Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:
I’m a woman in my 20s living with a roommate. She’s mostly a good roommate, but she doesn’t have many friends, and seems to want me to fix that for her. Whenever I visit a friend or chat over Zoom, she’ll always hint that she wants to join. She also says I should invite her to more things so that she can meet people.
The thing is, I do invite her to a few events each month and we hang out in our apartment, but otherwise I can’t get any space from her. She never leaves our apartment except for errands, and sits in our living room all day where she can monitor my comings and goings (and guilt me as I’m walking out the door). I’ve suggested joining local groups or meetups (individually or together), but she refuses. Is it wrong to want some space of my own?
— There Are Plenty of People to Meet in My City
Dear There Are Plenty of People,
I think this is a difficult situation because obviously you can just tell your roommate, “No, you’re not invited, you’re being annoying, and in fact I don’t want you around.” But this kind of confrontation is difficult, and the subtext of your letter is that you do want the best for her, you don’t want to be unkind, and you don’t want to be punished for setting a clear boundary and have to live in an environment that feels tense or awkward. Or at least, that’s how I would feel, and why your question made me feel a bit stuck.
But when I asked readers for help, the responses I received provided a great balance to my personal conflict-avoidant nature, and clarified something for me: Your roommate doesn’t have any concern for how her demands for social hand-holding are making you feel, and you shouldn’t have to tend to her feelings and her wellbeing more than you’re tending to your own. You can let her know that you can’t take responsibility for her social life and that you will often want to do things without her in a way that’s clear, sensitive, and fair.
It’s hard to accept that there are some people you just can’t help and sometimes you have to put your mental health first. You are not responsible for her social life. Set your boundaries and give yourself permission to hold them. When your lease is up, move on. — @scififann11
LW, you need to learn to assert yourself and start telling her no. The next time your roommate hints that she’d like to join a planned outing or asks where “we’re” going tonight, tell her the guest list has already been set and be on your merry way. I realize this will probably feel rude or cruel to you the first few times you do it, which is why you haven’t done it already, but I’d argue that it’s ruder of your roommate to attach herself to your social life like a friendship remora and *keep vigil in your living room* so she can insinuate herself into all of your activities, so this is me absolving you of those anxieties. Just start telling her no. You get to choose how you parcel up your social time and with whom, and you aren’t obligated to broker friendships for someone who can’t/won’t —@dbzbornak
Sometimes kindness manifests as a firm boundary and saying “Trying to guilt me is not useful here.” I think you can be empathetic - you can say “I know it’s hard to make new friends, and I invite you when I feel it’s appropriate, but you’ll have to find your own way.” —@sphericalthink2
I’ve had this roommate and been this roommate. Has LW real-talked w/ roomie? “I like you and I am happy to invite you to things. Also I cannot be your only social outlet. I need you to learn to make friends (it’s a skill!)” —@ektastrophe
Not to make an armchair diagnosis, but there was also a feeling that your roommate might benefit from the help of a therapist who could work with her on the anxiety she seems to have around socializing on her own. If this is something you feel comfortable bringing up with her, maybe nudge her in the direction of getting some professional support for her feelings and for building skills to make friends:
I recommend talking to the lonely roomie to find out if they need treatment for a social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia. Be honest, as others suggested, and let them know you will include them sometimes but not always. Let them know they are making you unhappy. They are setting unfair and unreasonable expectations because you can’t always include them. Let them know this is an unsustainable situation. Urge them to get therapy for their long-term mental health. —@klbyles
When I did therapy a while back, one of my goals was to learn how to make friends (I’d previously relied on being adopted by extroverts) and deepen friendships. My therapist gave me exercises, and I did them. It’s harder in pandemic times, but still very possible. Making friends and meeting people are both learnable, practice-able skills! But they take time and effort. —@ektastrophe
Finally, knowing that these conversations are going to be tough and that you may want to minimize the number of times you have to respond to her requests with a firm “no,” I think @jillemader had a great piece of practical advice about how you get by in the meantime: “I agree with the other tweets about honesty/boundaries and I’d also add maybe she needs to invest in making her bedroom a comfortable place to hang out for Zoom calls and alone time.”
Closing your bedroom door and creating a physical barrier may help to reinforce the social boundaries you’ve put in place. Good luck!
I am a struggling college student up to my ears in loans and am estranged from my family. (I am gay and an atheist; they are deeply Catholic.) I have roomed with “Natalie” since freshman year. Natalie has many mental issues. She is school-brilliant, but socially not so much. I spent a lot of my first two years with her, pulling her out of the dorm and into socializing. She has a private therapist and is doing much better, but she still relies on me for a lot. She will not go out if I am not there and has refused invitations to events if I am not invited. I was thinking of dropping out of school to work when Natalie’s parents approached me. They told me I was the best thing to happen to their daughter, and they were willing to fund my education if I stayed and “continued to be her friend.” They also don’t want Natalie to know.