Anxiety about carving out my own space in a home I don't own
August 22, 2021 9:08 PM   Subscribe

A long time friend and roommate just bought a house – very exciting! I will be continuing to live with them in the new house, and am getting very stressed about how I will mentally handle once again living in a space that is not *mine*. Tips on how to create/cultivate my own space within the house and tips on coping with this anxiety are both appreciated.

Friend and I (30's) have known each other 12+ years, lived together 3+ with zero issues, including during quarantine. Even our cats get along well! We are in the process of putting together a rental agreement for everyone's protection. We will continue to split bills and house work.

The new house is lovely and large – entire upstairs/attic is one giant bedroom (theirs), and downstairs has two good sized bedrooms. Large kitchen/living/dining, VERY large fully finished basement, huge backyard, deck and sunroom. There's plenty of space for just the two of us +cats.

After living on my own for years, I worried when we moved in together about this same issue – feeling trapped, with 'my' room as the only place I felt truly comfortable and able to control. But it's been 95% fine. I think that's because neither of us has a larger 'share' of this place. We pay equal rent, neither of us actually owns it, almost everything is shared.

But I'm already hyper aware that the new house is THEIRS. I feel nervous and uncertain about the thought of arranging the furniture the way I want, or putting up my art in the common areas, or sorting drawers as I like, or making any changes at all. I'm scared of damaging something. Inside of my room, I have no worries about any of those sorts of things. I'm afraid that no matter how much my roommate says or even shows that I'm welcome to do those things, I'll get so hung up on this I just retreat to my room and feel trapped. Giving up this much autonomy is freaking me out.

I know a lot of this is because in my parent's house and college dorms, the comfort and control outside my room was nil and I had a VERY rough time. I know this person is not like that, so how to chill out??

Extra factor 1: Monthly costs will be a 60/40 split instead, with me taking on the garden work for reduced rent. They know nothing about plants and don't want to; I love to garden and have missed it dearly. I know this truly is something they're happy to pay more not to do, and they make almost three times what I do, but I'm again hyper aware of that imbalance.

Extra factor 2: I enjoy decorating and know what I like. They do not. They've often wondered how I can visualize things, because they feel they can't. They haven't been able to live as they want very much, and grew up with very controlling parents; expressing preferences can be hard for them. I worry a lot that I've run roughshod over them, and try hard not to. Even though they've said they've been fine with everything!

It'll probably be just fine – great, even! - and if it isn't I can always move, but right now we have a month and a half till occupancy and I'd like to not spend that time Freaking Out.
posted by unsettledink to Human Relations (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Based on your description, I suspect this is all going to be fine in the end. But in your shoes I'd lean heavily into garden planning pre-move to give your brain something to do with (another) space that is predominantly your domain.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:14 PM on August 22, 2021 [18 favorites]

FWIW your fears and thought processes are making a lot of sense to me - I think I’d feel the same way. But as an outsider, I had a few other thoughts. I assume your roommate invited you to this arrangement and so if they resented you riding roughshod previously, they wouldn’t have tried to continue things and/or would have mentioned something. Reading through the lines, I suspect your roommate appreciates your contributions to the common areas and is happy to have you participate. Maybe it would help to formalize something in your rental agreement about your responsibilities as far as damage in the common areas, although I’m not clear what kind of damage you’re worried about inflicting. You might also want to formalize that you have some rights to the common area so you can stop feeling so different because you’re the the tenant and they’re the owner (see also my third point). Second, personally as a survival tactic, I’d be thinking to myself that this is a trial and if I don’t like it, I can find something else. I just entered a sort of intimidating living situation but settled myself with the idea that I can live anywhere for just a year. Third, having been both a homeowner and now a renter again, I’m realizing how similar homeowning is to renting. You think everything’s really all yours and you can do whatever you want as a homeowner but once it comes time to sell, you realize you were occupying the space the same way a renter would and still have to make it palatable to the new ‘tenants’ . And on the flip side, it’s worth it to make an effort in a rental space and not just in an owned home space, because really, they’re both likely to be equally temporary. You still have to/ get to live there for a time, so you might as well make it yours (and it also doesn’t have to perfect because someday you’ll probably move on...)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 10:02 PM on August 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

Your room is your room, so you have that covered. Remember, any damage done to walls etc can be easily repaired. They can match any paint colour these days. Just accept that nicks and nudges will happen. It feels good to accept that imperfection is the way of the world. Go with the flow.

It sounds as if you have a lot of common space together - basement, sunroom, kitchen, living, dining, and deck. Plus garden. Once you have moved in, I'd pick one space, say the sunroom, and think about how you could engage your housemate to decorate it with you using the things you both already have. Work to deliberately make it a shared space you both like to be in. The kind of space you could site and chat with a drink while you discuss how to decorate the rest of the house, and your plans for the garden. Take it organically, one room at a time.
posted by Thella at 10:15 PM on August 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I have a similar living situation to you, but it’s been more like twelve years rather than three. I totally get your feelings and had the same ones for the first couple years of cohabitation with my better-off best friend. But a few things happened that really helped chill me out about it.

First of all, he is a very infrequent cook so the kitchen quickly became my domain. And since the kitchen is naturally a social area we spent a big chunk of time in a space where I had a lot of my stuff and felt more within my rights to call the shots. Perhaps you will have a similar experience with the deck and even sunroom. If you have the budget get some special things to decorate them or use in them (fun margarita glasses? Cat fountain for ambience in the sunroom?) and it might settle you in the way that storing my pans and knives settled me in the kitchen.

Next, it was the living room. I am dramatically shorter than my housemate so ergonomically things needed to be adjusted for each of us for comfy tv viewing, gaming, media storage, etc. At first I deferred to him in all things there but it became clear that not only did he seriously not care as long as he had a good chair at the right distance from the tv, he actively was stressed out by me asking him to make decisions he couldn’t muster an emotion about. Decision fatigue is a real thing. As I got to more subtly understand his taste in interior decor, I became confident enough to choose and arrange things in ways we would both be okay with. And I knew he would just ask to make a change if he didn’t like something. It helped that I needed assistance to rearrange any furniture, so he could just veto or quietly help move things. These days we share a house and I’m a little stronger so sometimes he takes a couple weeks to notice I’ve rearranged the furniture again. Because he truly honestly doesn’t care.

At one point he started asking me to help him with decorating decisions/shopping for his own spaces. He asked me to look for new bedding and curtains for his room because he knew I like to internet window shop and he hates it. He asked me to have an opinion on some throw rugs, on light fixtures, even on the color of a new car. I am like an opinion dispenser for him when he can’t decide or truly does not care. This skill is also helpful when trying to decide about dinner. Anyway that was the point that a lot of the feelings you are describing dissipated.

Another thing that helped was that we had a lot of nice prints and when we moved into a new place together we went to a frame shop and got a bunch of them framed up. This was a really collaborative process between the two of us (he does have opinions about frames!) and then we spent some time finding the right spots for our commingled art collection. By having each of our pieces throughout the home it really sent the message that yes it’s home to both of us. Maybe you have some great photos of you guys throughout the years you could put up, or old mutual friends, or past pets, if you don’t have an art collection.
posted by Mizu at 11:36 PM on August 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Make a shared-access Pinterest board for interior decorating, slap a floor plan or room outlines on it, seed it with stuff you've noticed your friend choose or admire for the home you share now, and retreat for a while as your friend/roommate plays with it. Decorating can be more of a collaborative effort this time around, if your roommate's game. If they'd still rather defer to you, it's because they're genuinely appreciative of your strengths in this area and you can worry less about any 'running roughshod' business. And it's not like you wouldn't be interested if they did develop decorating ideas on their own, and want to hear about them -- you made that invitation clear with the Pinterest board.

[...] I'm again hyper aware of that imbalance

Try a rebalance: Your friend genuinely enjoys living with you; that's no small thing. Even your pets get along (ditto). Splitting costs with you these last few years likely enabled them to save for this home purchase, and having you with them in this new adventure is going to help defray costs. Your garden know-how and labor are going to add real value to their investment. (FWIW, in an agreement like this, the homeowner foots the bill for plants, tools, and other yard and garden supplies. No need to feel awkward about it, just work together to set out a realistic budget to realize the garden plan.) Decorating a huge space is daunting, and they know they can rely on your design eye. Even small-time annoyances like a leaky kitchen faucet will be less of a headache because you, the person they know well and trust, will be there to help troubleshoot.

First-time home ownership can be completely overwhelming, and I imagine your friend is relieved they aren't tackling this alone. Please don't undervalue your contributions.

Guard against retreating to your bedroom (where you've been careful to corral all your belongings, of course), as you know what a hard habit that is to break. Worry less about overstepping; it's a big house, and you aren't recent acquaintances. In the new place, you might create a reading nook in the sunroom, or carve out a small craft area in the finished basement. Declare a certain weeknight as your night to cook dinner for the two of you. After checking in with your roommate, hang some of your less-precious art in the bath or another low-stakes area, and see how that sits with you. If you drink coffee or tea, or make smoothies every morning, make a dedicated station for that in the kitchen. Establishing these small routines and having some of your personal items integrated throughout the house will make this transition easier on you.

And I understand your fears about encroaching in the common areas, and accidentally breaking things, because I share them. (I also live with my old friend/roommate, who became a homeowner a few years ago.) I can only tell you, knowing how these fears came to be (bad early experiences, and the current, keen awareness of the income disparity) helps offset my anxiety a bit -- if I can take a step back and think it through, instead of reacting. But I've never broken anything that caused the whole world to end, and neither have you.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:17 AM on August 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

Apologies if I missed this somehow, but does your friend know that you're feeling this way? I have a hunch that your friend is a good enough friend that if they knew you were feeling uneasy about feeling like an "interloper" just because of the ownership details, they would be eater to try to help you NOT feel that way. You've lived together for a while and you were friends for even longer than that, so clearly your friend likes you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:56 AM on August 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

I recently had a friend live with me (only for a couple months, so there was no real question of her having putting up art or rearranging the furnishings) and she was clearly anxious about imposing on me, and that kind of sucked. Like, I understood that she was anxious and why she was anxious (I was anxious about it too!), but I didn't know how to reassure her and it was tough. If there's anything you can do to treat your anxiety that you're not currently doing, think about it!

Ours was a VERY different situation, where we had never lived together before, and where she was moving into my home where I had previously lived alone or with my spouse, and where it was intended to be a temporary thing rather than open-ended. But I had to do a lot of reassuring her that it was OK and it was pretty exhausting.

So my main advice is: try to keep things as much like your previous pleasant roommate experience as before! It's worked for three years, and switching to "I am a (possibly unwelcome!) guest in this house!" mode will suck for *both* of you.

This is going to be your home for as long as you live there. Treat it like your home.
posted by mskyle at 4:35 AM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Extra factor 2: I enjoy decorating and know what I like. They do not. They've often wondered how I can visualize things, because they feel they can't. They haven't been able to live as they want very much, and grew up with very controlling parents; expressing preferences can be hard for them. I worry a lot that I've run roughshod over them, and try hard not to. Even though they've said they've been fine with everything!

It sounds like they'd welcome your decorating help! One of my bffs had a former roommate who was an excellent decorator and their space was amazing. She enjoyed the ride! Living solo, she had her own style, but still raved about the cool way former roommate decorated their apartment.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:20 AM on August 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't think your anxieties are unfounded -- this is a shift in the power dynamic of your friendship. Presumably, when you were renting together you were both paying the landlord and were on equal footing. Now you're paying your friend rent while they build equity in the property.

You don't have as much security in your housing situation (they could likely kick you out without much notice if things went sour.)

In my experience, these shifts in the power dynamic, even even if they're subtle, can affect the friendship. It doesn't always happen, but it's something to watch out for. If you find it negatively affecting your friendship you might want to go back to living on your own again.
posted by Pademelon at 6:55 AM on August 23, 2021

a few things.

1. with regard to the question you asked, this seems like a "pour a cup of tea and talk it out" thing. Easy enough. You can ask her, what parameters does she envision (for painting, decorating, etc.) Things like patching nail holes are trivial fixes and more than worth the joy of having a space set up beautifully. Hopefully you'll be able to take her at her word that she is happy to have you decorate, if you're the one who has an eye for it.

2. I'm a little concerned about this agreement you guys are hammering out. It sounds like you feel like you're getting some kind of bargain because you're doing a 60/40 split, but ... 60/40 of what? Because the point of renting is that you aren't supposed to bear any of the costs of standard repairs, etc, in addition to your rent. Your rent is your contribution. Or are you talking about electric bills and food, stuff like that?

I mean obviously a rental agreement can include that the price is Y-x instead of Y, where x is the amount assigned to the tenant's labor (gardening or housekeeping or whatever.) I just want you to take a good look at what you're getting and what she's getting, and make sure it really is fair to you. And keep in mind that if she needs a tenant's rent to afford her mortgage, then you're doing her a solid by staying and being a great roommate: without you, who knows who she'd have to have in her house.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:25 PM on August 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think the most important thing you can do (besides the rental agreement!) is open up this line of communication and nurture it. You might even see if there's a book/workbook out there for mindful communication for non-romantic relationships (professional, projects, volunteerism/activism etc) and work it together to lay the groundwork for comfortable dialogue going forward.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:49 PM on August 23, 2021

Best answer: Your roommate, who has plenty of experience living with you has probably asked you to continue living with them because they like your company! They like they way you arrange things for decor, they like that you are interested in gardening! I think you should make a plan to sit down for a cup of tea or a meal AWAY from your shared living space, not in the house or apartment, and talk with them about their dreams and visions for how living in the house together will look (and talk about your own as well, but it sounds like you are so nervous about things that it might be best if they go first). In the past I would have suggested a cafe for this, but you can get some takeout, bring a picnic blanket and actual plates and utensils (or bento boxes to go work well if you want to keep it simpler), and do this in a quiet part of a public park if that works better these days with how things are in your area.

It seems pretty unlikely that your friend and roommate wants you to live with them and at the same time avoid having any say in how the house is arranged. They may own the house, but it's going to be a home for both of you, and the fact that they asked you to join them implies that they want it to be a home for you too. I expect that they would feel sad if you moved in and only felt at home in your personal room.

Monthly costs will be a 60/40 split instead, with me taking on the garden work for reduced rent.

I'm not quite sure what you mean about the monthly costs. If they are the only person who is accruing an ownership interest in the house, you really should not be paying a percent of the mortgage or paying for maintenance of the house. You might pay rent, which could include utilities or you might be splitting some of the utilities. But even if your rent just happens to be a certain percentage of the mortgage right now, it shouldn't be linked directly to it. (and it certainly shouldn't be higher than market rate rent you would pay if someone other than your roommate owned the house). If you don't have any ownership interest in the house, it shouldn't affect you if your roommate wants to refinance for a lower interest rate, or pay extra to pay down their principal, or if they have a variable rate mortgage and the rate goes up, or if they want to take out a HELOC to remodel their bathroom into a giant spa or go on a vacation to Hawaii -- in fact it shouldn't even affect you if you don't have any idea of what half of those mean! (well, given that we are in a pandemic some of these things could affect you, but they shouldn't affect what you pay in rent!) The rent should be a number, not a percentage of some changeable thing -- if your roommate wants to give you a lower rate later because they refinanced they can do that. (but they shouldn't have to, and you shouldn't have some sort of incentive to lean on them to, for example, refinance to a longer term mortgage so you can have a lower rent -- not that you would do this on purpose, but it's easy to subtly end up pressuring someone if you have a direct interest in them doing something)
posted by yohko at 2:58 PM on August 25, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you everyone! Having outside perspectives helped calm me quite a bit – just being heard and understood does a lot. There were a lot of good suggestions and reminders.

Re various things:

In general, I think the whole process is going to be a lot of reminding my panic brain of things I already know.

It's something I'm still working on, but I still have a hard time truly believing anyone would enjoy my company, which doesn't help this. Hearing others reiterate that if they didn't, they wouldn't want me to be moving with them is a good reminder. Quarantine could have been a real test (we were very strict), but even during that I remember them saying, more than once, they were relived to be stuck me vs others. And they actively wanted me to come to all house showings and have opinions – I know they were very nervous about doing all this on their own. I'm also very handy and can handle a lot of repairs around the house that they are scared of, and I know they are grateful for that.

While I can just up and leave if things go bad, it would be very unpleasant – hard to find a place with this many cats and I don't make much money. So there is some element of feeling like 'maybe I couldn't!' in my head, even though I know worst case, I have family willing to help.

Sort of making one common room my own is a great thought – I can easily see that happening with the sunroom, since I love sunlight and they are a cave dweller LOL. But intentionally cultivating it is a helpful mindset. Same with rebuilding small routines – I like my routines and Do Not handle them being disrupted well, so getting a few resettled will help a lot, I think.

Such a good point about decision fatigue, and it's true. I know they have a hard time making decisions, and they'll frequently hit a point of blank stares and struggling to answer/decide, where 'do you want me to just decide?' gets a very heartfelt 'please!'. We each have our own cooking nights, because then at least we know three nights a week, the other person will be figuring out wtf to eat for both.

I think one of the things that's worried me is that I have a LOT of art and decorative stuff, most of which is currently in boxes, while they have very little. So it feels like I could overwhelm easily, but after reading all this I'm thinking it might be worthwhile just spreading it all out and asking them if there's anything they'd really like to see in a common area. Sitting down to talk about what their dream for design is also a really great idea!

Good point about a garden budget - I thought about budgeting for a dozen other things, but it's been ages since I didn't already have tools to work with.

We discussed this sort of thing when I first moved up here, and touched on it when we started looking at houses. So they are aware of it in a general sense. I kind of hesitated to really dig into it, because there's nothing they can actively do to fix this. They can try and reassure endlessly, but the problem is my brain spinning out; all it would do is make them more anxious because they'd want to 'fix' it, which is why I was focusing on mindsets and concrete things I can do. I do plan on sitting down and having a slightly more involved chat along the lines of 'hey I might act weird for a bit and this is why, it's not because I'm mad or anything'.

Costs, splitting, percentages, etc – I simplified a lot for the sake of space. When they/we started looking, I gave them my budget – what I would be willing to pay if I was renting on my own. It was very close to their budget as well, but it was agreed if that ended up being significantly less than half the mortgage payment, I would just pay the dollar amount I'd budgeted for. They don't need my money for the payments at all, and it was not used to underwrite their loan – it just makes things much more comfortable. We've been transparent about costs from the start of the home search.

We also both have the good fortune of working as underwriters for a mortgage company, so it's familiar ground! :D And the incentives/discounts offered for employees are Very Nice.

Since the house was at the higher end of the budget, I'm paying a lot less than half, and picking up the garden and a few more cleaning chores to make it feel more even (To be clear – I did not have to pick those up to pay this amount.). It does feel like a deal to me, partly because I'm within the budget I set, and partly because... well, I enjoy cleaning! And I can clean to MY specifications without any baggage around 'you're doing your chore wrong!'. (Not really an issue, just a tiny pet peeve.)

'Usage' bills, like TV/internet, power/gas, water, pet supplies will continue to be split in half, as will some of the new types of bills that come with a home. 'Home ownership' bills, like insurance, repairs, taxes, upgrades will be entirely theirs. I'll keep my rental insurance. (This is all going into the rental agreement as well.) We generally grocery shop together, and then I tally up receipts the next day to see if they owe me or I owe them.

I'd say in general we divide things up in ways that don't always *look* equal, but feel equal? Moving is a prime example - they hate hate hate packing. I think packing is a fun puzzle. Thus, I'm packing basically everything but their room, and they're paying all the supplies/movers costs, and we're both happy about it.

We met up with the current - well, previous now, yikes! - owners, and they showed us some of these weird little quirks houses get, and we chatted about neighbors/the area/best places for everything. It's kind of wild – the house was built in 1940 and we're only the third owners. This couple have been there 30+ years. Wonder how long we'll be there! Now it's just packing and waiting until October.
posted by unsettledink at 11:10 PM on August 31, 2021

Response by poster: Just a brief revist after months and months -

90% of my anxiety has faded - I suspected a lot was general stress induced, and was right. When I really need a me space I can go to my room, or oddly enough, the basement? It's like the top floor is her (one big) room, the middle is shared, and the basement is a maze of tiny rooms the entire length of the house that I've somehow taken over. For the most part I don't really want to retreat.

It's still too cold for much to have happened about the outside/garden stuff, but we have a few things blooming so I think a chat about that will be happening soon. The bigger issue for both of us has just been a lack of time and energy, ugh.

The money thing has been working out fine - bills are higher but I also got a small pay bump. We're open about money - they know I struggled near the end of the year with missed days and no pto, so even though I've got a few old bills sitting in venmo, there's no real pressure - I know I'm not making them broke, they know I will pay when I can.

As suspected, I unpacked 90% of stuff and arranged most of the rooms, and it's been fine. We're still changing things up here and there. The biggest issue for me is discovering these are lathe and plaster walls, so I can't stick a thumbtack in to test out an art placement for a bit, then move it. Hanging anything means a drill and a hole and stress and covering it up if changing minds. So I just haven't, and I miss my art. I'm considering command strips but they're awfully expensive.

I actually have ended up feeling a sense of ownership, in that I'm the one that knows how to change the weird filter and when it was last done, which pipes go to where, how to change the settings on things, etc etc. All things they could figure out but don't think of, while I like reading manuals (we've got manuals from the 60's, it's great) and puzzling that stuff out.

The house continues to be lovely! We've had a few minor repairs, and there's a learning curve, but the area is great and it's been so much better. I knew the old place was making me sicker, but had no idea until we'd been here a while. Haven't had an asthma attack in months!
posted by unsettledink at 9:50 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]

(Glad things are going well! Check out picture rail moulding for your art.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:34 PM on April 26

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