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Help! My Roommate Is Ruining My Relationship With My Partner

You really shouldn't be parenting your roommate. Ask Me Instead responds.

by Gretchen Brown
November 5, 2020 | Love
colorful thought bubbles surround the column name, Ask Me Instead.

Dear Ask Me Instead,

I'm having roommate trouble! My partner and I (both female) live together in a town house. We have a male roommate who moved in three months ago. 

After the first month of living with our roommate, we noticed that he was not helping much with outdoor maintenance or cleaning indoors. We had an informal "move-in meeting", where we discussed expectations for helping. It was made very clear that everyone should be pulling their weight. 

Three months later, nothing has changed. He does not help in or out of the house unless my partner or I ask him to. Oh, and he is 28 years old! We are out of ideas! Living with him has been miserable and it is unfortunately impacting my relationship with my partner. Please help!

Dear Roommate Trouble,

If you had known me in college, you would know I don't have a great track record of dealing with roommate problems.

Once, when a roommate refused to clean our shared microwave and left old bowls of oatmeal in the bathroom sink, I took the bold move of — wait for it — leaving Post-it notes by the sink and microwave.

"please clean up after yourself!!!!! =) " SO BRAVE.

The good news: You have already risen above 20-year-old me's passive-aggressiveness by actually holding an initial meeting with your roommate and directly talking about the issue. If there's anything I've learned in the years since, it's that passivity helps no one.

When you say this roommate issue is impacting your relationship with your partner, I'm inferring that you disagree on how to handle it. Maybe that's why it took you just one month to have that initial meeting, but now three months have gone by with no roommate meetings to follow up.

This isn't passiveness like leaving Post-it notes, but it's passive, nonetheless.

I'm not pointing this out to shame you. I'm pointing this out to say you don't deserve to have this feeling gnawing at you for months without recourse. You don't deserve to be miserable in your own home.

When I think about my own times of passiveness, it doesn't come from a place of laziness. It comes from a hesitance to engage, because engaging might be messing things up. It comes from knowing I can be uncomfortable with personal conflict because I just want everyone to get along.

Maybe you're not worried about getting along with your roommate, I don't know. But taking action on this is a friction point in your relationship with your partner, and that's scary.

Because your roommate is, in fact, a 28-year-old man, not a toddler, he should have an expectation to help around the house. As Rewire director Maribel Lopez puts it: "Unfortunately, getting older doesn't keep people from sucking." But the dynamic you're describing — he helps out after he's asked — might be the root of the problem.

Your roommate probably believes he is helping. He might believe that if you ask him to help, then he is responding to a need. Maybe this is the way things have always worked for him, sort of emulating the parent-son dynamic of his childhood.

This is different from the dynamic you want, so you're going to have to spell it out plainly. 

Have another roommate meeting, with everyone involved. Don't set it up like you're ganging up on him. 

Instead, make it about you: Start by saying how you feel that the house hasn't been clean lately and why it's affecting you. (Maybe you can't focus amid all the mess. Maybe you're worried about attracting pests.)

Be honest: The dynamic isn't working for you. You hate nagging him to do the chores, because you don't want to feel like his mom. You'd rather he just get them done on his own.

Maybe you need to list a few examples of things that are his responsibility alone, things that are your responsibility, things that are your partner's responsibility and things that you all share. This could be a good reminder in case he is genuinely forgetting.

Then, listen. Maybe he has actual excuses for why he hasn't been pitching in. Maybe he won't talk because he's mad. Either way, leave that space for him to share his side of the story, if he needs it.

Don't drop the issue after the meeting is over. See if things change. If they don't, call another meeting (sooner this time). Keep it top of mind.

two people arguing. REWIRE PBS love roommate
If the roommate dynamic you have is different than the one you want, you''ll have to spell it out.  |  Credit: Olha // Adobe

I know it feels unfair that this is affecting your relationship with your partner. This is a third party who just happens to live with you, and is taking all your time and energy.

So, don't frame this as a relationship issue in your mind. Frame this as a roommate issue.

You and your partner are not parenting this man. You are simply all roommates dealing with the same shared issue. You need to negotiate like a roommate. 

Everyone can handle a different amount of mess. My other roommates were fine with crusty old bowls of oatmeal in the bathroom sink. I, on the other hand, preferred to brush my teeth without smelling yesterday's breakfast. 

Let's say your partner just lets the issue slide because it doesn't really bother her. Don't let that make you ashamed about your own feelings. When you talk about the issue at your roommate meeting, say "I," not "we." 

That can feel scarier without your partner figuratively beside you, but I promise, this will both help your roommate feel less ganged up on, and drop the pressure for you and your partner to come to some arbitrary agreement on this.

Because it's not really about that, after all. Things won't be solved if you magically agree on how to deal with this annoying roommate. Things will be solved if your roommate pitches in like an adult.

Hold your ground and make it personal. Worst case: he'll move out and cause this same fight in another house.

Have a life dilemma?

Email Ask Me Instead at [email protected] or send us a note using this form. All submissions are anonymous.

For more good advice, visit the Ask Me Instead collection.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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