Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
Two letters this week on the same theme:
My roommate always wants to tag along when I go out with friends. I usually don't mind and welcome everyone. But sometimes, I feel like I don't have a choice, and I’d like to get away. Is it okay to tell her in a straightforward way that she can't come?
Needing Some Room
My newest housemate relocated to Boston and doesn't have many friends. As a housemate, do I have a responsibility to help her find friends?
Can't Help Housing
Dear Needing & Helping,
I figured I’d pair up the two of you, because you’re struggling with related issues. Namely, you’re trying to be kind to lonely fellow-occupants but feeling some ambivalence about the burden of this kindness.
The situation for Helping seems a bit less fraught. It’s very nice of you to want to help out your newest housemate, but unless there’s a special clause in your lease, it’s certainly not your “responsibility,” especially when it comes to her making friends. For one thing, you barely know one another. And for another thing: You’re housemates. You have to co-habitate. That’s a big deal. This isn’t someone who you only see at work or at the gym. She lives in the same space as you. For this reason, I would show some caution. I don’t mean that you should give her the cold shoulder. You can be perfectly friendly without offering yourself up as this woman’s social sponsor.
It’s very nice of you to want to help out your newest housemate, but unless there’s a special clause in your lease, it’s certainly not your 'responsibility,' especially when it comes to her making friends.
If, at a certain point, you decide that you like her as more than a housemate — that is, as a friend — then, by all means, socialize with her, introduce her to your friends or to people you think she might enjoy. But the idea that you’d “help her find friends” without really knowing her feels odd and frankly ill-advised. It sets you up as someone who is responsible for her life based on circumstance rather than choice. But what makes friendship so special — as differentiated from familial relationships, for instance — is that the bond is a mutual choice. It’s purely discretionary. You make a friend because you want to, not because you have to.
Which brings us to you, Needing Some Room, and specifically to the phrase you use in your letter: “I feel like I don't have a choice, and I’d like to get away.”
This is what happens, I’m afraid, when you fail to set up boundaries that reflect your true feelings. You’ve established a precedent here that appears based on guilt and convenience more than genuine affection. As a result, you’re in a real pickle. If you continue to let this woman tag along, you’ll feel resentful. If you say something, she’ll probably be quite hurt, and you’ll feel like a jerk.
There are practical measures you can take. For instance, don’t arrange outings in such a way that you take off from your house. Or you can make it clear that, in the case of certain gatherings, you want to spend time with specific friends.
...ideally, spending time with someone should be the result of a mutual decision to be in one another’s company, not feelings of entitlement and obligation.
But these are kind of quick fixes and fundamentally avoidant. I think your best option is to be honest with her, which requires being honest with yourself. How much do you really like this person as a friend, versus feeling obligated to include her? How much of the time are you okay with her tagging along? Does she seem to be making friends on her own? In a sense, it’s not fair to either one of you if she becomes dependent on you for her social life. It keeps her from developing her own set of friends. I’d think about all these issues.
Then I’d find a time to have a discussion. It needn’t be something as extreme as, “Quit tagging along!” But it should reflect how you truly feel, which is that you’re glad the two of you get along well enough to hang out socially, but that sometimes you want to go out with specifics friends.
After all, ideally, spending time with someone should be the result of a mutual decision to be in one another’s company, not feelings of entitlement and obligation. We deal with enough of those feelings at work and with family.
I wish both of you good luck.
Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.
Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."