Chew her out, stick it out, or move out?
November 1, 2007 8:27 PM   Subscribe

RoommateFilter: My roommate of over a year really gets on my nerves, and I’m too timid to confront her. Is it too late to do anything besides move out?

Last year, I moved into a beautiful apartment with one of my best friends at the time. You can probably imagine the end result: she’s not one of my best friends anymore. We rarely hang out anymore, even at home; I have been avoiding her and she may be doing the same. The very things that I found fun about her as a friend come off as immature and irresponsible now that I’m living with her. Sometimes I’m not bothered by her, other times I can’t stand to even hear her name, but overall I am not happy sharing a place with her. We’ve lived together for over a year and have over six months left on the lease, and I’m wondering if I should bide my time until the lease expires or do something about the situation now.

For starters, she’s an unabashed slob. I don’t mind clutter and am often guilty of it myself, but I try to keep it contained. However, she lets her mess spill out into the kitchen and living room, including and especially food-related mess. There are frequently dirty pots and pans in the living room. I barely go into the parts of the apartment that are covered in her stuff – there might as well be an invisible line down the middle of the apartment between her space and mine.

I also don’t find her reliable. She’s generally good with getting the rent on time, but she’s been known to flake out on things she’s said she’d do with or for me. She recently agreed to host a surprise party for a mutual friend, for which she didn’t prepare and didn’t even arrive to until after some of the guests did. She’s also been known to invite friends from out of town to stay at our place without asking me. We have more than enough crash space, so I don’t have a problem with it in theory, but “oh by the way Jane’s staying over tonight” gets on my nerves.

How could this have gone on for so long? Simple: I’m a wuss. I’m terrified of confrontation and, when I do get frustrated enough to speak my mind, I often soft-ball it or get talked down easily. I’m scared that confronting her would turn our cold war into an all-out battle, and my living situation is stressful enough as it is. On top of that, I’ve kept my frustration quiet for so long that I worry anything I say now would be too little too late.

We haven’t had official house rules, and I’m not sure they’d work at this point.

Lately I’ve been thinking of moving out. At this point, this is a bridge I don’t mind burning, but I also want to be diplomatic and fair. I don’t want to be too much of a jerk. And, since we have several mutual friends, I want to be able to make a clean break without jeopardizing my friendship with them. Moving will put considerable financial strain on me, though I should be able to find a small apartment that does not cost too much more than my current share of the rent/utilities. If I move, I will likely live alone.

Whether I move or whether I talk to her, I’m not sure how to go about doing it. Both options make me quite anxious and I’m not sure I can pull either off. I can survive with things as they are, but it’s not ideal. My strategy so far has been one of disgruntled avoidance, but considering I’m posting this question, it’s not really working.

In case you need it:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Does she have any idea that these things bother you? Have you ever talked to her about any of them?
posted by underwater at 8:40 PM on November 1, 2007

Move out. I've gone through the living with friends thing, and keeping crap like that out of it is a great way to stop being friends. Hopefully you can salvage your friendship. Your next place, learn to speak up to your new (non-friend) roommates, or get a place of your own. Seriously.
posted by SassHat at 9:02 PM on November 1, 2007

To me, the fact that you're afraid of confrontation and "timid" is the biggest reason you -should- speak to your roommate. Speaking as someone who gets physically nauseous at even the -thought- of confronting someone I can say that the most important thing to do is - well, again, to -do- it. You have every right to live in a relatively tidy house and to expect that people living with you actually -ask- before they open up your home to outsiders, AND it sounds like you need some practice in standing up for yourself.

For me when I'm in situations like this, I try to "prep" myself beforehand by imagining a) the best thing I think could come out of it, b) the absolute, universe-goes-up-in-flames worst thing that could happen, and c) what types of things I think actually -will- happen. One benefit of this is that it helps me think through what I'd do or how I would respond to a variety of reactions my "confrontee" could have - and forewarned is forearmed, yeah? It also helps me put things into perspective as I usually end up realizing that the things that are "most likely" to (and sometimes even the absolute worst that could) happen often really aren't that bad in the first place.

In your situation specifically, if your roommate -does- become openly hostile because of this you can always move out at -that- point - nobody can take that option away from you, if you have that option now, you'll have it later, too. As such, the absolute worst that can happen is that you end up having to move out - which, hey, is what you're considering already anyway! On the other hand, if something -better- than the absolute worst happens you just might end up in a living situation that's actually comfortable again - plus no matter what you'd have given yourself the opportunity to -try- confronting someone in a relatively safe environment (it's not as though she's, say, your boss and could fire you - all you have to lose is something that already -seems- lost anyway).

One final thing to consider is that maybe your roommate doesn't realize what the specific problem is - the first time I lived with someone, for the longest time she shouldered the burden of a LOT of things and I'm ashamed to say I let her - but it was simply because (insensitive clod that I was) somehow it had honestly not even OCCURRED to me that I was upsetting her until one day she -did- blow up. I didn't feel mad at all when she confronted me - rather I felt ... absolutely HORRIBLE I'd been causing her so much unhappiness without even knowing it. Once I knew about it I went full-out to change my behavior and we actually ended up staying roommates for a good couple of years AND became good friends because of it. Even now I am -so- glad she finally let me know how she was feeling.

Go ahead and talk to her. You have every right to ask for some basic house rules no matter how "late in the game" it is. Good luck =)
posted by zeph at 9:03 PM on November 1, 2007 [3 favorites]

Stand up for yourself. An "all-out battle: isn't the end of the world, it's totally natural and, as long as you aren't unnecessarily cruel, totally forgivable.

Ask her out to dinner. Talking in a public place will keep things contained, and then if it doesn't go well you two can go your separate ways for the evening afterward to lick your wounds.

I know confrontation is scary. I had a roommate once with the same aversion. It even got to the point once during a conflict resolution that I begged her to just tell me in the future when she was upset about something, but even then afterward she still couldn't bring herself to. And certainly after a while I found myself pushing buttons I normally wouldn't have, wondering just how long she would suffer in silence before daring to mention something. I felt contempt for her because she wouldn't stand up for herself, even when I knew that she was right on some points.

It may seem unbearably hard to go through with this, but you have a whole lifetime of similar situations waiting for you, and you are lucky to be able to practice on someone who is theoretically still your friend. If you move out in six months and aren't friends afterward, that's fine-- but at least leave there knowing you rose to the occasion and learned a thing or two about conquering your fears.
posted by hermitosis at 9:10 PM on November 1, 2007

Remember the wise words of William Blake: "I was angry with my friend; I told my friend, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe; I told it not, my wrath did grow."

What Zeph said. I'm another confrontation-hating wuss, but believe me, if you sit your roommate down with a tactful yet frank heart-to-heart, you might find she'll become more considerate. She probably has no idea that her slobbiness and unreliability are pissing you off. And she won't, unless she's psychic, unless you tell her.

Phrase your talk with her in "I" statements. That is, don't say "You are a horrible slob and inconsiderate!" Rather, say something like "It really bothers me when you leave dirty dishes to fester in the sink. Besides, it might wind up drawing bugs. Let's make it a house rule that all dishes must be washed within X hours of cooking." Or, "When you give people permission to sleep here without letting ME know and getting MY permission, I find it very disruptive; it's my house, too. Let's make it a house rule that each of us check with the other first before offering free crash space to anyone." And don't let her talk you down with "But...but...but..." OR "You do stuff that bothers ME, too! Nyah!" deflections. Just keep going with "Please wash your dishes. It means a lot to me." Or "We're not talking about me, we're talking about you. Please don't deflect."

You can confront in a nice way, and still hold your ground. Believe me, speaking as the wussiest wuss who ever wussed, it's a great thing to learn the fine art of standing up for yourself.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:14 PM on November 1, 2007 [4 favorites]

underwater: I'm thinking not. ("I’m terrified of confrontation and, when I do get frustrated enough to speak my mind, I often soft-ball it or get talked down easily.")

anonymous: I think you have some time to get things somewhat normal again, but you've got to gather up some nerve. I can appreciate how unpleasant you are expecting a true confrontation with her to be. Been there. Done that. (As I preview, zeph has awesome advice.) You don't have to make a big speech of it, either. Short, sweet and to the point -- "Roomie, this place is a real wreck. I know we don't have any official house rules, but the mess is out of hand. Let's spend this weekend cleaning it up, and try to keep it liveable from now on."

Everything else will have to be handled on a case-by-case basis - it seems like a lot of issues have been building up, and if you lay them out all at once she's gonna wonder where the hell that all came from, which will only put her on the defensive, which will make you back down, which will deter you from sticking up for yourself in the future, etc. You, as an adult sharing space with another adult, shouldn't be on the verge of an anxiety attack at the thought of this (I fully appreciate that's easier said than done sometimes, though).
posted by brain cloud at 9:17 PM on November 1, 2007

Stop being timid. Get drunk if you have to. Being passive-aggressive should be one of the deadly sins. If you don't actively confront her, fuck you and the horse you rode in on; you deserve every fucking ounce of misery you recieve. It might be unpleasant. It might resolve nothing. It might cause a big fight. If you're afraid of any of these things, keep in mind what happens if you say nothing: the situation stays the same (shitty) or gets worse (shittier). Confrontation has a small chance of improving it, or a chance of causing her/you to leave, either of which would be important steps to resolution instead of suffering.
posted by Electrius at 9:19 PM on November 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

Here's a thought: maybe this is a good growth opportunity for you, as such a timid person. Also, it is a good growth opportunity for you to learn to control your environment.

So, first the control your environment part: get rid of the invisible line. Don't be passive-aggressive about it (ie don't do it when she's not around) but one day decide there's an area of a common room that you want to do something to, like move a chair there to get good reading light or set up a bookcase for storage. Make sure it's an area that is absolutely shared by both of you, and covered in her stuff. Then say to her in a friendly way, "Hey, I was thinking about doing (x), what do you think? I'll do the heavy lifting, if you tell me where to put your stuff."

This accomplishes several things:

1. It is a common area, and the invisible line is drawn in your head. Odds are she'll say "okay" and tell you where to throw her stuff (probably "just anywhere") or maybe even help you move it. You'll have had your first "confrontation" about it, which wasn't really one at all;

2. You'll have taken control of the situation. Taking control of the situation doesn't mean leaving notes, or confronting a person, or making demands, or getting them to obey -- it's deciding "I want this apartment clean more than I want to move" and taking the matter into your own hands. Should she be cleaning up her own mess? Yes, of course, but if you really want the space, go take it. In a friendly way.

3. If she does pull a "no, I like my junk there, that's MY spot" move, you have the opening to the conversation, and you can jump right in. In all innocence and friendliness, you say "wait, I thought this room was a common area for us; it doesn't seem fair that you get to use it exclusively for storage. Isn't there somewhere else you can store it, so that we can use the space?" (notice you say "you" and "us" and "we", but never "I".)

It may get sorted quickly, it may turn into a confrontation, but at least you'll get it over with -- and she'll have been unreasonable, so your mutual friend issue should be okay if you have the guts to say "yeah, she had a pile of stuff in the living room and I asked her where I could move it so I could put a chair there, and she got upset and said it was 'her' spot. It was kind of crazy, and it turned into an argument. It's a shame it happened; I'm still not quite sure what she's really upset about."

So if 1 and 2 happen, you're getting the environment back under control, just lather, rinse, repeat, and don't sign another lease with her. But if 3 happens, be your meek self and take the attitude of "Wow, I don't know why you're upset, can you explain it to me?" You know, be the reasonable person that nobody can argue with unless they're willing to sound like an insane idiot.

Meanwhile, about the reliability: don't rely on her for anything. Done! So long as she pays the rent and bills, don't ask her to do anything, don't take her up on offers for help, because she's proven she won't hold up. Be polite about it, with lots of "oh, that's okay" or "thank you so much for the offer, but I'll take care of it."

In those housing matters where relying on her to clean up after herself and do dishes isn't going to work, and you can't just let the food rot, the best thing you can do is this:

1. Wash all the dishes.

2. Give her an opportunity to keep after 'em now that you've "reset" the dishes clock. If she succeeds, great, problem solved.

3. If not, however, and you're washing your dishes right away but she's letting them pile up in the living room, pack up most of the dishes and pots and glasses. Literally. Pack yours away, and hers separately. When she asks where everything went, say "it's easier for me to keep dishes clean if there aren't many of them; that way I have to wash them right away and I won't let them pile up."

In one swoop, you've established yourself as the dish washer (bad) but you've taken control of the problem (good) and again given her a reason to avoid complaining so that she won't sound crazy; after all, what sane person would argue against you taking this step to make it easier for you to wash the dishes so that you won't let them pile up? You're claiming the problem and the solution, and even though you'll be washing dishes, you'll have very few to wash.

Now, having said all that: I would just come out and confront her, because I'm like that, and I've been through roommate battles before; yours doesn't seem that bad by comparison. However, all of my roommates over the years were women, and when I took the approaches above, it always went a lot better than when I confronted directly -- or when I tried passive-aggressive.

Good luck, and remember: a crappy roommate situation, or a mediocre one where you're stuck washing the dishes and cleaning up after her a bit, is much more bearable when you KNOW you'll be out in six months. Make sure you plan accordingly.

OH, and finally: after my worst roommate situation, I went and got a place of my own. It was tiny, had roaches, and was in a bad part of town so that I could afford it -- hell, it didn't even have air conditioning, in a Chicago summer -- but you know what? I still think fondly of that apartment. I had the whole place to myself, the dishes were always clean, and I never had to worry about my roommate. It was AWESOME. Get into that type of situation if you can.

Good luck.
posted by davejay at 9:27 PM on November 1, 2007

(notice you say "you" and "us" and "we", but never "I".)

When I said the above, it was in the context of inanimate objects and usage; if talking about feelings or actions, use "we", "us" and "I", but never "you".
posted by davejay at 9:29 PM on November 1, 2007

Response by poster: You really must go talk with her. I will bet you at this point she knows things are bothering you because you've communicated this through a billion passive-aggressive signals, and she is finding that as fucking annoying as you are finding her behavior. In my experience, passive-aggressive roommates are as bad, if not worse, than outright slobs.

I don't think it is ever too late for house rules. You guys need to sit down and establish boundaries. Work out what shit is allowed in the common areas. How long you take before doing dirty dishes. Put the list up somewhere. This will be difficult, it is always easier early on, but necessary.
posted by Anonymous at 10:10 PM on November 1, 2007

Whoa, two roommate confrontation threads in one day. OP, don't forget to read that thread too:
posted by secret about box at 10:52 PM on November 1, 2007

Nthing those who stress "I" messages and to be specific why. I should have told my first roommate freshman year point blank that I did not want to hear her fucking someone every night in a room in which we had no aural privacy instead of just hinting that I didn't want anyone in after ten pm.
posted by brujita at 11:03 PM on November 1, 2007

Stand up for yourself or move. I did.
posted by rhizome at 12:45 AM on November 2, 2007

I have to say - not confronting people is completely unfair to both parties. Not only do you never give yourself the opportunity to resolve the situation to your satisfaction, but you also never give HER the opportunity to change. Instead, you've now ruined a good friendship (and seem content to let it dissolve), rather than try to salvage it. How is that helpful?

If you expect people to read your mind, you're bound to be disappointed.

I say you apologise for letting it get to this point, move out, and try to rebuild.
posted by wayward vagabond at 2:45 AM on November 2, 2007

you had much better learn to stand up for yourself...practicing with what is likely to be an ex friend is the ideal opportunity....what are you going to do with a live in partner? they'll piss you off and at that point the damage associated with doing nothing is much bigger when things do come to a head - both emotionally and financially!
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:08 AM on November 2, 2007


You clearly have different expectations of orderliness of your life and your apartment. Find someone more compatible with your own tastes. Ideally, find someone such that you're the messy one.

And let her find someone more compatible with hers instead of living either with someone passive-aggressively dropping hints all the time, or harping on her to do stuff that she doesn't care about. Your roommate is not wrong for being a slob, and you are not right for preferring a more orderly apartment. You just have different tastes
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:39 AM on November 2, 2007

I've had some limited success in applying the positive reinforcement ideas in Other People's Habits to my relationships with my roommates. You might give that a try.
posted by Coventry at 8:15 AM on November 2, 2007

We call this the "bucket theory" in our house. Here's how it goes:

You have a bucket for everyone in your life. When they do something to piss you off, irritate you, offend you, or otherwise, you put it in the bucket.

The problem is, if you don't empty the bucket occasionally, then it fills up. So, you toss one last little thing ("towel left on the floor," for instance) on top of the already-full bucket, and it overflows -- and spills shit everywhere.

My advice would be to fess up and be honest. Sit down with your roomie, and say, "We've gotta talk -- and I owe you an apology." Outline that you're feeling really uncomfortable in your own home, and, because you're a big chicken, you haven't dealt with stuff when you should have -- and for that, you're sorry. An apology usually puts people in a sympathetic mood, and will make talking about issues a whole lot easier, without having to resort to flimflammery to get your point across. Pick the biggest things -- food-related mess -- and deal with those first. Once you get some of the stuff out of the bucket, it'll be easier to get the rest out through your now-open-line of communication.

Having said that, I also think you should bail when the lease is up, since at least part of it, from what you're saying, is not just about the messy house.

Good luck!
posted by liquado at 8:18 AM on November 2, 2007 [5 favorites]

What liquado said... as a roommate who has certainly annoyed people who said nothing and a person who has been annoyed by roommates but said nothing, I've learned one thing. I can only control what I know about.

I'm not saying that your roommate isn't 99% at fault, but even if you not saying something is that 1%, it's the only thing 100% controllable by you. So do something about it and then you're completely blameless.

The "apologizing for your wussiness" angle is a genius solution because (1) it's honest and (2) anyone who doesn't respond to it by changing isn't a friend or a roommate worth having. But the best thing about this solution is that it confronts her without making her feel like she needs to get defensive. "These things bother me and they have for a long time" is going to make her feel bad or defenisive, but "I'm sorry I didn't tell you these things were bothering me; could we change now?" is totally different and gives both of you a chance to start fresh -- which I think is what you really want. (
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:28 AM on November 2, 2007

I went through a similar situation as yours, except in my case the roommate/friend/slob was also the landlord which complicated matters further. I could have easily moved out but, like you, really didn't want to for financial reasons - so I decided to stick with it.

If you had asked me at the time what my biggest gripe would have been with this person, like you, I would have started with the complete mess that they left in their wake, and then gone on to list a litany of other offenses in an effort to prove to both you and myself that my bitching was justified.

In retrospect, I've come to realize that while yes, some of my complaints were indeed fully justifiable (a messy kitchen is a messy kitchen), I also did my part in contributing to my own unhappiness. Frankly, I would have seized any opportunity to complain about this person. If the kitchen were clean, I would have found some other reason to be pissed. Why I do this, I'm not sure, but I imagine it's to compensate for what I perceive to be inadequacies/problems in my own life, and by virtue of the fact that my friend/roommate was "different" and always around, he became a convenient target for my frustrations.

Acknowledging all that, I would take each "offense" individually and ask myself why I was really angry. In the case of the messy kitchen, I kindly asked my roommate to be a little more diligent in keeping the place clean. He acknowledged his messy habits and promised to do so - although he never actually did. So, realizing that I couldn't change his behavior, I decided to swallow a little pride (the excess of which I felt to be "wounded" - being the real reson for my anger) and clean up after him in the common areas (I should note that with his other mess, like strewn about mail and papers and such, I would neatly pile them up and put them on his bed, where he would promptly throw it on the floor - in his room.) Eventually, I just started appreciating the fact that I had a clean kitchen rather then bemoaning the fact that my roommate couldn't keep it clean.

He ended up moving to a basement studio apartment which solved a lot of the problem, but I find that even with my new roommate, with whom I'm much more compatible, I occasionally have to be careful not to unreasonably find fault. We all have our warts. I'm sure your roommate could provide a list of things about the way you live that irritate her. The trick, for me at least, was to constantly remind myself that my roommates failure to conform to my idea of an ideal living situation didn't mean he was maliciously trying to anger me. He just lives differently, that's all, and it sounds like you and your roommate are the same. You can either let that bother you, or - for the time you have left on the lease should you choose to stay - you can accept it and maybe even try to improve things.

To sum it up, expecting her to change might very well prove to be a futile exercise (although it's definitely worthwhile to politely ask), but if your willing to change a little yourself you might find it a much less stressful environment the remaining six months.
posted by Rewind at 10:39 AM on November 2, 2007

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