Reader: I am reaching out to you about my roommate/co-worker. We moved to a place near her ex-boyfriend (who she has had an obsessive past with). They recently rekindled their connection. She is now neglecting her job to do midday outings with him. She has also taken a couple of side projects and is more invested in those than in her current rent-paying employment.

I have tried to talk to her about how she needs to evaluate her priorities, making sure she is not neglecting a promising career that she claimed to be passionate about before this man came back into her life. She has ignored my advice and is becoming extremely irritable not only to me, but also to other co-workers, often snapping at them in online meetings.

We have different managers, but we work on the same team, and I have a good relationship with her boss. What do I do?

Karla: You don’t mention the covid-19 pandemic, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that the work/home/school boundary disruptions currently afflicting so many of us are exacerbating tensions in your life as well. For those of us working from home, the pandemic has collapsed the separate spheres of our lives into one tiny fishbowl, highlighting conflicts and irritations we were previously able to manage or distract ourselves from as we transitioned from one space to another.

If I had to guess, your roommate/co-worker’s instinct under this forced enmeshment is to seek escape routes, while yours is to preserve stability. Both can be valid responses, but boundaries are more important now than ever if you’re going to coexist. To revive an analogy I’ve used before, you need to envision your life with this person as a bento food box: contained but compartmentalized. You need barriers to keep her wasabi out of your dumplings and your soy sauce out of her rice.

Each of you is responsible for your own career, personal relationships and well-being, and yours alone. When the results of her choices spill over into your career, relationships and well-being, you are entitled to say something to reinforce your boundaries.

For example, you are not responsible for keeping her on a promising career path she seems to have lost interest in, or monitoring when and why she goes offline. But you are allowed to speak up when:

  • Her contributions to projects you’re working on are late or incomplete.
  • She can’t pay her share of the rent in full and on time.
  • Her relationship or any spillover drama from it disrupts your work or personal time — or safety.
  • Her snappishness prevents the two of you from communicating effectively with each other.

Notice that these are all about effects on you — not about the suspected causes, such as her midday dalliances or shifting priorities. No shoehorning in career advice when the issue is that she’s late with her share of the power bill. If outside leverage is needed to resolve a work matter, apply it through the proper chain of command: your manager, who can then talk to her manager. Even if your outside perspective on her life is accurate and the correct choices seem obvious, they’re not your choices to make. State the effects, and let her worry about the causes.

There is one area where boundaries are a little less rigid than those between roommates or co-workers. If you genuinely think her well-being is in jeopardy, or if she seems to be spiraling into an unhealthy emotional state, friendship gives you a pass to say something — “Are you all right? You don’t seem yourself. I’m worried about you.” But then it also obligates you to listen to the answer without unsolicited advice or judgment, with the simple goal of understanding.