How do I tell her?
Question: I moved in with my housemate just before the pandemic and we became very close during lockdown. We were planning to go travelling together but then her dad died and we had to cancel our arrangements.
In the months after her loss, her sister moved in. They wanted to grieve together and offer each other support, which I completely understand. My issue is that she’s been here for over six months now.
She doesn’t pay rent and it’s one more person to queue behind for the bathroom in the morning. There isn’t enough room for a third person (they share a double bed) and to be honest, I’m beginning to feel like a third wheel in my own home. I’m thinking of asking her to leave but I don’t want to seem unkind. What should I do?
Answer: From sharing bills and food, to chores, noise and sleep schedules, living with housemates is a notoriously tricky dynamic to navigate. Sure, we’d all like to live in harmony with the people we share our homes with, but first we have to negotiate the boundaries and ascertain what’s okay, and what’s definitely not okay.
I shared your dilemma with two experts who have recent experience of house sharing and the issues it can throw up, and they both agreed that your housemate’s behaviour is firmly in the latter category.
Dublin-based psychotherapist Bébhinn Farrell (bebhinnfarrellpsychotherapy.com) says you have been “extremely kind and compassionate” to let your housemate’s sister stay with you. However, she points out that “your house is your sanctuary, and paying rent to feel uncomfortable in your own home just isn’t okay”.
“When I was house-sharing a three-bed, we always let potential new housemates know that guests were welcome,” she says, “but if they had a partner staying, we would expect them to split their time between each other’s homes, so two to three nights sleeping over each week was fair. Anything more was pushing it.”
Farrell acknowledges that this situation is “different and delicate”. At the same time, she recognises that it has “completely shifted your living dynamic over six months”.
“My advice would be to state outright that there are now three housemates so everything needs to be split three ways. That you’ve been cool with this for six months because you’ve tried to stand in their shoes because you care. So while you know they’re in a bad place, you’d like them to stand in your shoes now, too.”
This may seem like an uncomfortable conversation to broach, especially given the circumstances, but Farrell believes it can be approached in a way that doesn’t lead to further tension or animosity.
The trick, she adds, is to be completely honest about your feelings without being defensive. “This includes the option of, ‘I would like to go back to two in the house, with your sister visiting. I feel like a third wheel and it’s hard for me. I’ve wanted to support you in this horrible time but now we’re at six months, it feels time to address things. I want to keep living together but I don’t want to become uncomfortable or resentful, or for you to feel that way about me for asking for our living arrangement to return to what it was’.”
I also shared your dilemma with Lucie Cunningham, founder and CEO of The HomeShare.
Her not-for-profit organisation negotiates home-sharing arrangements between older and younger adults, so she understands the tensions that can arise between housemates.
Cunningham says it’s not uncommon for housemates to feel “outnumbered” or, as you put it, ‘like a third wheel’, when two or more people in a house are friends or family.
“We had a situation before where one sharer (with permission) moved in her friend. Before long, the householder felt outnumbered and a little uncomfortable,” she says.
Similar to Farrell, she suggests that you sit down with your housemate, “just the two of you”, and let her know your thoughts and feelings, while being “kind and sensitive about their recent bereavement”.
“No doubt you are paying a lot of money in rent or a mortgage, and you should feel comfortable in your home, so perhaps gently ask if her sister is going to stay longer and if so, it is only fair she pays towards the rent and bills.” You’re also fully within your rights to request that the living arrangement returns to the way it was, she says.
On that note, before you broach this conversation, it’s important to clarify for yourself first what you want, says Farrell. “Do you want to split things three ways, or do you want her sister to leave?” she asks.
“This may feel like a more difficult conversation, but whatever way you move forward, it’s forward, as opposed to stagnation, with resentment building and your home not being your safe place to wind down without getting frustrated.”
It may also be helpful to look at your lease, which could include a clause about long-term house guests. I’m not suggesting that you involve your landlord, rather that this information could come in handy should your conversation reach an impasse.
Of course, if it gets to that point, and your housemate is unwilling to hear your point of view, you have to ask yourself another question: Do you really want to live with someone who takes advantage of your generosity and completely disregards basic housemate etiquette?
If you have a dilemma, email email@example.com.