We all know somebody who, try as we might, we just can’t stand. Luckily, most people only have to interact with that dreaded person occasionally and in short bursts, perhaps during excruciating work meetings, awkward family gatherings or at a mutual friend’s party. The unfortunate among us, however, have the worst deal of all: We have to live with them.
I used to be one of the unlucky ones. Rushing to find a place to live in London that wouldn’t cost me most of my organs in rent, or leave me sleeping inside someone’s wardrobe listed as a “spacious second bedroom,” I hastily moved in with a friend of a friend. I knew him relatively well, and thought that because he seemed mild-mannered and tidy, I’d barely notice him. Over the months, however, he slowly evolved into someone I still to this day consider a mortal enemy.
What were his crimes, your honor? He always used my pans and left them out dirty so that I had to clean them before I could cook. When he did clean them once every month or so, he used steel wool on my non-stick(!). He never took the goddamn trash out. He left pubes all over the bathroom floor and didn’t clean them up. He walked around the kitchen with nothing but a towel around his waist while I ate breakfast. He liked to tell me how much money he made, a lot. But worst of all, he lectured me, unprompted, about Bitcoin basically every day. These little irritations might not sound like a big deal on their own, but they added up over time to form a big ol’ pile of murderous rage. My only solace was that with every day that passed, the closer I got to moving out.
I know I’m not alone in my suffering, and that, especially over the past year, plenty of other people have joined me in the unlucky group of souls forced to join their greatest foe in unholy tenancy. Jenna from Leeds, for example, who lived for two years in an apartment with her boyfriend and an acquaintance that neither of them knew very well beforehand.
“My flatmate got in from a night out at 5 a.m., but because she had lost her whole handbag, she just banged on the door until we let her in,” Jenna, a pseudonym, tells me. “After we’d gotten back into bed and were falling asleep, she stormed into our bedroom and shouted at us, asking if we wanted to do ket. We told her to go back to bed and locked the door behind her, but then she just started scratching our bedroom wall with her talon-like nails, giggling creepily and telling us to come out and join her. It was like something out of The Exorcist, honestly.”
Obviously, the easiest way to deal with living with someone you can’t bear is to move out and run as far away from them as possible, but this isn’t always an option thanks to the landlord-industrial complex and its various rules, so sometimes we have to stick it out to the end of the tenancy — or job.
Charlie, also a pseudonym, has worked on oil rigs for over 20 years. He usually works 12-hour shifts and often shares a room with someone else on the opposite 12-hour cycle. I asked him how he dealt with living in such close proximity to other people. “It’s a pain in the ass, but the only way to stay sane is to just keep out of each other’s way,” he responds. “You’ve all got your own things to be doing, so as long as everyone respects the other’s boundaries, it’s not so bad.”
That’s all well and good, but sometimes people aren’t so good at respecting the other’s boundaries, as writer and marketer Francesca knows far too well. “I lived with a guy who would bring back garbage off the streets for his ‘art,’ tidied my underwear drawers when I wasn’t in, held seances in the living room, and on top of all that, once left a fish in the oven with a stake through it,” she tells me.
So what can you do while you’re living with the enemy to make sure you don’t get stuck in a spiral of hatred?
“We often judge others by our own standards and rules,” says relationship and mindset coach MD Ansar Ali. “‘I wouldn’t do that,’ or ‘I can’t believe they would do something like this’ are common thoughts we have with difficult people. You need to have a conversation with the person about what they do that bothers you without attacking them. They may not know they’re doing it, especially if nobody has said anything about it before. The best thing to do is to talk about their actions and connect it with how they’re making you feel. You could say, for example, ‘When you leave my pans dirty in the sink after you eat, please wash them afterwards so that I can cook. I understand it may not bother you, but you have to take into consideration that not everyone is okay with this.’ If nothing is done, you could reduce interactions so they can see this has changed the dynamics of your relationship.”
“If they persist with their behavior, talk to them again and try to add an example of how they would feel if you did something repeatedly that made life difficult for them,” Ali continues. “If the problem persists, let them know you’ve been patient and have asked for something that is common courtesy in a shared accommodation. Worse comes to worst, you can escalate to the landlord and get them to be an intermediary so you don’t have to become the bad guy and make things difficult.”
Although it might be tempting to get revenge on your live-in nemesis by, say, stealing their cream cheese or ‘losing’ their favorite knife (I definitely didn’t do any of those things), Ansar advises against that as well. “Don’t become worse than the person or the actions you detest, because that makes you no better and allows the other to win twice,” Ali says. “First, they anger and upset you enough to behave as badly as them, and second, they lower your value and worth by making you break the rules and standards you live by.”
Not everyone we meet is going to be our best friend, unfortunately. Some people pass through our lives as quickly and as pleasantly as a bout of food poisoning, and are just meant to be short-term acquaintances, or an exercise in testing your own patience. So think of living with the roommate from hell as a learning experience as to what kind of person you don’t want to be to other people in the future.