Potentially codependent roommate driving me nuts.
January 31, 2016 2:00 AM   Subscribe

Found this guy on craigslist in a city where for a number of reasons (high rates of hard drug use among them) it is very difficult to find a competent roommate. I am completely certain he will be a safe roommate to live with, which is paramount, but after knowing him for just a few days, I have already been feeling really drained. I don't think he's a bad person. Help me understand wtf is going on, and how to best cope with it.

I've never met anyone like this before! He is in his mid20s but I don't think this is all down to age. Here is just a small sampling of the things that have been making me batty:

-- Overly concerned about my comfort level e.g. if I've been out in the rain for five minutes he'll start saying things like, "Oh dear, now it's raining on you." Then he offered up an explanation for this, "I dote on everyone that's just how i am" Hm. We're not on a date. Please don't dote on me.

-- Constantly obsequiously apologetic even for things that make no sense. He made a simple mistake that we all have before and then was so nervous, thinking that it somehow had a big effect on my "first impression". This happens really frequently. I then feel responsible for providing reassurance, like one would for a small child, that it's "all right to make mistakes." I really don't want to be responsible for this person's self-regulation.

-- Constant nervous laughter and fidgeting. Seriously, it's like he has a pre-programmed nervous-laughter soundtrack which is always on as some kind of weird defensive buffer between him and the rest of the world. The soundtrack sucks and is giving me a fucking headache.

-- Constant inane comments like "Is that the same top you wore the first time we met?"

-- Making "we" statements in a way that indicates we're already good friends, not people who've known each other for 5 days. I don't like this seeming creation of false intimacy.

-- Terrible jokes/sayings, then looking at me for an expected reaction while I stand there completely dumbfounded, vacillating between feeling bad for not feigning laughter and realizing that I can't be put into a position where I'm constantly feigning a reaction for his comfort level beyond the normal concessions we make for others. I have no problem making those concessions. This, I have a problem with.

I feel on a visceral level he is constantly dependent upon my reactions as some kind of barometer for his sense of security, which brings me to a simmer, despite being a very laid-back person.

I end up responding too strongly as though his low in confidence is forcing me to carry more of the weight. I am very direct and am not one to handle things gingerly, but I've been responding more strongly than is typical. I then feel regretful and like I should have responded differently, but I am never this way with anyone! So there's something occurring. I'd like to know if anyone has dealt with a similar personality that just grates with every gesture, and how to go about being assertive without losing your cool.
posted by a knot unknown to Human Relations (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like he might have a crush on you, to be honest.

If you can, I'd just ignore comments from the peanut gallery. Though if he's annoying you so much that you're seeking advice five days in, you should be looking for a different roommate, really.
posted by Trifling at 2:19 AM on January 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Forgot to add, has a girlfriend.
posted by a knot unknown at 2:25 AM on January 31, 2016

If he's just a garden variety neurotic and it's only been a few days, my guess is that he is just super terrified of fucking up his living situation and his roommate relationship with you, and that once he feels a bit more secure (probably in a few weeks), he'll loosen up and start acting more normally. Without knowing details, I'd also hazard a suggestion that your reactions to him may actually be totally fine and appropriate, and that you just feel needlessly guilty because he's cringing and scraping so much.

I'd just try to be firm about setting boundaries that you feel are appropriate (e.g., not sharing a lot of personal info if you don't want to, not constantly managing his emotions so that he always gets to feel funny/validated/whatever), but to continue to be friendly.

I do get a little bit of a weird ping from his noticing your outfits and the "doting," so if he's a straight guy and you're a woman, that may be a factor as well — not necessarily in terms of wanting to get with you, it may just be bringing up some weird ideas he has about interacting with women.

If it's a month or two from now and he's still acting the same way, or if at any point his behavior starts actually making you uncomfortable, then yeah, probably best to find a new roommate.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:31 AM on January 31, 2016 [28 favorites]

I know this guy! Had a controlling parent, has self esteem in the toilet and went to an all boys private school and is a devout Christian. So he's basically pandering, insecure and sexist. And lacking in all boundaries. But very polite.

I've had to essentially end the friendship, I found him too exhausting to keep refuelling with assurance that I didn't hate him. And now I hate him.

Be strong with your boundaries now and you'll be fine. Just start to be a bit aloof and he won't lean too much. Don't fall in to the trap I fell into and let it continue for a year and you want to stab him with a chopstick.
posted by taff at 2:51 AM on January 31, 2016 [19 favorites]

Anxious and insecure for sure. Maybe has a crush on you, maybe not. I don't think he'll stop being awkward, or that your reaction to him will be easy to get over, or feel relaxed and not annoyed around him. The chemistry's set.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:32 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am probably the sort of person who acts like this, which I nowadays attribute to one of my parents behaving in an unrelentingly hostile way to me all the time when I was a little kid while simultaneously pressuring me to act positively toward them and give them attention and stuff like that. Consequently I think I've always had an unconscious belief that other people have a seething hostility towards me just beneath the surface and that I must project a bland positivity all the time lest I set them off.

So if this guy is the same sort of person as I am I wouldn't expect things to get a whole lot more comfortable for you, though it may be worthwhile for you to point out which behaviors you find grating and explain why that's so. As you say you're not responsible for fixing his problems and these are probably the sort of problems one has to fix for oneself, anyways.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 4:08 AM on January 31, 2016 [30 favorites]

What I think is going on is that he's afraid of screwing things up with you. He's obsessively trying to not be awkward and weird, but that only guarantees awkwardness and weirdness. And you're picking up on it and he's realizing it's not working so he's trying harder... and now you're spiraling. I think it's only going to get worse.

I think you need to change your behaviour and start asserting stronger boundaries. However I expect he will take this badly because he won't understand what's going on. In this situation I would send him an email (because a face to face talk would probably be too intense) and acknowledge the problem and signal that you are going to change your behaviour. Here is the kind of email I would send. It is probably going to precipitate a crisis, but I don't think that's a bad thing.

The problem: I feel constantly under pressure to validate and reassure you and this is stressing me out. (examples might be helpful.)

How I am going to change: I am going to stop doing this. If you ask for validation or reassurance from me, I'm going to shrug and say it's up to you, or I'm going it ignore you.

What this means about you: Nothing! You already have all the validation you need from me. I think you're perfectly okay, but in any case, I don't get a vote. You just do your own thing and it'll be fine. I will not get upset at you, I will not judge you or cast you out, the only thing I will do is not respond if you ask me to validate you and that is it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:49 AM on January 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Are you male or female? The behavior does sound like a crush, but could be how he relates to the world. Possibly he came from an abusive home where toadying was the only way to stay safe, and he sees you as a person in power he has to be subservient to. In any event, not a good start to a living relationship. What you describe would drive most people nuts very quickly. Someone said give it a month, but if there is no improvement at that point get out of this for your own sanity. He probably cannot help being how he is and does not understand how this puts others off. Next roommate you check out, have more criteria than just "not a druggie".
posted by mermayd at 4:55 AM on January 31, 2016

The drama in his head is intense. Right now, he is focused on you being the hero in his story, so it's just annoying. Once the drama changes you to the enemy, you are in danger. Test this theory by asking him about people who have done him wrong. If he uses the same phrases for all of them (my ex likes 'devil incarnate' and he wants to 'make them pay') then you are dealing with a narcissistic sociopath.

If this person has no enemies, then he could just have really low self esteem and his quirks will die down after he gets used to you. But do know your beast. Ask about past roommates, parents, friends, and ex-girlfriends. Go with your gut.
posted by myselfasme at 5:54 AM on January 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

How to cope with this:
- Acknowledge to yourself when you are feeling annoyed. Name the feeling (in your own head).
- Decide your standards with interacting with him. Is it to be polite? To be kind? (whatever you standard is, is fine.) Remember your standard & stick to it.
- Try not to expect your interactions to go a certain way. Approach interacting with an openness rather than a pre-determined idea that it's definitely going to be annoying, so you can feel whatever it is you actually feel.

I don't know what is driving his behavior or what he "wants" from you, but to "co" part of co-dependant is coming through to me. It's OK for him to be uncomfortable and even be uncomfortable "at" you through these behaviors. You do not have to make him comfortable.
posted by CMcG at 6:03 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm getting huge red flags:

His "we" statements are what The Gift of Fear calls forced teaming.

I dote on everyone that's just how i am.
(No longer) Hot Topic Kitty to the guy who stalked her at work: ...being told by...an absolute stranger that they would worship me is easily the creepiest thing to hit my new year so far.

I'm inferring that the inane comments are all about you.

Are the things he says which you call terrible sexist/racist?
posted by brujita at 6:09 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I might sit down with him and tell him, "Dude, I get that this is a situation where we're both getting to know each other. I'd prefer a bit of distance for now. It's like you're trying too hard. Relax. Right now I like the place and I'm getting to like you, but it can't be forced. For now, let's just acknowledge each other in passing and if we end up being friends, it'll be a bonus."

If he can't regulate it, or it gets worse, bail.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:40 AM on January 31, 2016 [13 favorites]

I don't think this is something you can coach him to change. Possibly once he gets to know you better and has you on less of a pedestal, he might relax of his own accord.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:26 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

So I'm not quite this guy, but he may be operating from a place where he can only deal with other people in this kind of situation if he looks at it as a family thing. It makes people like us terrible at being roommates.

The only roommates I've had were really good at drawing boundaries and expressing them. They were not great people in other ways, and we would never be friends, but the best thing they did for the year I lived with them is say directly "We aren't friends. We live under the same roof and have to share some things, but this isn't a commune and we aren't family. Pay your bills, don't use my Calphalon set, and make sure you turn the hallway lights out." Then they were relatively civil the rest of the time.

I do identify with him in that he may be from a place where getting along with the people you have lived with (family) requires a lot of walking on eggshells lest you wake the sleeping dragons. And, if you do happen to rouse them, then baby you had better be ready to put on a performance! If that is what he is used to as a norm it may take some real directness to let him know that you don't require that. Dealing with all of that isn't your problem though. I'd say just tell him what you expect and then hold your boundaries. Firm, but not unkind.
posted by Tchad at 7:35 AM on January 31, 2016 [9 favorites]

Your description of this guy reminds me of someone I know, except she never mellowed out. a year later she tried to mellow out, I guess, but was trying so hard that her efforts were draining to me all the same. I felt, a still sort of feel, like I am the guilty party for not having enough patience with her, but good lord I am so glad she is out of my life now, pretty much. I still have super brief run-ins with her every few months, and I still have to repeat a mantra to myself like "enlightenment!" just to keep from, yeah, stabbing her with a chopstick. So, try mantras? Remind yourself to outwardly behave in the manner you think is ideal, hope this guy comes around and settles down, and otherwise look for his replacement.
posted by little_dog_laughing at 7:47 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Like Ruthless Bunny, I say sit him down and be entirely blunt. Kind, but blunt. You might even have a phrase you use to get him to stop this sort of behavior, "Dude. Knock it off. I've got a lot on my mind." (and then stop engaging) He may be offended the first few times, but hopefully he'll come to realize it's not personal, this is just how you are and everything is fine, and he just needs to back off and leave you alone.
posted by Glinn at 7:57 AM on January 31, 2016

Response by poster: To answer someone's question, yes I am female. I don't believe this is a crush thing because the behavior laid out in the post is pervasive. Since we both were moving in at the same time, we've done a few roommate errands together and he interacts this way with everyone, even store clerks.

By terrible humor/statements I didn't mean offensive, just things which I find terribly unfunny and bland. Childlike almost.

There have been some great communication strategies so far. One of the things that came up when I was interviewing him and just generally assessing lifestyle habits was that I lead a healthy lifestyle and like to cook quite a bit. So later on he brought up that maybe I can teach him a few things since that is the complete opposite of what he does? I said, "You know, cooking is actually kind of 'me' time. I'm not sure I want to be teaching it." And that's true, the last thing I want is this dude impinging even on my kitchen time. I do love to share the kitchen say, with friends or an s.o., but given how things with him have been going, I thought I needed to from the outset establish that I'm not going to act as a mentor. This is the kind of thing I'm talking about later on feeling unsure about whether I spoke too firmly or what; I'd typically have no issue maybe cooking a meal or two together but I don't want this guy to continue to visit his intrusiveness upon me in every area.
posted by a knot unknown at 8:27 AM on January 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

He's not going to change or relax if he does this with everyone. Whatever the cause might be it sounds infuriating and exhausting. If you expect to spend any amount of time at home and can't just retreat to your room, I'd move out.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:43 AM on January 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yeah, the more firmly you draw your boundaries, the more anxious he'll get. If he had the skills to self-regulate, he'd be using them. This is guaranteed drama no matter how you look at it imo.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:57 AM on January 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Actually, your last example "not sure I want to..." Strikes me as rather unfirm boundary drawing. If your goal is to be as clear as possible, it should sound more like, "Don't take it personally, but cooking is "me time", alone in the kitchen. Teaching you to cook is not in the books, I'm afraid."

Not criticizing you, it's hard to ne that direct when put on the spot! I just wanted to reassure you that you haven't been too direct at all. If anything, you could stand to be more clear.
Regardless, you know he won't be able to handle it if you draw those kinds of boundaries. He sounds like he could make you dread coming home every day.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:17 PM on January 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is this his first roommate situation? I wonder if your expectations are clashing (tho I would've expected this to come up in the interview?). You know how some people think of roommates as A BIG COMMUNE AND EVERYONE LOVES EACH OTHER AND HANGS OUT ALL THE TIME, and other people just need someone to share the bills with, but want separate social lives. You sound like the latter, he possibly the former. So maybe you can frame it in that way when you kindly, but firmly set out your boundaries as others have suggested?
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:30 PM on January 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

he interacts this way with everyone, even store clerks

Have you seen him interact with people he knows pretty well, or closer friends? That's what I think would give you the most information about whether you can reasonably expect his behavior to mellow out a bit over time. (Though there is also likely to be some selection bias with whom he chooses to be friends with.)

I agree with Omnomnom that you're not speaking too firmly or bluntly based on that example. What you said is totally reasonable! I agree with ClarissaWAM that part of the problem also sounds like a mismatch of expectations, where he is used to being close friends with his roommates and you're more looking for someone to pay rent who will be considerate and low key.

You may get a little extinction burst of anxiety as you keep sticking to your boundaries and that could be uncomfortable but I'm not sure I'd assume that the situation is unsalvageable just yet. It's only been a few days and he probably doesn't understand how he's coming off to you.

For the constant stream of unfunny stand up I've found that pointed silence usually helps. Despite how improbable it sounds, this behavior may work in his favor with some people, so he'll need some time to adjust accordingly with you. If he's really not getting the message, saying something like "groan" or "huh?" out loud when he delivers something unfunny is probably the next step (kind of like ping training), but I'd try silence first since it allows a bit more face saving on his part.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:08 PM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also if he's new to the city he may be kind of keyed up in general. Big moves are stressful events even for the well adjusted, after all. (If he like, grew up there, then I'd say what you see now is less likely to change on its own, though I still think it's possible to change how he interacts with you specifically so that you're less annoyed with him.)
posted by en forme de poire at 2:14 PM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Man, I sympathize so much with how hard this will be, but if it's financially and logistically feasible, find a different living situation. This doesn't sound like a thing that is going to get better. Even if it does, it's going to take time and energy you might expend on say a friend or family member, but not a random person from craigslist you don't even like. A toxic roommate situation is unsustainable misery and the earlier you get out the better.
posted by ariadne's threadspinner at 7:30 PM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

You have to be hard and just reflect back to him, like a mirror. "I don't feel like talking right now." "Cooking is me time. I'm not interested in teaching anyone to cook, or sharing my time in the kitchen." "We're roommates, not family, it's different." Say things firmly, in a calm tone of voice, with an open look on your face - don't be warm and friendly, your approval will immediately cancel out whatever boundary it is that you are enforcing. Don't be stern or angry either - then he will work twice as hard and get extra anxious. Be neutral, and constantly remind yourself that his feelings are not your responsibility.

You're exhausted because you're already getting sucked in. Good luck.
posted by Locochona at 9:15 PM on January 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

I had a roommate like this! Right down to the atrocious jokes (in his case, it was terrible, terrible puns dispensed at a brakeneck pace). I just sort of avoided him as much as as possible (pretty possible in a large group living situation with 5+ roommates, maybe less possible in your case). If avoidance isn't workable, I think just having a conversation about it is the best approach. Something along the lines of: "I'm really grateful to have found you as a roommate, but since we're just starting out our shared living situation, I wanted to let you know that I like a lot of alone time, especially at home. It's nothing personal, but I am not up for lots of hanging out and shared activities with roommates. You seem really nice, so I'm sure you can understand!"
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:39 AM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

YMMV but my friend(also a woman) moved in with a guy like this thinking it "wouldn't be that bad". I also used to live with a guy kind of like this.

He was super smarmily nice like this but just slowly wore her down, to the point the axe she was grinding had become a spear with little annoying bullshit. Literally everything on this list is something he would do.

He did little things like making art, then saying HEY LOOK AT THIS and sliding it under her door. Both her guy and my guy would let themselves into our rooms to "borrow" things despite us repeatedly telling them to stay the fuck out. He was never actually overtly creepy... But just insufferable, and in a really crazymaking way where unless you actually had to put up with him for an extended period of time to anyone outside the situation you would seem like the asshole for snapping at him or calling him out, since he would always act SUPER hurt in almost an exaggerated way.

All his roommates are finally turning on him now. The same thing happened in my case.

If you sign up for this, you are GOING to be constantly on and off miserable and eventually grow a totally outsized, but partially justified hatred for him. You will constantly be fighting a wall of self doubt because of his "nice" outer shell, and if you have other roommates they might take way longer to tire of him or side with him even when he's done 100 slightly out of line or uncomfortable things in a row.

Let him go make some other person/group of people miserable. Seriously, i had like flashbacks reading this.

On preview, in both cases we found out the guy had some CREEPY obsession with a woman we knew and was constantly drawing pictures of her, or writing letters, or other stuff like that and she didn't really know. He never did anything creepy in front of me(or her, in her case) but ended up just being... a creep? So there's that. This entire post seriously set off my creep alarm.
posted by emptythought at 6:32 PM on February 1, 2016

Best answer: The fact that you're female adds a dimension. Once I saw that, the whole thing flipped in my mind, and like empythought my creep alarm started firing.

Regardless of whether there is a crush thing going on, it is definitely a thing that men use women for validation. That's the culturally encoded definition of masculinity. What message is he sending with everything he says? Something like "acknowledge me", "approve of me", "validate me"? As long as he's getting your attention and you're talking to him, he is winning. He's taking something from you.

As a woman you've been socially groomed to be nice, gentle, accommodating, and especially to give of yourself whatever he asks. As a man he's been groomed to feel that he has a right to your attention, and he's showing that he has no problem whatsoever taking advantage of the situation to pressure you to give him what he wants. For example, making a joke and then waiting awkwardly for your reaction -- now the pressure's on you to respond in a way that defuses the awkwardness, and guess what, the only way to to do that is to laugh and smile. It may be true that he does this with everyone, but there is a power dynamic in play which makes it more potent for you. Store clerks and male friends feel a lot less pressure to smile and laugh. And they don't have to share living quarters with him.

Even in my own earlier response I was taking care to let this person down gently and I see so many of the answers saying similar things -- reassuring him that he's okay, that you like him just fine, etc. Notice how when your boundary is pushed it becomes your job to apologize for it so that he doesn't feel hurt.

I think the reason you're feeling angry is because you're being manipulated and your boundaries are being pushed. I think this is righteous, healthy anger. I also think you correctly perceive that there is not a safe way to feel this and push back because that would jeopardize your living situation -- funny how that works out, huh? Convenient? Your responses are "too strong". But that's because you're not responding to the seemingly innocuous yet annoying things he's saying -- you're responding to what's underneath the surface.

I am changing my advice. I think you should change your living situation as soon as you can. In the mean time, I suggest you pay very close attention to your personal boundaries and police them diligently and especially watch for being worn down by repeated pressure. Observe carefully what happens when you assert your boundaries. Watch for escalations. Watch for inversions where you asserting a boundary ends with you apologizing and soothing him. Behave as if you are in a hostile situation until he is able to demonstrate to the contrary that he is capable of leaving you be; so far I see no evidence of that.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:02 AM on February 2, 2016

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