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#1337: About more than a mug: Boundaries, housemates, aggression from MzHeather's blog

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a situation similar to #513, except with a housemate. 

I (she/her) am in my 30s and I live in a cosmopolitan US city. I have three international housemates (all she/her). It is a chill, tidy shared house. Housemates and I got on well. Recently, I drove one housemate to the far away airport (2.5 hours roundtrip). She had offered to pay me half of what a cab would have been. I agreed. Payment never came. Same housemate then asked for another car favour: couriering a document for her across town in heavy traffic. I again agreed. This time though, I asked for gas money (£10). I felt in my gut that asking for that bit of money would cause a problem but I also knew not asking would make me feel taken advantage of. I needed to set that boundary. She seemed annoyed when I asked and replied that she would only pay me the £10 only because she was thankful. It took her a week to remember to pay.

Fast forward to a week after payment. There was a group chat text that says that she is upset because one of her mugs is ruined and that we all need to find a solution. I reply with an “oh no” and “I put them away last, maybe I damaged one and if so, I’d definitely replace it.” Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have suggested fault. The next morning I’m in the kitchen and decide to check out the mugs. There is no damage. There are some scratches at the bottom of all of the mugs, the type that a mug gets by being placed on surfaces. I bring this to her attention and she quite literally flips out. She calls me names. She accuses me of lying. She says that she “knows” that I damaged her mug. She wants me to admit my lies and to replace the mug (£2 btw at the local shop). Eventually, after a day of looong text messages with more accusations and a house meeting where I was screamed at, I agreed to buy her a new mug but I refused to admit that I ruined her mug. The next day there were more text message accusations, including ones that I lack honor and that I need to admit fault. Whatever this is about is about more than a mug.

There have been repercussions since then, including exclusively receiving the silent treatment, my stuff being moved, not being allowed to touch anything she owns in the shared kitchen, and stomping outside my bedroom door. She has also loudly started locking her bedroom door and I get this feeling that I should lock my door too… because it seems kinda like a threat. Housemates have noped out of the situation and have said hope you two can work this out.

The added kink is that I know that she obtained new mental health medication while on that trip that I drove her to the airport for. I wonder if maybe new meds are contributing to this dynamic because it really does seem like a dramatic shift over such tiny things. But I don’t know what to do with this information. As the object of her ire, I’m a bit concerned for my physical safety. It seems silly to write, but I feel on edge, like I should be careful. My mental health has taken a hit, especially now that I feel like I’m walking on eggshells. She doesn’t respond to or even look at me when I say hello to her. At this point, I think the only thing to do is for me to move out because here I am ill at ease. But also, I feel like this is exactly what she wants me to do.

So, because housemates are increasingly becoming a thing, and bad housemate stories abound, and sometimes even a small boundary sets off unexpected events and sometimes there is a feeling of “this isn’t ok, but is this violence/bullying/aggression or is anyone actually in danger or what should I do,” I wonder what your advice and commentary is for this and similar situations. How to be a responsible person in the world when you become the object of ire? What do you do when you feel uneasy with someone you live with but can’t exactly pinpoint why? How to deal with a housemate’s (passive) aggressiveness when you’re worried about further repercussions?

Many thanks!

Hello,

You could be right that a recent change in medication is part of the picture here, but I cannot stress this enough: It’s not your job to “save” your bully or manage their mental health for them. You can feel compassion for your housemate and take the things she says about you with a giant grain of salt. Otherwise, bringing up her mental health is going to come across as condescending (at best) and supply her with a ready excuse for her unacceptable behavior toward you, which, may I point out, she has not actually asked you to do. Nor has she apologized or done anything except double down. If someone wants to sit her down for a gentle “I’ve noticed you’re not quite yourself lately, what’s going on?” talk, it should be someone who likes her a whole lot and someone she trusts and respects in return. 

Your job is to take care of you, to maintain your boundaries, and buffer yourself from her bad behavior so you can be safe and peaceful at home. Some possible care steps: 

Take the way you are feeling seriously. “It’s just a mug, what’s the big deal?”  It’s a big deal because she made it a big deal, if this is how she reacts to a (non-damaged) mug, what else might she do? This person has you scared and seriously upset. She’s manipulative and crappy around money, and that started before the possible meds change. She seems to be retaliating against you for actually enforcing an agreement with her. She screams at you, a fellow adult, in your own living space, over something you didn’t do! That’s not okay! It’s okay to have “nobody is allowed to scream at me in my own house” as a firm standard, I can’t recommend it enough. 

Treat the current Silent Treatment like a gift, because it is, when the alternative is a screaming tantrum or more manipulation into a burdensome favor. The Silent Treatment sucks, it’s so awkward and weird and painful, but it’s also an invitation to disengage from trying to repair this situation. Find the minimum possible level of engagement you can. If she says “Hello” say it back, but keep it all very brief, casual, and on the surface. If she’s friendly and wants to go back to “normal,” great – enjoy it while it lasts, but don’t trust it. 

Start quietly looking for a new living situation. This one isn’t working out. I know finances and the housing market can make this really, really hard to do. It’s not fair, you shouldn’t have to be the one who walks away, it’s like letting her win, I know! But in my experience, moving is expensive and staying put with a person who treats you like this also expensive. Maybe she’ll never escalate into actual violence, but she can cause you a lot of misery about the so-called “little things.” The investment you make in getting the hell away from a person who is mean to you is going to pay off much better than investing in getting her to change.

I’ll say it again: Get rid of the idea that something has to get “bad enough” for you to justify leaving a situation that’s making you unhappy. This lady stresses you all the way out over imaginary mug damage! Don’t be roommates anymore if you can help it! 

“Quietly” means don’t discuss it with anyone in your house until after you’ve signed a new lease and made a final decision to leave, at which point you’ll be informing them of a decision, not asking for permission. In fact, be very circumspect about your life and personal information around your housemates. Keep in mind that people witnessing the fit this housemate threw over the mug and deciding to leave the two of you to sort it out are tacitly making room for the bully. What would she have to do to you to get them to give a shit? Move out before you have to find out. 

Get a sturdy lock for your door, actually lock that lock, and keep your valuable possessions in your room instead of in common areas. Back up your important files. Keep track of your car keys and lock them up when you’re not at home. If she feels hostile and entitled enough, she may take the car while you’re at work, thinking you’ll never know. 

The answer to all of her future requests for rides, favors, etc. is “no.” Don’t give reasons or explain if you can possibly help it. No. Practice cutting these conversations very short, leave the room or get a door between you as quickly as you can once you say it.

Become extremely matter-of-fact about money where this housemate & the apartment are concerned. Record any agreements and transactions to the penny (say, in a phone app or a small notebook), and get out of the habit of fronting money for takeout or groceries or bills and having others pay you back. “Can you buy the pizza and we’ll pay you back later?” “Let’s settle it now.” Later, for this person, means never, whereas she is going to dog you for the £2  mug like the kid in Better Off Dead. You know that now, so, don’t get sucked in again.

If you haven’t already replaced the mug, it is okay to just not.This is ridiculous, I didn’t break your mug and I’m not replacing it.” “You are being so incredibly weird about this, I’m not discussing it with you any more.” It’s okay to refuse to talk about the mug again. Exit the chat/the room. It’s also okay to hand her the money with conditions – “This isn’t because I broke your mug, this is because I want to never talk about it again.” If you go that route, don’t go get the mug, just give her the money to purchase it herself, the last thing you need is the inevitable “you got the wrong mug” fight.

It’s not so much what is right or fair as it is about your sense of what will work to de-escalate the situation in the way you need. Sometimes making the point is worth it, sometimes the cheapest way to pay is with money. You’re going to have to live with this person a while yet, so don’t add blame and shame for yourself if what you need is a little expedience. Some people worry, “If I give in once, will I have to give in forever, am I just enabling whatever this is?” The answer to this is, once you give in to something you don’t actually want to do, the other person might expect you to give in again and again, that’s true! But their expectations and actions are theirs, not a contract between you. You are an autonomous being who can change her mind. “I said yes last time, but I don’t want to this time.” You get to decide how much other people’s expectations are allowed to rule your life. 

If you do end up replacing the mug, touch it as little as possible. Try not to touch anything that’s hers if you can help it. I get the sense that this “invisible damage” has a way of spreading from object to object whenever she wants a jolt of conflict and the attention it brings. 

I’ve lived with at least two roommates who reminded me of yours, one who was extremely difficult, and one who turned out to be actually dangerous (waiting until she went out of town to secretly move my stuff dangerous, harming my cat dangerous, mentioning the gun in her storage unit all the time dangerous), and I can remember a lot of common threads:  

  • High charisma matched only by a huge sense of entitlement.
  • All attention is good attention, they win as long as they can command your attention (time, money, effort, emotional energy), doesn’t matter how.
  • They push people around them to abandon reasonable norms and standards as it becomes “easier” to accept bad behavior than to risk setting them off. For instance, the thing where you haven’t ever collected the money she owes you for the airport ride. That’s actually a way bigger deal than the mug, and yet? It feels hard to bring up an obvious thing. Bingo.
  • Appeasing and managing their moods & behavior only emboldens then and makes them more aggressive over time. “Wait, did I do something to make you so upset?” It’s not really about what you’re doing or not doing, it’s about feeding their own addiction to feeling aggrieved and entitled, and they’ll manufacture fights over mugs and such to keep the feeling going. 
  • The meaner they are to you, the more they feel bad, and the more they treat you like it’s your fault for making them feel bad about themselves. Watch out for the bully who treats you like a free therapist, replacing apologies for what they did to you with tales of how sad they are. 
  • Once someone crosses into bullying you, they don’t cross back.Any apologies are self-serving, designed to center their feelings and keep you around for more mistreatment. 
  • They burn through people quick, since once the charisma act stops working the choices are pretty much: fight or flight. 

Fight or flight:. Either become the person who screams back (“Oh, is it Dramatic Tantrum time? Hold up, I need more eyeliner”) and roll the dice on whether she’ll back down or escalate, or find a way to disengage and lay low until you can get to a safe distance away. In my experience, the first path can be temporarily satisfying, but the second is much healthier. I think you are very smart to notice the pattern you’re seeing, good luck handling it while it’s still about mugs. 

 
 


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