Dear Kiki: My roommate wants to break our COVID-19 agreement and see people outside our pod. What do I do?

In this month’s advice column, a reader feels anxious when their roommate asks to see more people outside of their COVID-19 bubble.

Hi! I’m a senior in a US liberal arts college and I live with one of my close friends in an apartment close to campus. Our school has mandatory twice-a-week COVID testing. My roommate is a lot more extroverted than me and has asked me multiple times to revise our COVID agreement on seeing people outside our pod indoors. This makes me feel extremely uncomfortable and anxious, and it also makes me feel a bit cheated, as I had hesitated moving back to campus at all. I had only felt comfortable coming back after a discussion over the summer (before we signed our lease) where she emphasized a few things: the COVID risk was low in masked, outdoor, distanced settings; she would defer to the most conservative COVID opinion in a group; and that she would strongly prefer to not live alone.

– Uncomfortable and Anxious/COVID-anxious?

Dear Uncomfortable & Anxious,

Who knew that COVID-19 would become the ultimate test of friendship? There are relationship conflicts, life transitions, and cross-ocean moves, and then there is COVID-19.

Across all communities, we are navigating through this wild and unfamiliar terrain together, but in our own unique ways. In the face of crisis, we are each fighting a personal battle and grappling with how to best take care of ourselves and the people nearest and dearest to us.

During the pandemic, establishing physical boundaries has become an absolute necessity in order to keep you and the people around you safe. These rules and guidelines also provide us with a sense of security and control amidst the ever-changing state of the world. However, defining and preserving these boundaries may involve difficult conversations and a great deal of emotional energy.

As we trim down our social circles down to an intimate bubble, we find ourselves confronted with some hard truths about our personal limits and who we really trust. It’s easy to forget sometimes that even if you share the same hobbies and interests, you could still have completely different values and priorities.

It sounds like the safe space you have meticulously and cautiously created for yourself is being infringed on.

Despite your previous reservations about moving back to campus, you took a risk based on her word. You let her in, and now you are even more vulnerable. You really went out on a limb for her, but now that trust is in question.

Your roommate may have good reasons for wanting to invite more people into the home, but that doesn’t make your feelings of anxiety and fear less valid.

The people-pleaser in us aspires to be a good friend. We have somehow imposed these expectations of what being a “good friend” is: considerate and endlessly giving. However, our friend’s happiness should not equate to sacrificing your basic needs of safety and security. A good friend is also supportive and communicative, honest and respectful of the boundaries of others. 

When there are so many external voices telling us what we should and should not do, the best thing to do is to listen to your gut. I’m talking about that funny feeling in the pit of your stomach. Listen to what your body is telling you and let that be your compass as you determine your comfort zone. 

Whenever it feels like your boundaries are being pushed, express your concerns. Articulate them clearly and concisely about your needs. Shying away from the topic or even speaking to them too casually could cause confusion and misunderstanding. If your friend’s requests are met with no resistance, she may not be aware that she is causing you stress and anxiety.

A useful strategy for approaching these conversations is to make a plan. Make a list of your concerns and terms, including what you are comfortable with and not comfortable with. Setting boundaries is a life-long practice. However, avoiding the issues could drive a deep wedge between you and lead to greater disappointments in the long-run.

If she proposes alternative arrangements, such as hosting the friends indoors instead or being selective about the public spaces they are meeting at, I encourage you to explore them in detail with your friend. Ask her questions. Will they be masked? How many people will she be seeing? Always listen to your gut. If none of the alternative scenarios make you feel safe, let her know plainly.

If you cannot find a common ground, then it might be worth revisiting your contract and come up with a backup plan. I realize that there is a lot on the line here beyond your friendship, like the financial consequences if you were to break the lease and the challenge of finding a place to live on short notice. You will figure it out, but don’t compromise those basic needs of security and safety. 

If you need to bow out and take a break from this arrangement, that’s okay too.

Throughout our lives, people will come and go. Every relationship teaches us valuable lessons about ourselves. Take this opportunity to tune into your inner voice, prioritize self-care and practice setting healthy boundaries. This will open the door to more fulfilling life-long relationships in the future. 

Do this for yourself, for your friend, your family and all the good ones who are here to stay.

Always here for you,

Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. You can also follow along for the latest column in our newsletter.

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