Family

Carolyn Hax: Roommate’s controlling ways grow toxic

DEAR CAROLYN: My problem is with “Stacy,” my roommate of three years. When my other roommate, “Joanna,” and I have an issue (roommate-ish things like emptying the dishwasher), we talk through it calmly and non-defensively, we apologize, and it’s all good. (We’re all 24.) Stacy gets incredibly defensive and worked up, and lashes back at us. What’s more, she'll never bring up anything that bothers her. She keeps it all bottled up, and then occasionally, at a bar or some other place with alcohol involved, will explode and hurl pent-up things at us, some going back years.

She’s also super-competitive with us about everything from boys to jobs, extremely judgmental and negative, extremely “I” oriented (it’s always about her) and controlling, to the point where she tries to tell me who I can and cannot Snapchat. I don’t let her control or faze me, I do my own thing and generally feel sorry for her, but I’m finding it harder and harder to ignore her controlling nature.

I’ve gotten to the point where I know this is toxic and I need to move out when my lease is up next year. I just need to figure out how to live with her in the meantime!

Portland

DEAR PORTLAND:

Even allowing for roommate style differences, I suspect a lot of us recognize Stacy: someone trained to believe the only way to be strong, respected and liked is to maintain a veneer of perfection. Can’t risk admitting fault (people won’t like the real her), can’t risk admitting displeasure (ditto), can’t leave anyone else’s actions to chance (too much is riding on her envisioned outcome), can’t lose to anyone at anything she cares about (success is her validation), can’t allow anything nice to be said about anyone not on her side (others must be wrong for her to be right).

There isn’t much you can do about her; it’s neither possible nor your place to re-raise her into someone comfortable with frailty in herself and others.

However, there is a lot you can do about you, just by opening up and backing off, that might also serve Stacy well if any kindness toward her is sincere. When she gets defensive: “Hey – you’re my friend and I love you. This really is just about dishes.” When she turns things back on you, weigh whether she has a point – and freely acknowledge when she does – instead of getting defensive right back.

When she tells you whom you can befriend or Snapchat, match her absurdity with mock outrage: “You’re my publicist now?” When she orders you around and you have no affection in you at that moment: “Thanks for the suggestion.”

I realize she’s exhausting for you, too, but try to be calm, warm, consistent. Remind yourself that Stacy sees herself – as in, her Self – as under attack on multiple fronts. Give her defensiveness neither fuel nor traction. If this doesn’t repair the friendship, it will at least usher it out in peace.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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