return. That being said, she's one of those benign self-absorbed types. I know quite a few. I chat with 'em if it suits me, but I leave the moment it doesn't, since they just don't see time spent together in the same way.

Moving out seems a drastic response to her insensitivity. Just find ways to disengage from her bitch sessions. If your co-habitation is still not great, then move out.

Finally, I do find nurses & paramedics to be pretty blazé. To the point where friendships have fizzled over this, since personally I'd like to keep my sensitivity.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:08 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreed that it may help to think of this more as a "roommate I am on friendly terms with" type of relationship and less of a "personal friendship" situation.

Your roommate is the domestic equivalent of the person the next cubicle over at work. It's good to be on friendly terms, and very occasionally strong friendships develop from situations like this. But mostly you're just two people existing in the same space for several hours a day.

And just like the person in the next cubicle, it's perfectly OK to tune them out or not be there for them emotionally or whatever you need to establish boundaries that work for you.
posted by Sara C. at 11:13 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think two things are going on here.

1. Your rooommate usually talks your ear off and expresses a lot of negativity. She may just not be picking up the cues that you're giving her that you're not interested, or she may just not really be accustomed to socializing in any other way. Some people are just bad at social interaction or just socialize differently, and I think the two of you happen to have different communication styles.

This is possibly related, but not entirely related, to:

2. Your roommate isn't good at dealing with death. Few people are. Most of the time we try not to think about it, and we're blindsided when it happens.

I think you will just need to find someone else to rely on when it comes to finding sympathy and care in this difficult time. All friendships are different, and it isn't so much that this one is "limited" as that it has different benefits from other friendships.

When she starts talking your ear off, if it's bugging you, I think you're fine to just say "sorry, roommate, I can't really talk right now, I need to go get some work done/answer some emails/whatever" and walk away.
posted by capricorn at 12:44 PM on December 20, 2013

Her being a nurse is absolutely not a red herring.

She spends eight to twelve hours straight caring for people when they're at their most vulnerable, empathizing with their issues, trying to find solutions to their problems, treating their physical pain, and attempting to get at the source of their emotional pain. And those are the good days! On the bad days, she's the recipient of an enormous amount of misdirected anger and distrust.

Meanwhile, she's not taking care of even her most basic physical needs during that time. She's gone 12 hours without a trip to the bathroom more times than she can count, and she if she eats at all it's in the moments she can grab between answering call lights. Forget about being able to spare a thought for her own feelings about the awful things she's hearing and seeing.

So she might be forgiven when she doesn't have anything left to give by the time she gets home. She just sat down for the first time in twelve hours and now someone else wants a piece of her? She's done with being the warm, welcoming, uncomplaining recipient of everyone else's pain, at least for today.

All that said, I think it's perfectly acceptable to push back a little if you feel like you're giving way more than you're getting in the roommate relationship--that appears to be the real issue here, not the behavior that prompted your question. k8tlin's suggestion of framing it as needing more space in general is a great one.
posted by jesourie at 12:49 PM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who can be like this, someone I've known since we were little kids, and I know her well enough to know that she really does care very, very much about her friends, but she's not the greatest listener, and her way of emphasizing falls very much in the "let me tell you about all my experiences that were similar" sort of thing. It can be tiring and frustrating, but I also can't even count on all my fingers and toes the number of times she's done thoughtful and caring things for me.

I agree with the other people that you guys might not be a great fit as roommates. However, something that might help is being more assertive about what you need. If she starts talking your ear off about work, tell her you need some quiet time right now to decompress from your day. In the situation you described above, if what you needed was a sympathetic ear and a hug, tell her that right now you just need a hug and someone to listen to you.

Until I reach my breaking point, I am typically attentive and engaged, asking questions and offering my thoughts on her situations, so I'm feeling especially frustrated at this apparent imbalance in emotional availability.

I understand completely why this is how you respond to her bitching, but do you know if that's what she really wants? She might not want your thoughts on the situation that's bumming her out, she just might just need to vent. You could try something like, "Hey roommate, you sound stressed out. Do you need to vent for a few minutes, before I go and do X?"

Empathy is a difficult thing in that everyone needs something different, but people generally do not ask for what they need, and others have to guess based on what they feel is most appropriate. Sometimes the best approach is figuring out what you need and asking for it.
posted by inertia at 1:01 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

For some, sharing parallel experiences is how they express empathy. She's telling you she's been through something similar and it was hard. I don't see her behavior in this situation to be particularly egregious, though perhaps it wasn't maximally sensitive.

This was my thought actually. My best friend from childhood does this all the time and has since we were little. I'd be talking about some problem and she'd immediately start in with her similar problem or that one time the same thing happened to her - and I'd be like "wait, this is still the sweetkid portion of the program..." but over time I realized that's how she shows she's listening and can relate.

Try to give roommate the benefit of the doubt on this one.
posted by sweetkid at 4:11 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a nurse, she has conversations with other nurses and coworkers every day about having lost someone they'd hoped would make it or cared for someone with terrible injuries or emotional trauma - a conversation with the same exchange she had with you is an absolute normal part of her day. She has no conception of it being so distressing for you, especially considering that this coworker you speak of isn't a close personal friend. I think she'd be shocked to think she hurt you.

I think the comments about roommates are spot on. Not ever pair of roommates are destined to be great friends forever - basically, they're just splitting the living costs and grabbing the stuff they can enjoy together for good moments here and there. If you're in the habit of sharing a great deal of time together in the evenings, I think your roommate is used to being able to vent her own tensions with you - and she probably needs that opportunity with someone, but not necessarily you. I wonder - when she talks your ear off about all the stressors in her day, do you really listen and empathize with her? Or are you tired enough of hearing it that you aren't really in the moment yourself?

I suppose you may need to move in with someone else, but I wouldn't expect that to solve much of anything. People are just people and, considering the good things you say about your roommate, I think I'd be inclined to learn to live with her and her talkative ways, just cutting back your time together when it's possible.

I'm so sorry about your client and I'm glad there are others who are helping you grieve. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.
posted by aryma at 6:14 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The suicide suggestion might have been meant as consolation. Because doctors and nurses all wonder whether there was something they could have done differently, and for most of them, suicide is one of the few cases where the answer is pretty clearly no.

I'm an EMT. My first dead patient was a nonagenarian twenty-five minutes into cardiac arrest before we showed up. Even though she hadn't been pronounced yet, we all knew she was dead. So the paramedic running the call asked me, "Do you want to practice your CPR?"
posted by d. z. wang at 10:24 PM on December 20, 2013

This sounds a lot like my ex. Talking about the problem didn't help, because he didn't listen enough to ever really get where I was coming from. We were fighting about it all the time, but it just wasn't working. What helped the most was treating his problems the same way he treated mine. I stopped listening closely to what he had to say, offered a bland cliché or two in response, changed the subject away from his problems the second I could get away with it, and basically just stopped caring. Oh, and I stopped trying to talk about my own problems too.

I know that sounds really cold and passive-aggressive, but being passionate and direct didn't work, so what else was there to do? Although it seemed to confuse him at first, and I think hurt him a little bit, in the end it really helped our roommate relationship (we continued living together after we broke up). Basically, he learned to stop talking about his problems with me, which removed a major source of resentment on my part, which in turn reduced the number of fights we were having. It was better for all of us.

As far as your roommate goes, I would give her a chance to hear your perspective, just because I think that's fair, but if she's not listening then I wouldn't bang my head against a wall trying to make her. From my own experience, the best approach is what I did: don't give her problems any more attention than she's willing to give yours.
posted by sam_harms at 12:10 PM on December 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

« Older What is a good way to signal the end of a large...   |   What can I do on Christmas Eve in Fort Smith... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.