Awkward: How do I deal with a passive-aggressive roommate?

By Lauren Leazenby, News Editor

Savanna Steffens

When passive-aggressiveness starts to creep into a shared living situation, it might rear its ugly head as one sticky note near the sink—“Please do your dishes”—that grows into a multitude of sticky notes all over the apartment, each with increasingly petty demands.

Maybe your housemate has retreated to their bedroom and you find yourself on the receiving end of the silent treatment, but when you ask if they are upset, you are met with a resounding “No.”

How do you broach a conversation about resolving issues and minor annoyances when the person you are living with wants nothing to do with conflict? Here is what experts had to say:

How do you get a roommate to stop their passive-aggressive behavior?

“If somebody is engaging in conflict passive-aggressively … it’s because they’re wanting change, but they don’t think they can affect change through more assertive or direct methods,” said Kendra Knight, an assistant professor of communication studies at DePaul University.

She said a person’s irritation with their roommate’s passive-aggressive behavior is often a “process issue.” It is not so much about whether you agree with what they are asking you to do, Knight said, it is because you are annoyed with how they are asking you to do it.

Knight recommends you should “engage on the question of process.” This means in a collaborative conversation with the person, ask them what they want to be done and why.

This changes the framework because instead of the person having to bring up the little thing that bothers them, you are offering them a space to freely express what they want and why they want it, she said.

However, Knight said not every passive-aggressive person will engage with this method.

Avoidant, passive-aggressive behavior is a “high-power move” she said, and some people recognize that by engaging with you directly, they are giving up some of this power.

But, you should still engage with them to try to understand their behavior, and Knight said “it’s usually worth a shot.”

What do you do if you start to notice passive-aggressive behavior in yourself?

Maybe you are the one avoiding your roommates or sending texts instead of communicating openly.

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a psychologist and friendship expert, said if you recognize passive-aggression is not a natural behavior for you, you need to take a step back and evaluate.

“Understand why you’re not able to talk to the person,” said Levine, who also operates the advice site, The Friendship Blog. “Are you afraid that they’re going to get angry or blow up? Are you frustrated that they don’t listen to you?”

In the case that your behavior becomes habitual, Levine said you should seek help from a mental health professional to work through what may be causing you to avoid conflict.

How do you stop a passive-aggressive environment from forming in the first place?

Avoiding this type of situation starts before you have a housemate, said Annamarie Pluhar, author of “Sharing Housing: A Guide for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates.” If you can pick who you live with, she said you should do so with caution.

“I am a deep, strong advocate that you do your [housemate] selection process carefully so that you do not let that passive-aggressive person move in,” she said. “All of the bad housemate experiences I’ve heard about have come about through an ineffective, inefficient or nonexistent selection process.”

In her interviewing checklist, Pluhar said she recommends setting clear expectations for the living arrangement so there are fewer surprises or minor irritations that occur when you move in.

When interviewing potential roommates, ask about aspects of their lifestyle like cleanliness, music volume preferences and how often they have visitors.

But, if you are already entrenched in the situation, it is important not to let the small things fester, said Pluhar, who is also the founder of the nonprofit Sharing Housing, Inc., which is focused on teaching people the benefits of shared housing. Instead, you should bring problems out into the open with your housemates, she said.

“When you are living and sharing a roof, things that feel as if they’re stupid, they’re little, they’re picky—they do, in fact, tend to start needling,” Pluhar said. “Raise a little discomfort before it becomes an issue.”