by Sarah Rutledge Fischer
I’ve had the same housemates for years. We’ve been through it all—illness, breakups, job changes—and we’ve always been able to work things out. But I’m afraid Miss ‘Rona might be our downfall.
One of my housemates is a nurse, and he’s so cautious. After work he undresses on the back porch (you’re welcome, neighbors), puts his scrubs directly into a hot wash, goes straight to the shower, and cleans any surface he touches on the way. I’m careful too. I rarely leave the house, and when I do, I am vigilant about hand washing, social distancing, masks—pretty much everything. But our other roommate is infuriatingly cavalier. He goes to bars and restaurants several times a week and rolls his eyes at our precautions.
I am furious and terrified. I own the house, but I don’t want to kick him out. Is there a way to get through to him?
Reluctant Roommate Landlord
The Covid-19 pandemic is one of those landmark events that has changed the dynamics of our interpersonal relationships in deep and unexpected ways. Prior to the pandemic, the most important part of a strong roommate relationship might have been respectful use of common areas and prompt payment of shared expenses. These days, the threat of Corona virus means that roommates now must also take precautions to protect each other’s health and safety.
Mask-wearing and sanitizing probably weren’t part of the roommate interview all those years ago, but it’s time to talk about it now. There are three main topics that you and your roommates must tackle: standards for cleanliness and sanitization; limitations on outside exposure and social sphere; and plans for someone getting sick. But, before you call the house-meeting, let’s think through your approach. If you are familiar with this column, then I don’t think you will be surprised that I am going to suggest you focus on boundaries, vulnerability, and empathy.
First, I want you to determine your own boundaries. Go through each of the categories listed above, but as you contemplate, avoid the temptation to focus on what your roommate
“should” be doing. Instead start with the phrase “I would feel safe if . . .” and work your way from the safest option down to the minimum you are willing to accept. “I would feel safe if . . . he never left the apartment . . . only went to places with outdoor seating . . . or . . . kept going out but wore a mask in household common areas.” Work through each of the topics in this manner until your boundaries are clear.
The advantage of having firm boundaries is that it gives us the leeway to enter into conversations with empathy and vulnerability. Because you have already committed to yourself that you will not allow your roommate to violate the minimum standards that make you feel safe, you can turn off your fear response, and instead you can approach the conversation with vulnerability and empathy— try to understand his point of view and find ways in which you can meet on common ground. Remember, this conversation is not about data— I’m sure your roommate has already seen it. This conversation is about relationships, understanding, and cooperation.
Now, empathy and vulnerability can go a long way to facilitate compromise, but at the end of the day, it may not be enough to persuade your roommate to change his actions. The way that people’s fears and insecurities have been manipulated to persuade them to act against the best interest of their communities is a topic for another column. If your roommate will not come to the conversation in good faith, then it is time to follow the commitment you made to yourself—lay out your boundaries clearly and without apology. If his desire to continue acting as if COVID doesn’t exist trumps his desire to care for the safety of the members of his household, then it is time to let him go.
That should get you started.
To submit your own question, email Allie at Allie@focusmidsouth.com. Focus Mid-South reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.