Living with a toxic family member
July 12, 2020 6:53 PM   Subscribe

I am living with someone who is becoming increasingly, needlessly nitpicky and critical of me. I do not have the choice to leave until September. How do I get through the next few months without it wrecking my mental health?

I am living in another state for the summer completing an internship in a psychiatric hospital. I am living with family that I previously did not know super well. Family member in question is twice my size, male, and old enough to be my father. I am 27, female, and petite enough that I honestly think he thinks I'm 18.

I am living here for free. Moving out is an absolutely last resort, so I'm not looking for answers telling me to do that. I will if I absolutely NEED to, but I am already paying rent on another apartment and I cannot easily afford double rent.

Everything was fine until I got exposed to COVID at work. Family member completely freaked out. They had me go into the basement and would not let me leave. When I was hungry they would put food at the top of the steps for me and call me to grab it. It's a finished basement, so it's not like I was living in filth, and I tried to be understanding because he's high risk. I followed every rule they set for me--I stayed six feet away and let them get everything for me. I have also followed every precaution possible. I wear my mask, stay away from others at work as much as possible, and shower/change my clothes when I get home. I haven't gotten it yet, in spite of being exposed, so something must be working. The whole fiasco where I was quarantined lasted a week. Family member refused to leave the house because he was convinced I had given them all COVID. He even got angry at one point and told me they were being held "hostage". He also went on and on about how I'm not working at a real hospital and they're handling the pandemic terribly and how my parents should call the school and complain and blah blah blah (guys I'm 27, my parents don't interfere with my life like that anymore).

I finally tested negative and I thought the whole drama was over. I was willing to be understanding since the pandemic is genuinely frightening and he's high risk. But he has started to criticize everything I do and I'm getting more and more frustrated. He told me I'm not allowed to use their oven because it's a "waste". He got angry at me for turning on the oven without "permission" and made me turn it off, even though I had food to cook in there. He yelled at me for moving their coffee table three inches (literally) closer to the couch. He got mad at me for having nail polish remover upstairs because if I spilled it it would ruin their furniture. He once got mad at me for sitting too close to his papers at the dining room table because he was afraid I would breathe coronavirus onto his belongings. And now he's saying I need to get "permission" before I do anything.

I'm feeling more and more like I can't do anything right. They were out of town for a few days and I left literally three things upstairs. The first thing he did when he walked in was take my stuff and pile it up on the stairs going downstairs. He is constantly, remarkably condescending when he speaks to me. I am a 27-year-old graduate student and I feel like a 13-year-old who is always in trouble. It's getting to the point where I don't want to be around him anymore at all, but I also want to, you know, eat? They gave me a mini fridge down here but I want to use the kitchen.

His wife is very timid and largely stays away from him. I have a distinct memory of him yelling at me when I was a little kid and I've been weary of him ever since. I feel like I'm being punished for.... something (I'm guessing the COVID exposure?) and now I never know what's going to set him off next. It honestly feels like he's looking for things to criticize at this point.

My question is how do I keep myself sane during all this? I'm working in a psych hospital and I can't afford to have my mental health fall apart. I'm afraid he's going to chip away at me until I can't take it anymore. I I don't know if it's appropriate to stand up for myself? I find myself apologizing over and over to dissolve his anger and I don't know how much longer I can do that. My plan is to just stay away as much as possible. Is there anything else I can do? How do you hold yourself together in a toxic situation?

Thanks in advance
posted by Amy93 to Human Relations (49 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is like nothing but red flags. He is controlling, angry, and irrational. His family is terrified of him. COVID is just his current excuse for abusive behavior. If it wasn't COVID, there would be some other "reason."

The way to "keep yourself sane" is Get. Out. ASAP.

Use whatever resources you can find - friends, family, things that might be available through the hospital you're interning at, local MeFites - to leave. If you gotta crash on somebody's couch for 3 months, so be it. COVID is possibly dangerous to you, but he has already proven he is dangerous to you by LOCKING YOU IN THE DAMN BASEMENT.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:09 PM on July 12, 2020 [47 favorites]

That sounds really tough. It also sounds like there is a power imbalance since he is male, older, physically larger, and you are living rent free. It also sounds like he wants you to leave but he can’t put in his big boy pants to ask you leave and is going to intimidate you into leaving. I agree that leaving is the only option, before this escalates into violence. I encourage you to contact the local domestic violence shelter, I know they are probably stretched thin right now, but they may have suggestions for you. Because this IS domestic violence, and not a safe place for you. He has trained you to be meek and apologetic like his wife to avoid being hurt or killed, you need to get out of this situation before these habits become ingrained in your personality and affect your future relationships (with co-workers, clients, or ramantic partners) where you normalise accepting your boundaries being trampled on.

While looking for a place to live you need supports, does your internship offer you access to therapy or other supports? Can you talk to family and friends about what is going on (sometimes when you are living in a crazy situation you really need people outside of the situation to validate that things are fucked up). As he is an abusive bully, the only thing he will respond to is someone putting him in his place. Is there anyone in your family (his parents?, your parents?) that have any power over him - if only to shame him into better behaviour (his type of bullying thrives on people being too polite to mention it is wrong). I’m assuming you are trying to avoid conflict and you confronting him will result in more bullying and possibly violence.

This is a good learning experience for you in trusting your gut. You remembered he was an abusive bully when you were a child, you will remember in future to not accept “free” things when their real price tag is way too high.
posted by saucysault at 7:17 PM on July 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

If your internship has generally been a good experience, I would tell people there that you're having a really bad housing situation and see if anyone has ideas.

I know it's not super likely that you'll have this same experience, but a friend suffered through a terrible housing situation during an internship and a few days before it was over a (female) senior staff person found out what she had been dealing with and said "I wish you had told me what you were dealing with, I have a whole house to myself and would have offered you my guest bedroom."
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:23 PM on July 12, 2020 [37 favorites]

Have you spoken to whoever is arranging your internship if there might be some options available for you if this situation didn't work out? If your not comfortable explaining the truth, you may frame it to them as "my extended family graciously decided to host me, but they are high risk and the stress of me working outside the home and a covid scare has made them very uncomfortable. Is there anything you can do to help me with alternative housing or point me in the right direction? "

To comment on above re domestic violence resources some domestic violence resources only provide services to those in intimate partner violence and not your situation, just to be forewarned. It depends on the grants they operate under. Be prepared that some services will be unable to serve you.

For you, mentally, maybe you could think of his extreme reactions about how out of control this whole situation is in the first place? Not that it makes it right, because it doesn't and you do deserve better. But, for your sanity, viewing his control over his enviroment a way to cope with the uncertainty of a pandemic and not about you as a person.

Whatever you do, take gentle care.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:25 PM on July 12, 2020 [12 favorites]

I’m trying to interpret this in a way that’s charitable to this guy, just to play devil’s advocate, because I can see from his perspective how the situation could be frustrating. But no matter what, it always comes back to the fact that you’d almost certainly be better off moving out. Maybe he’s not abusive or controlling or whatever, but it’s clear that you and he are not a good match, and that continuing to live in the same house will lead to conflict.

The reason I say that leaving is the best option is because, if you stay, the only way to possibly make things better is to play by his rules. Honestly, that’s not an unreasonable request on his part. It’s his house, and he’s doing you a favor. Instead of money, you’re basically paying rent by following rules (which, by the way, I agree are bizarre). If you aren’t willing or able to follow them, he’s going to continue to be upset.

The thing is, though, people who are looking for something to be unhappy about usually find it. The rules are likely to continue to grow more restrictive and harder to follow. Choosing to stay means accepting that. I don’t know if I would.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:28 PM on July 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

You have to invest in your education. Are you going to blow your internship over three months of rent? Pay to live somewhere else. Perhaps medical workers in your city are offered housing.

This guy doesn't want you staying there. You're putting your own financial needs over his safety concerns, which are rational despite his bullying nature.
posted by perdhapley at 7:28 PM on July 12, 2020 [11 favorites]

If you have a second potential exposure to COVID all of your belongings will be on the front lawn and the locks will be changed. I’m afraid you need to stay ahead of that situation.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:30 PM on July 12, 2020 [15 favorites]


I shouldn't say that in all caps but I got fucking terrified halfway through reading this. This IS last resort. Sure, you can live by his rules and try not to exist, but he'll still find things to pick and snap at at you because that's what bullies do.

Ask at the hospital if anyone has any suggestions. Whoever the hell fixed you up with this, can they find you something else?
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:32 PM on July 12, 2020 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Clarifying points: he has never actually told me any of the rules. He seems to be inventing arbitrary rules on the fly, then penalizing me for not knowing what they are or following them.

I know absolutely no one else in this state, making the situation harder. I made it very, very, very clear from the start that it was okay if he didn’t want me staying there. He insisted that it was fine. I basically have my own section of the house, and I am doing everything in my human power to keep him safe. I just want to use the kitchen sometimes.

I fail to see how using the oven or shifting his coffee table slightly is putting his safety at risk.

My mother arranged the housing. Mother knows he’s kind of a jerk but doesn’t know the extent of it. Internship has been amazing so I can talk to them.
posted by Amy93 at 7:32 PM on July 12, 2020

You can do this. You have two months to go until September. Take using the kitchen out of the equation. Just don’t use it. Inconvenient, yes but will be worth it in spades. Find ways around not having access to a kitchen - use that mini fridge, get a small crockpot, etc. Come to terms you aren’t using the kitchen even if you feel like you are entitled to. Stay out of the dude’s way - he realized he doesn’t want you there and is making life miserable for you. Sounds like he’s feeling out of control in life and so has to nitpick you. Just stay away from him, make your basement nest your own space - own it as much as you are able and keep out of shared living spaces as much as possible. You got this. Only two months to September.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:44 PM on July 12, 2020 [27 favorites]

Why not get a hot plate and toaster oven or microwave to go with your mini fridge? Restrict your movements to bedroom /basement and a bathroom that only you use.

He doesn't want you in the common areas. Don't use them.
posted by perdhapley at 7:48 PM on July 12, 2020 [27 favorites]

Just to try to avoid joining the chorus telling you to leave, I will say, it sounds like he'd very much prefer if you thought of yourself as a stranger who's renting the basement and who is therefore not entitled or expected to have access to anything upstairs. As such, is it possible to acquire and safely use a toaster oven, microwave, etc. down there, so that it can function as much as possible as a separate apartment for you?

If you being in his upstairs space at all is what makes him feel unsafe, then flipping out about the coffee table is basically a manifestation of that anxiety. Is it irrational and controlling and potentially dangerous that he's acting this way? Absolutely.
posted by teremala at 7:49 PM on July 12, 2020 [14 favorites]

by the way, it sounds like you don't realize that he IS doing a huge favor, and not just to you, but to your mom. And not only is it making him resentful now, but it is creating indebtedness to him in the future. For you, and probably for your mother. You told him it was ok for you not to be there but it isn't you he made the deal with. It was your mom.

I don't agree with the folks here who think he's some sort of monster (I think it's funny, considering how COVID-cautious folks here generally are - come on, how many people here would have taken an unpaid tenant into their house now and kept them there through a known exposure?!) but I do think that creating indebtedness to a relative, on behalf of a different relative (your mom) is a great way to f up future dynamics in unpredictable ways.

Add me to the list of people who think you need to get out of there.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:51 PM on July 12, 2020 [13 favorites]

I'm an essential worker, so I've been out in the general public this whole time doing my thing with whatever the PPE rules of the week are. And for me it's really really really easy to see your coworkers and your patients and have your day to day stuff and and forget that people are litterally not leaving their homes because of this every day, over an invisible tiny virus that people manufacture in their lungs and that is incredibly incredibly creepy and scary! But you've been doing this every day for months and you are fine. I read some thread here about covid safety and think about the contrast to what my workplace is doing, and I wonder if you might influenced by some of that. I say this because of my perspective, not because this is actually happening.

There also more and more news about young adults people being vectors to older adults. You don't mention if you have been having people over or going to do other stuff outside of work, but if you are stop.

People with different levels of acceptable risk are having a really hard time in households, and honestly in general you should be defferring to the person that wants the most safety . But your working in a hospital, and he didn't sign up for you as a plague vector when this whole thing started. And yes, you should coincider yourself potentially infected at all times .

And some people are not handling that well at all. For very very very good reasons! You should practicing isolation to be best of your ability outside work. Which means, using your little area. Not touching things in the home, leaving no trace.

It's not fun. It hasn't been fun for anyone honestly.

This isn't to say that his behavior is okay, because it isn't. And he needs to be communicating with you clearly and not this petty stuff. But you could accidentally kill him. So please be careful.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:55 PM on July 12, 2020 [18 favorites]

I basically have my own section of the house

In that case it’s pretty straightforward. Always behave as if you might be infectious.

Do not enter any place outside your section unless it is to go to or from the outside of the house. Get a microwave to cook your meals. Always keep social distancing and wear a mask when interacting with them. Never ever touch anything outside your own space.

Keep that up even when they’re not at home. This all will have the effect of greatly reducing the amount of time you interact with him and giving him the feeling of protection that he needs in his own home.

Yeah, solo quarantine is a drag but you can leave the house during the day.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:56 PM on July 12, 2020 [5 favorites]

This situation is terrifying. I know get out isn't what you want to hear but it's the only thing I want to say. Get away from this psycho before he decides he doesn't want you to get away. Go anywhere else. Stay in a hotel. Me mail me & I'll send you some money.
posted by bleep at 7:56 PM on July 12, 2020 [9 favorites]

Does the HR Department at your hospital have an Employee Assistance Program that you would have access to? The director of your internship program should be able to connect you with HR and facilitate this, if it's possible.

This might not be their usual thing, but from a purely practical standpoint imagine how much they do NOT want a young woman to be physically harmed in an act of domestic violence while in their employ, particularly if it later comes out that you voiced concerns to them and they did nothing to help.

It sounds like this guy has a legitimate concern about health/safety in his own home, but he's expressing it in a way that shows him to be dangerously unstable. You are not safe there -- his wife probably isn't either -- and you need to get yourself out of there before he physically harms you.
posted by mccxxiii at 9:02 PM on July 12, 2020 [15 favorites]

It isn't the paranoia about COVID exposure that worries me here, it's the "I can't do anything right/he criticizes everything I do." I have some compassion and tolerance for extreme fear about contamination because COVID is scary. I work in a hospital too, and I let vulnerable friends and family set the boundaries about their own safety (and I give them lots of space and safety precautions if they aren't setting those boundaries themselves.) No, it is the controlling, mean, aggressive behaviour that stands out to me here.

People who create environments where nothing is safe do so intentionally, so that they can maintain control. It sounds like he did this to his wife a long time ago, and you're a smart, well-educated female person who knows something about people and about feelings and what's okay and what's not and he's super threatened by you and upping the ante, and using COVID as a smoke screen.

People have offered lots of good suggestions for getting out. Don't stay to maintain family harmony - he might be counting on you being willing to do that. The only additional suggestion I can offer re: finding extra places is that the hospital I work at is offering free or subsidized hotel rooms for staff (and interns) who have vulnerable family at home. Perhaps you can get in on something like that.

If you have to stay, maybe cut your losses and make the best of your mini fridge. It sucks and I'm sorry, but I care about your safety more than I care about whether or not you get to use the oven. The more interactions you have with him, the greater the likelihood that something dangerous, traumatic, or otherwise awful will go down. This may not happen, but there is a general sense of worry for you in this thread, and I think a lot of people's warning bells are going off for you. Please listen to them.
posted by unstrungharp at 9:05 PM on July 12, 2020 [17 favorites]

I agree that if you're going to stay, the only real thing to do is to stay in your space. He doesn't want you in your house, and he's being a complete jerk instead of asking you to leave. But the fact is that it's his house, so the closest you're going to come to making him happy (and getting him off your back) without leaving is to make your presence as much of a non-thing as possible. toaster oven and microwave, minifridge and ramen.

It sucks that you have to do it and that he can't be kinder or clearer about what he wants, but if he was, the answer would be "get out, or be invisible." So the way to get him off your back is to do that.

(Honestly, he could be a complete asshole, or he could be someone experiencing a lot of panic and anxiety and discomfort with no tools to communicate or deal with it. Which doesn't forgive him--he's yelling at you for doing things you couldn't know would bother him, it's horrible--but as someone whose worst traits are being brought out by being stuck in the house while the neighbors have parties and the world is falling apart, it's not too surprising that whatever his worst traits are, they're coming out right now.)
posted by gideonfrog at 9:21 PM on July 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

buy a card for him, explain what you’re doing, and stay downstairs. buy a cheap microwave if you need one. you can get by for a week. create no opportunities for contact. initiate discussions at your work about housing options.

if he does not seek out / initiate contact, this is a signal that maybe it’s okay to wait til you were going to move anyways.

if he continues — in the face of your nice card, your total absence from the upstairs and your lack of initiation — to find opportunities to attempt to manipulate you with criticism, anger, physical size, age, and moving boundaries, then NO FOOLING AROUND, listen to the people above: take advantage of the best offer that came up in your discussions at work and GET GONE.

i can hear your uncertainty, but you’re not uncertain about the tactics being used, you’re uncertain about the motivation behind it. here’s the thing: it’s the tactics that have already harmed you and will continue to harm you. continued exposure to these behaviours is toxic.

faster than you can expect, sometimes.
posted by sixswitch at 9:51 PM on July 12, 2020 [13 favorites]

I don't think you are safe there and think you should get out.
posted by evilmonk at 10:31 PM on July 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

He is going to hurt you and is already going through the motions to get there. You must get out.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 10:45 PM on July 12, 2020 [7 favorites]

He is telling you in every way except words that you’re not welcome there. It’s time to take the hint and leave. He’s stressing you, you’re stressing him, it’s not going to end well. It’s already not ending well. It’s time to find another solution and if that’s suck up the cost, then so be it. You say that moving out is the last resort but that’s what it’s come to.
posted by Jubey at 11:04 PM on July 12, 2020 [9 favorites]

I would at least try and isolate. Can you buy a cheap microwave or hot plate and use that to cook in the basement, or something? I would think through all my actions that could lead to possibly interacting with him and remove them.
posted by xammerboy at 11:57 PM on July 12, 2020

I basically have my own section of the house, and I am doing everything in my human power to keep him safe. I just want to use the kitchen sometimes.

People live and cook in their cars, so if you 100% need to figure out how to live without a kitchen so you never have to interact with this person, you can do that.

PS: Do that.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:23 AM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

She’s already isolated totally, she’s been locked in the basement! Look, it’s clear that no manner of extreme self isolation is going to work. He’s just doesn’t want her there, it sounds like he was pretty controlling already but the stress of being high risk and having potential exposure to COVID due to her job has just tipped him over the edge.

I know that OP has done everything in her power to keep them safe after exposure but in his eyes, he may think that he tried to help someone out, he’s now in danger, their houseguest knows they’ve outstayed their welcome yet instead of gracefully leaving, insists on staying to save a few bucks which is a real abuse of their hospitality when she knows how he feels now. Yes he could absolutely handle it better (he may be all those bad things mentioned above, I don’t know - he sounds scary!) but OP is not helping matters by digging her heels in here.

Three months is a long time for anyone even a best friend to crash free of charge and these people sound like virtual strangers who overextended themselves for you and now can’t cope. I don’t know why you insist on putting all parties through this when you can do everyone a favour and move out. No amount of savings is worth this.
posted by Jubey at 2:28 AM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For what it’s worth he has straight up told me, unprompted, that I can continue to stay here. I don’t think he knows what he wants.

(I’m not saying that to argue that I should say, just to demonstrate that this isn’t a situation where I’m missing a massive hint. I agree that he wants me out but feels like he has to be hospitable and it’s bringing out the worst in him. I also know that doesn’t excuse his behavior a bit.)
posted by Amy93 at 3:35 AM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is sorta like someone posting "I'm on fire. I REALLY don't want to put out the fire, that is a super last resort. But I'm in a lot of pain and my skin is turning black. What should I do?"

You need to put out the fire/get out of there. That is the best solution. If you don't have anywhere else to crash, you must cough up money to stay at another place for the summer. Your well-being depends on it.
posted by nirblegee at 3:42 AM on July 13, 2020 [9 favorites]

I agree that you should consider moving out. I think you’d have a more welcoming reception with other people working at your hospital, and perhaps a car pool too. When I had hospital placements, I stayed in hospital residences, nursing student accommodation, med student accommodation, in short term house shares with other students, in student accommodation for a nearby school during the summer, and a brief stint in my own room at a backpacker’s, and in a residential college. Ask the nursing and med students where they are staying, if there’s a notice board or Facebook group they could post on for you or if they know of any places as people rotate in and out. I know it will be expensive, but some things are worth paying for, and student rooms are often cheap or subsidized.
posted by quercus23 at 3:56 AM on July 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Let him save face to your mom by moving out bc "I just can't stand the thought of Uncle getting sick because of me, even my internship supervisor agreed, oh, how awful to repay Uncle's generosity with covid, he didn't want me to go but I sacrificed to go live in the hostel" etc.

Tell your internship that you need help finding cheap or free housing bc your elderly family member is high-risk, it seemed doable when you planned it but it just isn't possible any longer. If you have to elaborate, pause for a minute and then say, "The exposure risk is placing an unsustainable amount of stress on the household." People will figure it out.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:19 AM on July 13, 2020 [18 favorites]

If you could tell us where you are maybe someone here has a concrete alternative housing option for you. And it's totally possible to eat well without cooking. Think salads and sandwiches. It's only for a couple of months.
posted by mareli at 4:49 AM on July 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

"I don’t think he knows what he wants"

He absolutely knows what he wants; it's just that he wants two things that are in conflict with each other: you out of his house, and you (or your mom) not resenting him for kicking you out.

"he has never actually told me any of the rules"

Have you asked?

I'm gonna make another attempt at answering your actual question, because if you're absolutely set on staying (which, again, probably isn't a good option), you need to talk to him to make the rules explicit. You should have done this at the beginning. This is why colleges make kids in dorms sign roommate agreements. Go over what you're allowed and not allowed to do, and how he can respond if you break a rule. "Hey, Uncle So-and-so, I know the past few months have been kind of tense, so I thought it might be good if we can sit down and talk a little. I've gotten the impression that you're pretty frustrated about some things I've done, and that's frustrating to me because I didn't know I was doing anything wrong. I think that we could prevent a lot of frustration by talking about things before they get to be a problem." Of course, if he gives you rules, you have to obey them. Now that you know he doesn't want you using the oven (FWIW, my wife does not like using the oven, either - I'm with you and think it's weird, and she doesn't freak out about it or anything, but not wanting to use an oven is a thing, I guess), stop using the oven. That's going to be the test. If you see the actual rules and realize they're too restrictive and crazy (or if you can't even get to the point where you can have a conversation), move out.

I'm going to assume that if you're doing an internship at a hospital, it's probably academic-related. If you can't afford to pay rent after moving out, you should have access to student loan lenders. Obviously has its drawbacks, but it's an option if you can't make it work with your relative.

Finally, keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:36 AM on July 13, 2020

The part where you were exposed, maybe, to Covid and he didn't let you into shared spaces and left food for you to pick up is normal, and though of course it's unpleasant for you to have been treated like a disease vector, you need to separate that entirely fair response from the anger he took out on you. It's fair for him not to want you to move his furniture, no matter how unimportant you think that is; it's not fair for him to yell at you. It's fair for him not to want your stuff upstairs in his space, it's fair to him not to want you to use things like nail polish and nail polish remover outside of a bathroom; it's not fair of him to yell at you about this.

If you insist you must stay there, then you need to not use the shared spaces. Get whatever it is you need to live with -- a microwave? a toaster oven? a kettle? an induction burner? -- and stop using or going into the shared spaces at all. He doesn't want you in them, you're not paying rent, stop using them. You know what sets him off, which is you or your stuff in the shared areas. You know what he wants, which is you out of the shared areas. Whether this is right or fair is beside the point, it is the reality. (I agree with the others that this is very concerning.)

I think you should absolutely look into other places to stay, ask around at the internship, but until then stop using shared spaces.
posted by jeather at 7:03 AM on July 13, 2020 [18 favorites]

While your relative does sound controlling and perhaps even abusive - he rules through fear and intimidation - I think a lot of his anger comes from you failing to pick up on the fact that he does not want you in the common areas. That's a very reasonable expectation for a houseguest who has been given their own independent living area, especially in Covid times, especially when the homeowner is immunocompromised and the houseguest is working on the frontlines of healthcare. It's fair to wish he would just tell you that directly. But even from your description of the situation, he has made it very clear, repeatedly, in a lot of indirect ways. You haven't understood him, and that has likely been very frustrating for him.

Take the hint. Stay strictly within your area of their home. Accept that you cannot use their oven or their kitchen or their living room or their common-area furniture or their bathrooms. Consider this a dorm-room-like living situation.

If your relative is okay with it, you can get yourself a microwave or maybe even a toaster oven for in-room food prep. If he's wary of fire hazards in your room then I would recommend you buy an electric kettle and a small electric panini maker - that's what got me through my college days - cups of instant soup, bowls of ramen, grilled cheese toasts and hot tuna melts, the occasional instant mashed potatoes, and fresh fruit/veg from the mini fridge.
posted by MiraK at 7:10 AM on July 13, 2020 [17 favorites]

Given that everything was fine up until the coronavirus exposure, it sounds like that's the real issue. It sounds like he has a lot of anxiety about coronavirus and has realized that your internship is more risky than he had initially thought or that he is less comfortable with the entire situation than he initially thought. Seems like he's not comfortable with you being in the house and is trying (unhealthily, yes) to communicate that to you by being overly critical of you whenever you leave the basement.

Seems like the only issues are when you're in the common areas, right? I agree with the answers saying you need to figure out how to stay in the basement pretty much all the time or find another living situation.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:30 AM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, you were exposed to the virus. To some one being very vigilant, all those precautions seem appropriate. And you could be exposed again at your internship, so on-going isolation makes sense. Lack of communication and bad communication aside,
he doesn’t like you leaving your stuff in their space or using the kitchen. Hole up in the basement and don’t use the kitchen. He is afraid of catching the virus, sorry he is so obnoxious.

With respect to the folks who read this as a dangerous situation, I think at worst this guy is a grumpy dude and a jerk.

If this was written from his perspective: I let a family member who I don’t know well come into my home. She has been exposed once and I had to tell her to isolate in our basement area. She eventually tested negative but I know there are many false negatives, and she continues to work at a place where she could be exposed. So we want her to stay exclusively in the basement, but she still wants to use our kitchen and occasionally leaves belongings in our space. We are older/have health issues/have anxiety, etc…

Maybe I just have rude relatives, but someone griping about a coffee table being moved or fretting about nail polish does not set off any alarms. As a guest, you should be respectful that it is not your space--not that you deserve to be yelled at. But it does all seems related to the pandemic, so if you cannot find another place, I do think you could manage it. Thankfully they have the separate space. Good luck.
posted by rhonzo at 7:50 AM on July 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

You're the only person in this thread who knows the guy. If you have any propensity for trusting your gut, this is the time to do it. Are you scared of him? Leave! Are you pretty damned sure he's just a blustery weird jerk who wouldn't physically touch you? Then follow all the great advice about how to stay COMPLETELY in your area of this house. Obviously, err on the side of caution, but it's really hard to tell what's going on based on a description only.
posted by nosila at 8:40 AM on July 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

Clarifying points: he has never actually told me any of the rules. He seems to be inventing arbitrary rules on the fly, then penalizing me for not knowing what they are or following them.

I grew up in a house like this and these were always warning signs of physical violence to come. My mother has serious, undiagnosed, untreated mental illness. Living in that house was like constant walking on eggshells. Twice after I moved out she had boarders live there and eventually started to treat them similarly; they moved out before it could get anything other than emotionally abusive.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm now no contact with her after she attempted to strangle me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:24 AM on July 13, 2020 [11 favorites]

If you do speak to someone at your workplace about the problem (supervisor, HR, etc.) please do not be coy or merely hint at the problem. Be very clear with them that you feel physically unsafe in the space where you are, and you need help getting away from it.

This is the absolute worst time to rely on the whole ask/guess thing to work itself out. You need immediate, specific assistance -- no time to waste hoping that people will figure out what you mean.
posted by mccxxiii at 11:49 AM on July 13, 2020 [9 favorites]

stay in the basement. stop using the kitchen.
posted by anthropomorphic at 12:37 PM on July 13, 2020

My sympathies. This situation sounds awful. Did you maybe arrive at this agreement before the COVID situation became clear? If so, he should have backed out then, and if he couldn't for whatever reason, he should have made his boundaries clear. It's messy because your mother is involved, I guess. That thing with the sofa-- he should have just asked you to stay off his upholstered furniture with your COVID cooties, or whatever it is he was really thinking. Almost everything you list sounds like an attempt to take control which is bound to be futile because it's so scattershot and he's not saying what's on his mind. What's concerning to me here is that people who act like that can end up freaking the fuck out on you when you fail to read their mind one time too many. It could be something very small.

If you really can't get out, throw a lesser amount of money at this and eat before you got back to that house. Stay in your own space. But be aware that the more unobtrusive you act, the more he may freak out if you slip one time.
posted by BibiRose at 1:22 PM on July 13, 2020

I made it very, very, very clear from the start that it was okay if he didn’t want me staying there. He insisted that it was fine....

My mother arranged the housing. Mother knows he’s kind of a jerk but doesn’t know the extent of it....

For what it’s worth he has straight up told me, unprompted, that I can continue to stay here. I don’t think he knows what he wants.

(I’m not saying that to argue that I should say, just to demonstrate that this isn’t a situation where I’m missing a massive hint. I agree that he wants me out but feels like he has to be hospitable and it’s bringing out the worst in him. I also know that doesn’t excuse his behavior a bit.

Have you seen this comment about Ask vs Guess Culture?

If your relative is a Guess Culture person, he will likely not ever tell you “I don’t want you to live here” in words. He will tell you via other cues, like freaking out at you for moving the coffee table three inches, possibly even while the words “You can keep living here” are coming out of his mouth.

If he is Guess culture, there are a few possible explanations for why he agreed to let you live there against his real desires. Either your mother asked him outright and he didn’t feel able to say no, OR he made a polite offer that she was supposed to recognize as a gesture of goodwill but not supposed to take him up on (this is messed up but it happens) and she didn’t understand it wasn’t sincere. If your mom actually did understand that he didn’t want you there, but purposely ignored the Guess Culture clues he was likely frantically laying down, it may be because there’s some family history there you don’t know about that made her think she could/should pull that favour anyway. Either way, the rules of Guess Culture were not followed and there you are, unknowingly moving in to the house of someone who didn’t want you there in the first place but didn’t actually ever say those words.

Source: I’m from a Guess Culture family.

None of that is to excuse him for being a jerk to you. If you are feeling unsafe or intimidated you should move out immediately. But even if you’re not feeling unsafe, I still think you should move out, because he doesn’t want you there and is making no effort to hide it. In Guess Culture terms, he is telling you loudly every day that he does not want you there. If you’re used to Ask Culture, where people state exactly what they want or don’t want, this is confusing. I think you’re going to have to read between the lines here and ignore the words coming out of his mouth. (It’s clear that the COVID exposure really was a non-negotiable for him because he didn’t even make you guess that he wanted you to quarantine yourself in the basement—he actually flat out told you.)

None of my comment is intended to imply that your relative is acting right, or that it’s excusable in a high stakes situation to just hint at things you want rather than being clear, then get furious at the ither person for not understanding. (He sounds like a jerk. Guess Culture really lets assholes be assholes sometimes.) I’m saying this because there is clearly a communication mismatch here and now that you understand he is telling you, not in words, that he does not want you to live there, I think you should move out no matter what words come out of his mouth.

Let him save face to your mom by moving out bc "I just can't stand the thought of Uncle getting sick because of me, even my internship supervisor agreed, oh, how awful to repay Uncle's generosity with covid, he didn't want me to go but I sacrificed to go live in the hostel" etc.

This is excellent advice. Guess Culture is big on face-saving and it will all go a lot more smoothly this way. Less stress for him, your mom, AND YOU.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:35 PM on July 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: One more clarification and then I’m done: he gave me explicit permission to start coming upstairs again once I tested negative. I do not think it’s unreasonable that I had to isolate, and if he had asked me to continue to isolate I would have respected that. I told my school and internship that my family’s safety is my number one priority here, so if the situation with the virus ever gets too risky I will leave.

My problem is he’s saying one thing and indicating something entirely different with his behavior. I just don’t want it to seem like a boundary has been set that I’m crossing; I’ve been religious in following every boundary he sets as respectfully as possible because I know this is a HUGE favor. My problem is I can’t follow his rules when he’s inventing them on the fly and not communicating them ahead of time. I feel like I’m being punished for not being able to read his mind and that’s the part that’s unfair.

Thanks for the replies, though. They were all extremely insightful and I have a lot to think about.
posted by Amy93 at 1:45 PM on July 13, 2020

You do have a choice to leave. You should. Reading your question sent chills down my spine because it sounds like a dangerous situation, like this family member is mentally unstable, and could one day lose it enough to seriously injure or kill you for breaking another rule you knew nothing about. The basement part made my skin crawl. Never allow you to leave it? Leave it now. It's three months. You can find a way.
posted by Crystal Fox at 4:10 PM on July 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

OP, again, while it's fair on your part to expect him to be direct, he has indirectly made it very clear that he wants you to isolate. Hurdy Gurdy Girl's comment about Guess Culture is a helpful way to frame this for yourself.

and if he had asked me to continue to isolate I would have respected that.

Assume he is incapable of asking you. Can you respect his obvious wishes even though he has not asked you directly? If not, please do move out - both for your own safety and for your hosts' peace of mind.
posted by MiraK at 5:06 PM on July 13, 2020 [8 favorites]

If someone's actions and words are opposite, BELIEVE WHAT THEY DO AND NOT WHAT THEY SAID. Any old asshole can lie but it's clearly harder to hide his truth in physical actions and RAGE.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:37 PM on July 13, 2020 [9 favorites]

"I feel like I’m being punished for not being able to read his mind and that’s the part that’s unfair."

if it helps ... yes, it's terribly unfair. If he's not being clear with you about his expectations and behaving the way you describe -- saying one thing then doing another -- that's definitely not fair. Let me validate that emotion for you, fully.

That said, the man sounds dangerous and I am worried for your safety. Please get away from there.
posted by mccxxiii at 7:06 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Seriously, just leave already. Sometimes life is unfair and very, very difficult, but that's just the way it is. The situation you are in now could (and probably will) go south at any moment. Don't wait around for things to get worse than they already are. Get out now
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:28 AM on July 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

I know absolutely no one else in this state

I'm assuming that as an intern you have at least some interaction with your coworkers? Talk to them. You don't have to tell them the whole story, just start talking to people about how you have been staying with a relative but you are feeling like you should find a different place because they have gotten worried about COVID exposure -- you might get lucky and find someone who is happy to have a roommate for a small fee or chores. So many people in healthcare have changed things up with their living situation, it's not an unusual thing to bring up with your coworkers.
posted by yohko at 6:15 PM on July 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

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