What to Do When You Have a ‘Control Freak’ Roommate

friends fighting Living with a roommate or two has become more and more popular these days, and not just among the college-age population. For many adults, the rising cost of living, coupled with the nation’s floundering economy, has fostered a more open-minded outlook on cohabitation. Single people, married couples, and even extended families are getting in on the act. Sometimes it’s for financial reasons, sometimes it’s for companionship, and sometimes it’s because someone’s health necessitates a roommate. While many people benefit from having a roommate, living with a roommate is not always easy.

What would you do if you discovered that your new roommate has control-freak tendencies? Would you head for the hills? Often, financial realities make that option impossible. Thankfully, though, if you ever find yourself looking across the room at a controlling roommate, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your coexistence is not just merely tolerable, but meaningful for both of you.

What is a ‘Control Freak’?

“Control freak” is not a formal mental health diagnosis, but rather a popular term used to label someone with controlling behaviors.

In his book The Control Freak, Dr. Les Parrott III, professor of clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific University, states that “control freaks are people who care more than you do about something and won’t stop at being pushy to get their way.” They seem to have an opinion on everything and try to dictate what you are supposed to do, what you are supposed to think, and how you should feel.

Many mental health professionals agree that characteristics associated with a controlling person often include:

It is important to note that individuals who display controlling behavior are not necessarily trying to harm others intentionally. In fact, a controlling roommate might genuinely care about you and could actually have your best interests at heart.

Understanding the Psychology behind Controlling Behavior

There are a number of factors that might influence an individual to become control oriented. Traumatic incidents in the past, a history of abuse (physical, sexual, and/or emotional), low self-esteem, lack of trust, a fear of abandonment, perfectionism, and a fear of failure can all contribute to the development of control issues. Experts believe that certain displays of controlling behavior could even be an indication of an underlying mental health issue.

Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC, explains that controlling behavior “definitely has to do with control being used to assuage anxiety. Often people who are controlling need to control the external because they can’t control the internal (of themselves or others).” Thus, by controlling what they can, these individuals attempt to minimize their exposure to future harm or neglect.

As unbelievable as it might sound, the need for your roommate to control your actions often illustrates his or her own lack of control. If you think about it, a controlling roommate likely has a lot more on his or her plate than you might initially expect.

The Psychological Effects of Cohabitation

Major lifestyle changes, such as cohabitation after years of living on one’s own, can have profound emotional and psychological effects even for people who do not usually display controlling behavior. A college-aged teen, for example, might revel in his or her newfound independence and, to the dismay of a roommate, readily act on impulses which had been suppressed. Immediately after leaving an abusive marriage, a single parent might be experiencing severe trust issues, along with high levels of anxiety and fear. With recent events taken into consideration, any controlling behavior displayed by these individuals may be an ordered, logical response to past events or a rapidly changing present. Clearly in the case of a roommate exhibiting controlling behavior, circumstances do matter.

Social expectations also play a key role in how roommates view each other and themselves. For example, traditional settings such as sharing a dorm during one’s college years are often seen as acceptable by the general public and might even be viewed as a rite of passage—a fundamental experience that adds to the richness of college life. However, nontraditional settings such as several families living together or married couples sharing an apartment with a third roommate might be met with a certain level of societal disapproval—as if all the individuals involved have somehow failed to meet the mark. Such negative social perceptions can contribute to tension within a household.

Helpful Strategies for Living with a Controlling Roommate

According to Avery, dealing with a controlling roommate “is all about boundaries and standing up to the controlling person in a non-confrontational way.” Never try to bully a bully. Rather than giving in to demands, however, Barbara Baker, psychotherapist and author of How to Live with a Control Freak, suggests setting boundaries based on reasonable expectations. Then, of course, you need to stick to them.

In order to successfully live with a roommate who experiences obsessive compulsion, it is important that you do not collude with his or her obsessions. Doing things you would not normally do (such as be excessively neat and/or clean) just to appease the unrealistic obsessions of someone else can lead to frustration. Instead of dwelling on any compulsive behaviors that annoy you, focus on the personality traits you really enjoy in your roommate.

In How to Live with a Control Freak, Baker also emphasizes the importance of communicating one’s ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Help your roommate get to know you, your needs, and expectations. Share stories about yourself and your experiences with him or her when the opportunity presents itself. This approach will help control-oriented people develop respect for you and your views.

If, despite your best endeavors, you are still struggling to live peacefully with your controlling roommate and leaving is not a financial possibility, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional in your community. Not only will a trained counselor or therapist help you cope with frustrations, he or she can provide more helpful suggestions to communicate and establish boundaries with a roommate exhibiting controlling behavior. Learning effective communication strategies from a professional can help you keep your roommate relationship beneficial, your aggravation in check, and might even help you make a good friend.

References:

  1. Baker, B. (2010). How to live with a control freak. London: Sheldon Press
  2. Parrot, Les (2001). The control freak. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hildy

    Hildy

    October 22nd, 2014 at 2:23 PM

    um, get a new roommate?

  • Barton

    Barton

    October 22nd, 2014 at 3:41 PM

    Not everyone will have a Sheldon Cooper in their lives but there are some control freaks that I have managed to live with over the years. Somehow they just seem to seek me out!
    IT is not easy when they are so micrmanagerial and I am so laid back so I have tried to be a little more discerning when choosing that roommate now.
    But what worked with me and one guy was to have a few things in writing, things that I could do that would make him a little happier and things that he could do for me. For a while it worked until the real personalities came through but I believe that if we had been better friends to begin with then we maybe could have hashed it out by just keeping open the lines of communication between us.

  • Coker

    Coker

    October 23rd, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    Basically, you need to set them straight from the moment that they start trying to pull all that mess. The longer you allow that to progress then the more at liberty that they will feel to continue on with it. Believe me, I know it can be hard to stand up for yourself when you have a lease together and you sort of feel that you are obligated to them and they to you- but it really isn’t worth losing your sanity over.

  • davina

    davina

    October 23rd, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    So I wouldn’t say that I am necessarily a control freak but can I admit that I do like things the way that I like them so I would probably never live with anyone ho could not accept that or who didn’t already know all of that about me.

    I have had a few roomies in my time but I try to be up front and honest with them from the very beginning to let them know what I al looking for in a roommate and the things that I would find unacceptable. Have I had some people who have walked away and said that they could not live like that? Of course, but I always think that it is better to know all of those things ahead of time rather than waiting for the ball to drop.

  • Charlotte

    Charlotte

    October 24th, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    If this is someone who honestly cares about you then shouldn’t it be enough that you ask then to take a step back for you?

  • irina

    irina

    October 25th, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    I am currently living thru this and it is hard for me because I rely so much financially on this other person to make it all work that I am scared to death to even say anything to her! She wants to have her own place but can’t afford it either but in so many ways does not understand that living with someone else does take some COMPROMISE!

  • MISTY

    MISTY

    October 25th, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    Too bad there isn’t a test you can give someone ahead of time to see if this is what it will be like living with them.

  • Millicent

    Millicent

    October 27th, 2014 at 10:34 AM

    They made a movie about this once, Single White Female I think, and while it can start out seeming so harmless, well… let’s just say that it can go far beyond harmless! Just be careful.

  • samantha o.

    samantha o.

    October 28th, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    So it might not be the norm to do this but I had a roommate once and she and I decided together that we needed to go see a counselor if there was any way that we could salvage the living arrangement. I guess it was kind of like marriage counseling lol! But it worked for us. We both got to talk in a place that did not feel threatening and where we did not feel like we were being judged and she helped us establish some house rules that we could both live with. All in all I think that it was an excellent decision for the two of us.

  • kate

    kate

    October 3rd, 2015 at 5:36 PM

    I am struggling with roommates who are controlling and passive aggressive. The controller is an entitled, self centered person who micromanages everyone and flies into a rage if she is upset over the slightest offense — such as flushing the toilet when she is sleeping — as she can hear the noise. She leaves passive aggressive notes all over the house, written in bold, screaming, threatening letters. The “nice” roommate is a passive aggressive appeaser who is a jealous loser. I say loser as she is unmotivated and jealous of everyone else, always comparing, making snippy comments, one upping, getting into everyone else’s business, gossiping, cornering people and demanding information out of them. She is socially clueless and a pain…but not a threatening lunatic like the first.
    I have managed to avoid them — but the stress and stain of living here is unbearable. I never know what will set off the bipolar control freak or be subjected to the emotionally vampiric passive aggressive’s nasty barbs, nosey behavior, and bitchiness.
    If anyone has any tips on how to deal with people like this, I would appreciate it.
    And yes, as someone said above, compromising is key. What if you understand that concept, but the other person has an entitled, “it’s all about me,” attitude, where they want everything their way, flies into rages over minor offenses and then acts obnoxious and inconsiderate to others?

  • Sigh

    Sigh

    January 13th, 2017 at 8:11 PM

    I’ve been crashing with someone because I have no other choice but the streets and the thing is, he wants me to do things beyond normal but because it’s his place he uses that as justification to treat me however he wants and he even expects his cat to give in to his demands. He’s mental but I can’t leave and I also want to take the cat with me, he wants to give it away because it doesn’t meet his expectations. I wish I could leave but I have physical problems and no income whatsoever. I’ve used the past few months to figure some stuff out for myself mentally since I’ve come from serious hardships and hadn’t had a chance to process anything for years. So I’ve done that. But what does it all mean if, just like before, I’m stuck all over again in a similar situation? Is it possible to get an income anywhere? Is it possible to live somewhere where I’m not being threatened and controlled? A real home? Or is it a lost cause? That’s where I’m at right now. Everything I eat, everything I do, everything I own, is his business and I try to assert basic boundaries but he doesn’t get it. I want to tell him to f*** off, so bad, but then it would just incur his wrath. Enduring this is wearing me out. I just want to give up. I’m torn between trying, and just finding a secluded spot somewhere to lay down and just not move anymore, just starve to death if it means I’ll be left alone. I wish he would just grow up and stop expecting everyone and everything to be his possessions. He invalidates me being tired or his cat needing to live outside of her freaking box because HE’S tired. He refuses to listen to reason, be reasonable, he prefers to enforce suffering on us than to GROW the f*** up. Kill me lol. Put me out of my misery.

  • GoodTherapy Admin

    GoodTherapy Admin

    January 14th, 2017 at 12:02 PM

    Dear Sigh,

    Thank you for your comment. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about self harm at https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-self-harm.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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