I walk a tightrope from the apartment door to my bedroom each day, hoping not to fall into the abyss of anxiety, anger, and negativity that lies between them. The climb up to the tightrope is no better. As the elevator rises, so does my anxiety about what I will have done wrong today; it’s a news bite that’s usually marinated in hours of cold silence before I’m held over the grill.
I had always had good roommates. School, camp, semesters away, even my family. I’m sure many people feared for me when — as an only child — I moved into my first dorm experience at university. After a lifetime of longing for goodnight chats and someone with actual style to share clothes with, I relished the opportunity of living with 18 girls. A little older than most of them, I took on the role of planning birthday parties and scavenger hunts and providing a listening ear for freshman woes. The greatest compliment I received — more than a few times in the following years — was when people forgot I was an only child.
That’s not to say I was a perfect roommate. Chronically allergic to just about everything but Kleenex, there was a lot of sniffling late into the evenings. Slightly blind to dirt and grime, I didn’t believe a bathroom needed cleaning every week… or even two. As a perfectionist who struggled with the weight of keeping scholarships, you wouldn’t want to come near me during finals week or a work deadline. And don’t even get me started on how little I had to contribute in the kitchen.
But by and large, I’ve always been easy-going, flexible, encouraging, and fun. I’ve even developed a few culinary abilities and a special knack for banana bread. And after four years in community with my peers, I resolved to never live alone again. Little did I know that this resolve would paralyze my ability to leave when a roommate situation turned emotionally abusive.
Looking back, there were warning signs and poor decisions throughout. But I’ve learned that when your confidence and value are slowly being eroded through an unhealthy situation, you can’t exactly see your options clearly. Here are some principles I’ve learned through the experience to help avoid — or even escape — a similar roommate situation.
1. Listen to your friends.
Even when you can’t see a change in your mood, confidence, and overall zest for life, your friends and family can. If they seem concerned by stories from your home life — trust them! Stockholm syndrome is more than just the title of a Derek Webb album. It’s common for an emotionally-involved victim to defend their attacker’s actions — as if they somehow deserve the poor treatment. I understand this first hand. It took the intervention of two coworkers to convince me to get out of my roommate relationship. They were the first to bring the vocabulary of “abuse” to my situation.
2. Get logistics (and an exit plan) in writing.
When people move in together there are logistics to work out. How much will each roommate pay, and how will the space be shared? Are you going to split food and internet bills? Who buys the toilet paper and dish soap? And — most importantly — what’s the procedure for “giving notice” if someone needs to move out?
I had verbally discussed this with my roommate at the outset, but we had very different recollections of the conversation after I declared my intention to leave. (The difference between “thirty days notice” and “thirty days notice, given on the first of the month” can end up making a few hundred dollars difference in the rent you owe.) Decide together what your policy will be and write it down.
3. Talk about rules before moving day.
Whenever possible, discuss expectations and rules before the move, whether you’re strangers from Craigslist or friends since the sixth grade. It never would have occurred to me to ask my roommate in advance whether I’d be allowed to have friends over, but if I had I would have seen a red flag. Instead, I had to wait until my friend and I were told to leave the apartment with the dinner we were making because I wasn’t supposed to have anyone over without prior permission.
Preliminary conversations about cleaning duties, music volumes, and the often-controversial overnight guests policy could potentially raise other red flags. Discuss these expectations early, before moving in if possible.
4. Understand renter power dynamics.
Paying rent to a landlord is a very different situation than paying rent to your roommate who happens to be the landlord. When you room with a homeowner, you are not going to get first dibs on the common spaces, nor have any say in the decor. Instead, you will feel privileged to get whatever tiny ounce of cupboard, fridge, and storage space you are allotted, despite the fact that you’re paying exactly half the mortgage with exactly none of the long-term benefits. You will also have zero say in just about anything, because “This is not your house and you can leave if you don’t like how I do things.” (“That will just cost you this month’s rent and next month’s rent since you didn’t give your notice on the first of this month…”)
If you have had any other experience in an owner-renter roommate situation I am absolutely thrilled for you; but you are the exception, not the rule.
5. Communicate frustrations — strategically.
You are two different people with different habits, and there will inevitably be a few areas of tension. But stick to only bringing up the extremes — the big stuff that can’t possibly be compromised, and the tiny things that will be more hilarious than hurtful (“I know my heirloom cross-stitch is hideous, but I’d prefer if we didn’t use it as a hot pad at dinner”). You’ll need to have grace for everything in between, or you’ll be having an awkward “we need to talk” moment every day. If your roommate decides to treat you to a daily dose of correction, yet isn’t open to your occasional counterpoint, it’s time to talk about your future together. Have this talk near the end of the month, so you can give your one-month notice on the first if things don’t change. ?
6. Mental health is more valuable than money.
You need to prioritize your well-being over your money and leave a bad situation no matter how much it costs. In any volatile situation, things may get a lot worse after giving notice, and you might want to be prepared to move out immediately, or before the full month is over. For me, this meant double-paying rent for one month: one cheque to my old roommate, and the other to the landlord of my new place. It took a lot of convincing before I took that step (I can’t stand “wasting” money), but it was worth every penny. I had also arranged to stay in several people’s guestrooms for the month if I wasn’t able to afford the double rent or find a new place fast enough.
7. Prepare for the aftermath.
If you still live in the same neighbourhood as your old roommate — or attend the same school or socialize with the same friends — there will be inevitable run-ins. Understand that you can`t control their reactions, only your own, and take the high road even when they don’t. Remember all those people your roommate used to criticize as having betrayed her? (Again, should have been a red flag.) Well, that’s how she’s likely describing you now. Decide what you’re willing to tell mutual friends and don’t stray from that. The less negativity you bring to post-roommate social situations, the more you set the example that things can be civil — and even pleasant — in public. If that’s hard to stomach, just think of how glad you are to be to be out of the home situation, and let that gratitude colour all future encounters.
Of course there will be more steps to healing and moving forward from the situation. Do you warn their next roommate? Is your mental health worth the high price of counselling? (Which will end up being much higher than that one month of double rent you paid.) Will you have any peace until you’ve forgiven your abusive roommate? Will you need to ask for forgiveness for things you’ve said or done in anger? The process of recovery from an emotionally abusive situation takes time, but it can’ start until you put your foot down and leave.