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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.

“People tend to avoid conflict because confrontation makes them uncomfortable or because they’re scared to disappoint others by expressing frustration,” says Dr. Rachel Toledano, a relationship expert and psychotherapist in Quebec. “However, this behaviour can lead to misunderstandings. It’s important to communicate directly in order to resolve issues.”

“I haven’t been passive-aggressive towards a roommate that I can remember. However, I have been upset with my roommate. It got frustrating since we both had different ideas about how and when we would spend our free time. We had to make mutual agreements where we needed to ensure that both of us wouldn’t get upset with the other,” says Lisa K.*, a fifth-year undergraduate at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario.

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.

1. The chore war

Example “My roommate liked to put the dirty dishes on my other roommate’s bed when he felt they weren’t going to be cleaned. He also liked to leave notes everywhere.” —Liam F.*, fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

How to react

  • If the “house rules” say it’s your week to do the dishes and you honestly can’t, give your roommate a heads up.
  • “Talk to your roommate directly about how their behaviour is impacting you,” says Dr. Toledano.
  • 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).

Tips on communicating in conflict

2. Borrowing without askingExample “When I noticed [my roommates] have taken my food, I take some of theirs without asking.” —Sarah J.*, third-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador

How to react

  • “Call a house meeting. Express what you feel and how their behaviour is [bothering] you,” says Dr. Toledano.
  • Don’t get personal. Calling someone crazy or uptight may seem true, but no good will come of it.
  • The more you practise 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.

3. Dodging the billExample “My roommate doesn’t stress about paying me back for her half of our bills. Instead of confronting her, I complain to my parents and make snarky comments to her when she comes home with Starbucks™ lattes.” —Sandra D.*, third-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta

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.
  • 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.

How to prevent it

  • “A written agreement should be created prior to your move-in date detailing what happens if a roommate doesn’t fulfill their financial responsibilities,” says Dr. Toledano.
  • 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.

More tips on splitting costs and managing money

group of diverse roommates preparing meal together

“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, US

*Name changed

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Article sources

Rhonda Richards-Smith, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Psychotherapist, Los Angeles, California.

Rachel Toledano, PhD, MA, Psychotherapist and relationship expert, Quebec.

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Fudin, S. (2011, October 30). How to deal with roommate conflict. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/uloop/college-roommates_b_941984.html

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Northern Illinois University. (n.d.). Students’ legal home: Roommate survival guide. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/Legal/topics/landlord/survival_guide.shtml

Roommate etiquette with significant others. (2013, September 12). Rent.com. Retrieved from https://www.rent.com/blog/roommate-etiquette-with-significant-others/

Roommate organization. (n.d.). Pinterest. Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/explore/roommate-organization/

US State Department. (n.d.). “I” messages. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/m/a/os/65957.htm