Maggie and I had been living together for almost a year, when we welcomed Laura as our third roommate. Laura was cool and friendly, but my conversations with her never really extended past, “Hey, how was your day?” We were nice to each other when we happened to meet up in the kitchen, but we never got to that next level of actual friendship. That is, until one day about three months later, when we both realized we were angry with Maggie. Maggie had decided she wanted to break her lease and move out so she could travel for a few months — and she wanted Laura and me to figure out the details. She stopped speaking to us when we expressed our concerns about how this was all going to work. We were all in our late 20s, but it was starting to feel more like middle school with each passing day. In retrospect, it’s all quite silly. But at the time, Maggie's abandonment of responsibility was all I could think about. Even though Maggie and I had been living together for a year, we never really bonded. I would sometimes invite her to join me when I was going out with friends, and on occasion, she would. But I would always refer to her as my roommate — my messy roommate — not my friend. So as soon as I got the feeling that Laura and I maybe shared a frustration with Maggie, I hazarded saying something to her about it. Sure enough, I was right. We suddenly had more to say to each other than casual greetings. And a friendship was born. Before we knew it, Laura and I were hanging out in her room, complaining about Maggie. We started going to the gym together. She picked up some tea for me when I was sick. We even planned a New Year’s Eve party together. I was happy to have a new friend in Laura, but I also felt kind of disgusted with myself that our friendship only took off only after we bonded over our mutual dislike of another woman — especially since, once I got to know Laura, I realized there were plenty of reasons we should have been pals in the first place. I started thinking about how this isn’t the first time I’ve bonded with another woman over gossip about a roommate. I knew my friends had similar stories. So, I wondered, why the hell do women do this?
First, let’s get something major out of the way: Do men do this, too? Sure, says Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist in NYC, the annals of men's friendship contain many examples of guys getting buddy-buddy over a shared dislike of a third man. But not the same degree as women tend to indulge in this, says Brateman: “As long as the other person doesn’t do anything really horrific to really sabotage their living situation, a lot of guys let that stuff go.” Must be nice. Linda Sapadin, PhD, psychologist and author of Master Your Fears: How To Triumph Over Your Worries And Get On With Your Life, suggests that men are simply less sensitive to minor grievances. “Guys generally tolerate more. The little stuff doesn’t bother them as much. Women will be upset about a lot of little things,” she says. “That’s what plays out in relationships, too. Women tend to be more aware of what bothers them.” Some women also engage in this kind of behavior because we seek safety in numbers. “Historically speaking, with a triad, there’s someone left out,” Brateman says. “If you form an alliance with one other person, you will not be the one left out. The intimacy between two is a way of safeguarding isolation.” Dr. Sapadin adds that it also makes us feel validated. When you talk shit to a roommate about the third roommate, “you feel more powerful, you feel more righteous,” she says. It should come as no surprise that there’s also some residual childhood and family origin stuff happening here, too. “People united against a common enemy is a typical plot,” Dr. Sapadin says, and one that starts in childhood. Remember when your mother said you can’t go sleep over at your friend’s house, even though your father said you could? Or when you and your sister were grounded for fighting, but quickly shifted your anger to your mom? That coping mechanism stays with us into adulthood. “So if you see someone and you really dislike some of her characteristics, and you talk about hating her, that can be a bonding experience,” says Dr. Sapadin. But the two-against-one dynamic can also mask deep-seated insecurity. Irene S. Levine, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and author of The Friendship Blog, says “it’s very common for two people to hang up on a third when you’re living together” because “the relationships between three people aren’t equal.” Maybe two of you have a lot more in common, like you both love hate-watching The Bachelor. Dr. Levine says “it may be that these two people, or one of them, is insecure, has low self-esteem, is jealous of the third person. They want this affiliation to gang up against the third person.”
Even when it's not a scene from the Hunger Games arena, living with roommates — whether you want them or not — will always be challenging. Fortunately, there are preventative measures you can take to keep things from getting out of control. Dr. Levine suggests you set up ground rules to avoid potential conflict, and make the issues that do come up easier to address. "Then you can refer back to the rules. 'You know, we agreed to this.' It’s a bit less direct, not accusing someone of doing something to you, but saying these are the rules we set up at the beginning." If something's bothering you, talk about it. And once you've shown that direct conversation is the way conflict is handled in your home, then it becomes the unwritten rule. The problem is, that this is all easier said than done. It can be terrifying to work up the courage to say to someone's face, "Hey, we need to talk about something." But I ultimately decided that the atmosphere in our apartment was too awkward to not address things. I was sitting on the couch watching TV one night when Maggie came home. As soon as she walked in the door I said, "I think you've been really disrespectful about moving out, and I don't want to feel uncomfortable in my own home." She was surprised to hear me say it, mainly because experience dictated that I would continue to just complain about her behind her back, until she moved out. But she also sincerely believed I was wrong. We ended up talking about it in a really adult way. We didn't yell, or even interrupt each other. I told her I felt disrespected and that she was irresponsible. She told me she felt Laura and I didn't really understand her situation. I didn't intend to speak to her without Laura there — it just got to a point where I couldn't not say something. And once we discussed it, things were great. Yes, she was still moving out, and yes, our relationship was now different. But there was harmony in our home — and I could finally stop worrying about accidentally messaging her when I meant to text gossip to Laura.