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:
- Fear or paranoia
- Bullying or taunting
- Obsessive thoughts or compulsive actions
- Over-protective or helicopter parenting
- Isolating a person from his or her loved ones and friends
- Physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse
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.
- Baker, B. (2010). How to live with a control freak. London: Sheldon Press
- Parrot, Les (2001). The control freak. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers.
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