I resent tiptoeing around my housemate’s work zone. How do I address this sensitively?

My housemate has been working from home since March and it now looks as though he will continue to do so for the rest of the year. We share a two-bedroom flat with one living area, which is where he has set up his work station. This wasn’t an issue at the beginning of the Covid crisis when we thought his working from home might last a few weeks, but now I’m facing six months of tiptoeing around the flat during the day, five days a week, so as not to disturb him. He hasn’t offered any alternative solutions and I sympathise that he also isn’t enjoying the situation, but I cannot live like this long term. I also resent that I’m now paying rent and bills for his work space, which he will likely be able to claim on his tax return. How do I address all of this sensitively? Should I move? (I work evenings in admin and am back at work part-time.)

Eleanor says: In my early 20s I spent some time in share houses that had deteriorated to the eventual state of all share houses: the living room deserted because nobody was brave enough to claim it, everybody resentfully squirrelled away in their bedrooms, the hall cupboards full of teetering rice cookers and fishing lines that nobody wanted or could throw away. It is miserable. Your home is supposed to be your refuge, your visible expression of your identity. In a pandemic it’s supposed to be your workplace, your exercise station, your social zone and your safe harbour. It damages your mental health if your home is corrosive instead of restorative – I didn’t realise quite how badly until I moved in by myself and learned how it feels to turn a key in a door knowing from that moment on, the only needs you have to bend around are your own.

The good news is there are other ways of achieving what living solo does by brute force. Avoiding other people isn’t the only way to stop bending around them.

Start by recalibrating your expectations. I think you might have a tendency that I used to share, to imagine all the ways we might be putting other people out. But these are ultimately just imaginings. It sounds like he didn’t actually ask you to keep out while he’s working, or to tiptoe. He’s almost certainly unaware that you’re policing yourself so much on his account, and he might even hate the thought that you are. Often it turns out that other people just don’t have the demands and expectations that we attribute to them while we boil up a little resentment soup doing things in their name that they didn’t ask us to do, and that they know they have no claim to us doing. Try to suspend the presumption that he would prefer you to disappear.

Second, even if he does want that, practise not using his preferences to decide what to do. Practise not tiptoeing. This is extremely hard if something deep inside you thinks you are simultaneously inconvenient and responsible for other people’s welfare, and the only way out is therapy and practise – you have to sit in that room with him enough that the guilt klaxons don’t blare in your brain. This could help both of you find new expectations about what kind of person you are.

Finally, be vocal. Don’t be rude, but don’t worry about being sensitive either, you’ve done that enough. You can’t ask him not to work in a shared space, because it’s exactly that, but do come up with and ask for material solutions. Maybe you’d like him to clear out his stuff at the end of the day, or each have the living room to yourself on alternate days, or get a smaller table so you can have one too. You can start by saying: “It looks like work from home will be around for a while and I’d like to have a little more use of the shared spaces.” If he says no, then you move.