Whether it’s a family member or friend, living with people isn’t always easy. A roommate getting passive-aggressive—we’re talking procrastinating on emptying the trash, the silent treatment, and snarky texts—can make you want to move time zones away.
“It always feels easier to ‘hint’ when it come to conflict,” says Rhonda Richards-Smith, a relationship expert and psychotherapist in California. “However, this behavior can be misleading and is often misinterpreted. It assumes the person can read your mind, which they simply cannot.”
“Typically I try not to be passive aggressive, but I have been. I was passive-aggressive in response to a passive-aggressive action from my roommate. It wasn’t right, but I wanted her to understand how silly being passive-aggressive is and how nothing really gets done when people don’t directly confront the issue,” says Shadia K.*, a third-year graduate student at Georgia State University.
Here’s what to do if you have a passive-aggressive person living in your home—and how not to be the passive-aggressive one yourself.
How to react
- “Talk to your roommate directly about how their behavior is impacting you,” says Richards-Smith.
- Find the right time. Don’t try it when they’re getting ready for bed after having a long day, for example.
How to prevent it
- Don’t gang up with one roommate or family member against another. This could make the isolated person feel defensive and drive them to acts of sabotage.
- Don’t try to “win.” It’s more important to move past this and stay civil.
- When talking with your housemate, use LARA:
- Listen and keep eye contact.
- Acknowledge: Repeat their statements back to them.
- Respond: Address their concerns.
- Add important points that haven’t been raised (e.g., a mutually agreed-upon solution).
How to react
- “Call a house meeting. You may come to a better understanding of one another,” says Richards-Smith.
- Don’t get personal. Calling someone crazy or uptight may seem true, but no good will come of it.
- The more you practice emotional self-control, the easier it will be to stay calm.
How to prevent it
- Make a “roommate agreement.” Agree on what you’ll share and what’s off-limits before it becomes an issue.
- Do you share everything or just the rent? Talk, just so you know where they stand. Using stuff without permission can feel invasive to your housemate.
- If your housemate has a “borrowing” problem, consider moving your stuff into your room. Respectfully explain why.
- In some cases, let it slide—like if your housemate occasionally swipes a squirt of ketchup.
How to react
- If it’s you who can’t pay this month, explain why and tell them exactly when you can pay up. “Also, tell them as soon as you know this will be a problem, and pay what you can when it’s due. Paying half or three-quarters of the bill is better than nothing,” says Elliece R., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.
- If it’s someone else in the house who can’t pay, avoid judgment. Even if their shopping spree is likely why they can’t afford rent, it won’t fix anything to ridicule their purchases. Talk and plan. “It helps everyone to create a supportive and proactive environment,” says Tiffany K., a fifth-year undergraduate at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.
How to prevent it
- “A written agreement should be created prior to your move-in date detailing what happens if a roommate does not fulfill their financial responsibilities,” says Richards-Smith.
- Most payments are due at the same time each month. Make a schedule, share it, and collect money a week early so there’s no last-minute scramble.
- Communicate about anticipated cash flow problems.
“It’s super important to discuss roommate goals/ideals/rules in the beginning of the year and emphasize that clear communication helps kick off a good roommate relationship. This could be writing up a roommate contract (e.g., ‘I’m uncomfortable with having you touch my items without permission’) or even just discussing your methods of communication (e.g., ‘I’m not a morning person, so I don’t always come across clearly or considerately when I first wake up’).”
—Carissa Y., second-year undergraduate student, Colby College, Maine
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Rhonda Richards-Smith, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist/mental health and relationship expert, Los Angeles, California.
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