Life with a roommate isn’t always rainbows and butterflies — even we’ll admit to that. But when you have to share a space with someone, it’s vital you find a way to get along — even if that means looking past the stack of dirty dishes or overflowing garbage can. But when the little stuff becomes too much to handle for one party, it can create palpable tension that can quickly turn toxic. Good communication is the key to a healthy roommate relationship, but if you’re getting bad vibes without a clear reason why, you might have a serious issue on your hands. We talked to an expert on common behaviors of a passive aggressive roommate and how to deal if you’re living with one.
What is Passive Aggressive Behavior?
Psychology professor and clinical psychologist Dr. William Dorfman defines passive aggressive behavior as dishonest expression of anger and hostility — an indirect expression of feelings people don’t want to confront. The most serious implication of this behavior is that doesn’t directly solve problems, but rather expresses resentment and disapproval, making it difficult to deal with or improve a situation.
Thirty-year-old blogger, Chloe, who prefers not to use her real name, knows what this feels like. She and a friend lived with a passive aggressive roommate in a townhouse during her freshman year of college. She says their roommate regularly found ways to be inconsiderate, and eventually the situation escalated to the point that she and her friend didn’t feel comfortable using the common areas and would go straight to their bedrooms when they came home.
“He would leave messes, and we would have to clean up after him, but then he would complain about me to the third roommate or about her to me,” says. “It became very uncomfortable because we would end up just trying to avoid him to keep the peace. It was like the tension became our fourth roommate. It was this real thing that was always present. You aren’t home without comfort and feeling protected and safe. When that is stripped from you, you avoid home until it’s late. You have no peace, no comfort.”
While anyone can react to a difficult situation passive aggressively, Dorfman says there are some consistent behaviors that indicate it’s not someone simply blowing off steam.
“It’s inherently an interpersonal process, and it’s a personality trait. Sometimes, we even diagnose it in clinical psychology as a passive aggressive personality disorder when it really characterizes a person, not just once in a while.”
Dorman outlines some common passive aggressive behaviors and how to deal with them if you’re met with them.
1. Your roommate procrastinates
No matter how many times you ask your roommate to do something, they’ll make excuses until it becomes obvious that they’re not happy. They might say they’re going to do the dishes after you ask, but it never happens. Repetitive procrastination is likely an indication of not wanting to do something.
“We all procrastinate, but when you procrastinate with someone else, it affects the other person’s rights and they’re left with the problem,” Dorfman says.
2. Your roommate is forgetful and late
People who exhibit passive aggressive behavior consciously or unconsciously forget what’s asked of them, or are late when asked to be somewhere by a certain time. Dorfman says lateness is an indirect way of saying, “I’m going to take control of the situation.”
For example, you may ask your roommate to arrive home by a certain time so you can rest, but they’ll be late and say they forgot your request. Or they may forget that you asked them not to eat your food in the fridge. When your roommate makes it a habit to be inconsiderate, it can be a sure sign of passive aggressiveness.
3. Your roommate gives you the silent treatment
A passive aggressive person may also shut down when faced with conflict. Instead of of talking about the issue, they express neither hostility nor honesty. Rather than negotiating to solve an uncomfortable situation, they give you the silent treatment. Not talking, Chloe says, was one of the main issues in her roommate relationship. Looking back now, she says she’s more aware of what to look for.
“The person will either say nothing was wrong or lash out. Either way, I would try to bring a peaceful and calm environment to whatever forum you decide to have and just keep having communication lines open.”
4. Your roommate’s actions don’t match their attitude
Perhaps the most toxic passive aggressive behavior is acting one way and feeling another by being insincere and “fake nice.” For example your roommate might ask you to “pick up” some toilet paper from the store, but it eventually becomes a routine. Dorfman likens the situation to someone stabbing you in the back while smiling to your face.
“Often people who are passive-aggressive have an obvious, gratuitous attitude toward you that is not consistent with the way they act,” Dorfman says. “If you’re smiling at someone and being very sweet and friendly, how can you be angry?”
5. Your roommate doesn’t have a good reason to be angry
Not every passive aggressive person necessarily procrastinates or is stubborn and manipulative. The root of their behavior could also be that they don’t like being demanded for something or being limited by others. Before jumping to conclusions, you should consider this first.
“If you’re not doing anything to instill or create any frustration or resentment, they don’t need to act in a passive aggressive way,” Dorfman says. “It’s only when they’re called upon to do something or they’re not getting their way. Rather than address that they’re frustrated, they shut down and become stubborn, quiet and withdrawn.
“They keep on saying, ‘I’m going to do it’ and ‘I’m sorry,’ and yet you continue to feel resentful about them. So, when your feelings don’t match up and you’re left confused about how you should deal with this person, that’s one indication that it’s not necessarily you. You’re getting mixed messages from this person.”
How to Deal
It’s normal to feel angry and conflicted when met with passive aggressive behavior. But the most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with a passive aggressive roommate is that you cannot change someone’s personality.
“[You] can get them to stop eating their food a lot easier than they can get them to become more open with their anger and more responsible with their feelings,” Dorfman says. “You deal with the specific situation, not with the personality.”
Dorfman advises telling your roommate you’re frustrated, asking them what’s going on and discussing your concerns. But you should also be prepared for them to get defensive and shut down. Dorfman suggests talking to someone you trust who can see the situation objectively to get their perspective. Other solutions include going to therapy or counseling to work things out if both are willing. Ultimately, the solutions depend on how volatile the behavior is.
“Passive aggressive style is on a continuum; it’s not all or nothing. Certain people are more passive aggressive than others, so I wouldn’t count anyone out who has a particular difficulty with someone,” Dorfman says. “You have to make the effort to try to resolve the issues and call somebody on what’s going on.”