Dear Prudence

Good Walls Make Good Neighbors

Prudie counsels a man whose neighbor says he’s “exposing her son to lewd behavior.”

Danny M. Lavery, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

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Q. Neighbor thinks I’m too noisy in the bedroom: I’m a gay man living in a conservative suburb of a relatively small city. Several years ago I bought a townhouse and though I don’t socialize with the neighbors, I like living here very much. Two months ago a new family moved into the unit next to mine. At first, they seemed friendly enough—their son, about 4, was a little noisy but that’s life. About two weeks ago, the mom approached me while I was getting into my car and asked for a word with me. She said that their son’s bedroom was on the wall next to mine, and he could very obviously hear me having sex a few nights prior. I was shocked (it’s not like we were particularly loud) and mortified and said I’d try to keep things quieter. She told me that she thinks it’s for the best if I move my bedroom, or have sex somewhere else, just in case her son hears. I refused but said I would definitely try to be quieter.

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So last weekend my boyfriend was over, and we ended up having sex sometime in the afternoon. While we’re going at it there was a knock on the door—of course we ignored it, but the knocking continued. It was my neighbor, as we discovered when she started screaming at us! I won’t share everything she said but the gist was that I was deliberately corrupting her innocent child. I have no idea how to handle this. I’m in my own home and while we aren’t carrying on like porn stars, there is (I guess?) some noise. The woman caught me leaving for work and told me that if I didn’t stop “exposing her son to lewd behavior” that she was going to call the police and have me arrested as a sexual predator. I doubt that’s possible but in this day and age—who knows? She very well could turn the other neighbors against me. Any suggestions besides soundproofing options (which I am looking into) and/or pre-emptively calling my lawyer?

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A: I can’t imagine a 4-year-old saying, “Those vague and muffled sounds I hear must be gay sex—Mother, what’s gay sex?” It sounds like his mother is unnecessarily escalating the situation every time she overhears you. It should go without saying that you are not doing anything wrong by having sex in your own home, and based on the care you’ve taken to keep things relatively quiet it’s unlikely that you’re violating any city noise ordinances. Her attempts to scare you by threatening to have you arrested as a sexual predator (for having consensual sex with another adult in the privacy of your own home) are cruel and homophobic and completely groundless, but I certainly understand your anxiety. I cannot imagine your neighbors would think poorly of you if this woman went around trying to smear your reputation by saying, “He sometimes has sex with his boyfriend in his bedroom and we can overhear it, a little”—the unreasonable party is crystal clear in this narrative, no matter how she tries to spin it.

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Call your lawyer, flip on a bedroom fan or a white noise machine in the bedroom until you’re able to soundproof your walls, and do your best to steer clear of her until you have a strategy for protecting yourself. Even a baseless, nuisance claim filed against you could cause unnecessary pain and humiliation, and I hope you’re able to get good legal advice as you figure out how best to avoid this nightmare neighbor.

Q. Oh brother!: My brother is leaving his wife after nearly 20 years. He was married before that and together they raised five kids. Maybe it’s empty nest issues, but he seemed to be genuinely ready to finally learn to be himself. Until a week later when I found out he had been chatting with a girl online and they went on a date. At their next conversation she asked if she could be his girlfriend. Yikes! Red flags for me! He spent all of a recent family weekend texting like he’s a teenager. He hasn’t even moved out of the family home yet. I pointed out the quickness of her possessiveness, but he is like a puppy with the gate open. How can I get him to slow down?

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A: You can’t. You can ask him to keep the texting to a minimum when you’re spending time together as a family as a matter of politeness, but you cannot stop him from dating someone, or even from embarrassing himself. I would consider your brother’s new girlfriend’s actions to be a yellow flag at best—let’s save red flags for things like isolating, name-calling, obsessive controlling behavior, extreme jealousy, and the like. He’s not moving in with her yet, he’s not neglecting his children or quitting his job abruptly or making irreversible financial decisions. It may be that he does start exhibiting behavior you will need to speak up on, but that time is not yet. Your brother may not be interested in learning to find himself by himself; he may be interested in the excitement and thrill of a brand-new relationship. You can express concern, but you cannot get him to slow down. You have different priorities for him, it sounds like, but unless and until he starts exhibiting riskier behavior than “getting a girlfriend quickly,” you don’t have the right to intervene.

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Q. Should I let my alcoholic friend move in with us?: “Sally” and I have been friends for over 40 years. She is an alcoholic with major health issues: liver damage, addiction, and brain damage. She is divorcing her second husband and plans to move to the West Coast when their house sells, which may be soon. My husband and I are in our 70s and retired to a cattle ranch 10 years ago. We have a big house, and Sally told me last week that she will have no place to go when the house sells. She wants to move in, paying rent and helping, until she finds a permanent place. I don’t want to give up my privacy and freedom, and her health issues and continued drinking worry me. I also don’t want this burden on my husband, who has a (nonfatal) heart condition. We both love Sally, but she is not in any treatment program, and I doubt that she will be able to give up drinking. I don’t want to watch her die, but I don’t want to take care of an aging alcoholic. I guess I could make attending AA meetings as a condition of her staying here, but she has resisted intervention and AA treatment so far while admitting she is an alcoholic. And this could end up being a very long-term roommate situation. Any advice?

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A: If Sally has the money to pay rent, she can find somewhere else to pay it. She is not required to move to the West Coast; she is not making these decisions out of financial necessity. You have not invited her to live with you, and she has other options: Say no, and don’t feel a moment’s guilt about not letting someone you know very well would make a terrible roommate move in. Say, “I’m sorry, but that won’t work for us” as many times as necessary. Offer to help her get settled in her own place, offer to take her out to dinner when she gets to town, and consider visiting an Al-Anon meeting yourself, but don’t let Sally move in.

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Q. Take care of yourself! (Seriously, I mean it!): I own a few houses in a student town that I let out to students as houseshares. These contracts require that if one person leaves before the contract is up, the rest of the tenants find someone new, or take on the responsibility of that person’s rent. In one of the houses that I own, a young lady has unfortunately passed away. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but this young person was extremely obese, and the number of pizza boxes I saw in the recycling when I visited the house suggest that no one in the house was leading a very healthy lifestyle. To me, it is not surprising, in this case, that something like this might happen (she died of an “undiagnosed heart condition”—basically a heart attack from obesity). I know that it’s a hard time for the remaining tenants, who seemed to be quite close with this young person, and I offered a few months leeway with rent, but they do not seem to be looking for anyone new very hard at all. It has now been a month, and I am wondering how long they expect me to just swallow this loss of income. As these young people had just renewed their lease for the coming year, I am resigned to either advertising for a new tenant myself, and going through the hassle of house visits, etc., or just dealing with earning less than I could from this particular property. I am considering telling future tenants that tenancy in my properties is dependent on leading a healthy lifestyle and not taking unnecessary risks, just as a clause to put in the contract. My husband says that I am overreacting to something that is unlikely to ever happen again—that I shouldn’t push my current tenants to fill their spare room and that I should just let it go for now—but the situation is stressing me out so much! Who is right here?

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A: What you are, I think, trying to put into your tenants’ clauses is a desire to control for life, a wish you must know on some level is completely impossible. Your pizza-box sleuthing does not mean you know for certainty why this young woman died when she did, and the healthiest person on the planet can still die unexpectedly. They can be hit by a car, and healthy as they may have been up until that moment, their health will not protect them from death. Tenants will, sometimes, inconveniently, die. They may die unexpectedly. You wish to speculate on the causes of death because you are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of something happening that you neither controlled nor wished for. In no state in America is it legal for a landlord to demand their tenants lead a “healthy lifestyle” in order to rent property (I wonder how you would quantify, and test for, a healthy lifestyle in your tenants. Weekly endurance tests? Spontaneous fridge checks? Group meditation? Would you screen for pre-existing conditions? Ask for written descriptions of their weekend plans, in case it involves motorcycle riding or skydiving?) You are overreacting, but not to something that is unlikely to ever happen again. Your tenants will all die. Some may die while they are renting from you. You, too, will someday die, perhaps under inconvenient circumstances, at a time when you do not particularly wish to, and for causes that you cannot yet predict.

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Here are the things you may do: Ask your tenants (gently) how the search for a new roommate is going. Give them a deadline (gently) for either moving someone new in, or for making up their late roommate’s share of the rents. Here is something you may not do: Attempt to exorcise your fear of death and the unknown by controlling the people who rent property from you.

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Q. Should I give up?: I have been married to my wife for five years. We lived together for two years before that. After we got married, I was hoping to have a family with her. While she said she wants a family too, she only stopped taking the pill a year ago and now she avoids intimacy on days where we would have a decent chance of conceiving. There is always a good reason. I have expressed my concern on multiple occasions, but I don’t want to force my wife to have a child if she has no desire to. I would stick with her if we were unable to conceive despite our best efforts but for now, I feel betrayed and that we are missing out on what was supposed to be our dream of founding a family. Moreover, all the lost time is preventing us to look at options such as adoption. I am 42 and my wife is 38. Although I love my wife this situation makes me question my entire marriage.

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A: You need to find out exactly what your wife’s desire is. The conversation you should be having starts like this: “I’ve noticed you avoid having sex with me on days when it would be possible to conceive. Can we talk about this? Have you changed your mind, or is there something you haven’t wanted to tell me? I don’t want to pressure you into starting a family, but I don’t know what it is you want, and I want to know what you’re thinking and feeling.” Before you question your marriage, question your wife.

Q. Dating woes: I have a bit of an aversion to sex and physical touch. I am aware that most people don’t have this problem and enjoy physical contact with others. This becomes a problem when I start trying to date. The men I date seem very nice and well-centered, but if sex ever comes up, it seems like it’s open season to them. I’ve had more conversations than I’d care to admit about what limits I have because too much physicality and I shut down. I’ve also had very promising relationships end before they got started because of this. Am I stranger than I think in this regard? And how do I approach this subject with my current partner, who seems to have a sex drive that won’t quit?

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A: I don’t think you’re especially strange. It might be worth your while to explore the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, and see if you find yourself reflected there. An asexual person is “someone who does not experience sexual attraction. Unlike celibacy, which people choose, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are. Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people.”

I hesitate to suggest that your aversion to physical touch and sex is a problem if you don’t consider it to be one, but I want to acknowledge the possibility. If you wished to enjoy being touched by a partner, or enjoying physical intimacy, and felt yourself somehow prohibited from so doing, then I think you might call this a problem. If, however, you simply do not desire to have sex, and do not want to be touched, then I think your problem is simply a lack of communication with potential romantic partners. If you have no interest in sex, and no interest in attempting to cultivate an interest in sex (which: you do not have to! Sexual desire is not a mandatory part of life; it will not be included on the final exam), you should be open about this with your current partner. It may be that you two will realize you are incompatible and part ways, or it may be that your partner can educate her- or himself about what it means to date someone who is asexual (if, ultimately, that is what you decide you may be), and develop an alternate arrangement where you two can remain romantically connected but sexually distinct. Whatever you decide, I think you should know that you are by no means alone in feeling a lack of interest in physical touch or sex, and that it’s only a problem if you think it is, not because others think you ought to be more sexual than you are.

Danny Lavery: Thanks, everyone! Remember: We are all going to die, sometimes even in the middle of a lease. Knowledge of death is the beginning of wisdom. Until next week!

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If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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