Dear Prudence

My Neighbor Keeps Peering at Us Through the Fence

We don’t think he means badly, but it makes my partner anxious, and I don’t love it either.

Fence with someone's eye peering through a hole
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Dear Prudence,

My partner and I moved into a new house three months ago. We have an older couple as neighbors, and one of them, a man of 70, tends to give us instructions. He has told my partner not to grow bamboo along our shared fence because it may block his light. He addressed my partner as “boy” and told him to put bricks along the underside of the gate so our (too big for small gaps and not adventurous) dog would not escape. We have acquiesced. He sometimes looks between the posts of the fence when we are in the backyard and sometimes, usually when we are out, he leans over the fence in the front yard to sort of inspect the house. He has difficulty communicating—he is either hard of hearing or possibly struggles with English. How should we handle this? We don’t think he means badly. But my partner gets anxious about it, and I don’t love it either.

—Sometimes Neighbor, Sometimes Spy

Don’t automatically acquiesce to whatever instructions your neighbor gives you. Whether he means badly or not isn’t the issue, nor is it because he’s older and speaks his mind readily about bamboo. You’re entitled to decline orders about how to arrange your own backyard! He can ask you to cut back on any foliage that blocked out the sunlight in his own yard, but you don’t have to promise not to grow anything there at all. If you’re both anxious about saying “no” even very politely to your neighbor, practice on each other. It might seem silly at first, but you won’t get better at setting limits unless you make a habit of it. Get used to saying things like “That’s an interesting idea,” or “Thanks for letting us know your concerns,” or “We’ll keep that in mind when we make our decision, gotta go!” Friendly nonpromises can go a long way in cutting a long conversation short. Also, directness is not impolite; your partner has every reason to dislike being called “boy” and should not tolerate it: “Please don’t call me that. My name is _____” is the easiest response, and he can drop the “please” if it happens again.

When it comes to peering over the fence, I’m not sure you have much recourse, but if you are at home and you catch him staring through the fence, say something. No one will die, I promise! You can be cheerful and direct: “Sorry, do you need something? If not, would you mind not staring at us? It’s a bit jarring. Thanks!” If you occasionally have to repeat yourself to make yourself understood, do so, but don’t let it throw you off. You can do this.

Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend and I have been together for over a year and a half, and it has been wonderful. We met playing a sport we love, have similar interests, get along with each other’s friends, and helped each other through some rough times. I came out to my parents for him. He’s gay, I’m bisexual, and we’re both in our early 30s. This is my first real relationship and his first in a long time, and we both can’t believe how well this has gone. Recently he told me he was ready to move in together, and I told him I wasn’t, mostly because I don’t want to live with his cat (I’m allergic), and his place is usually a mess when I visit (mostly due to his roommate). He respected my reservations and said it’s not urgent but that it is important to him, and that if I didn’t think I would ever be ready, he’d want to know because it would be a dealbreaker.

However, I left something huge out of that conversation. I’m not sexually satisfied with our relationship. For health reasons (I have IBS, for example) neither of us can reliably bottom, so we’re basically limited to oral and manual sex. But I don’t get off from oral, and rarely by his hand, and I miss penetrative sex. This isn’t an “on fire” problem for me right now. We have sex a few times a month, which I’m OK with. He says he enjoys our sex, but I’m sure he wants more frequency, especially if we live together. I’m worried that if we move in together that my sexual dissatisfaction will eventually become a huge problem, and that I’ll feel trapped. I’m afraid to talk about it because I worry it will lead to a breakup, and I don’t want to lose him. I just can’t see a good outcome. He’s opposed to nonmonogamy and our health limitations aren’t going away. This is tearing me up, it’s not fair to him, and I know I need to tell him. Is there any way I can feel better about this? How long can I sit on it?

—Not Just the Cat

I do not think this is the relationship-ender you’re worried about. You want to talk to your boyfriend about your sex life and your cat compatibility before you feel prepared to move in together. That’s a completely normal set of concerns! Very few couples move in together without at least one or two tricky conversations beforehand, so this is by no means a guarantee you’re going to break up. This is your first serious relationship, and things have been surprisingly smooth so far, so this may be a case of simply needing to adjust your expectations. If you two move in together, you’re going to fight about cats, the mess in the living room (which may not disappear), and sex from time to time, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as you can argue honestly and with relative calm.

Speaking honestly about what’s not working for you in your sex life isn’t necessarily devastating, or awful, or unfixable. He also already knows you don’t get off regularly, so it’s not as if you’re delivering a shocking revelation. If you miss penetration and aren’t planning on finding new partners, there are a ton of Fleshlight-style sex toys (check out Tenga, Myhixel, and Lelo for a start) that may go a long way toward addressing your problem. And if you don’t know that your boyfriend wants to have sex more often, but you’re worried that he does, the absolute best thing you can do is ask him—not try to “sit on” the question and hope it goes away. Problems related to intimacy of any kind, whether physical or emotional, usually benefit from serious discussion. Difficult conversations are not the enemy of love! You can’t see a good outcome because you’re trying to solve a two-person problem by yourself. Go talk to your great boyfriend about cats and sex and laundry piles and see what solutions you can come up with, together. And good luck!

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Dear Prudence,

I’m not sure what, if anything, I need to do. I have a son who’s 53 and married, with a family. I got pregnant when I was 18 and was not sure who his father was. I brought him up alone until he was 10, then I got married, and my husband became his stepdad. My son wanted to keep the name he had grown up with and did not want my husband to adopt him. Several weeks ago, my daughter-in-law (who has been doing family trees on a website) got a message from a man asking if she knew someone with my son’s initials. It seems this man had been doing his own research on the same website and learned he must be my son’s father. My son contacted him at the number he’d given my daughter-in-law, and they have had several long talks, as well as exchanged photos and email addresses.

This was a man I’d gone out with several times before he went back to college. That was the end of it. My son is happy to learn he has a half-sister, a half-brother, and a nephew. I’m feeling like it’s none of my business, but I’ve tried to be supportive of him and happy for him. Is there anything else I should do? Am I in legal trouble for not trying to find out who his father was?

—Supportive but Unsure

Put your mind at rest: You are not in legal trouble for having been a single mother. You did your best to raise your son without much help for 10 years, and it sounds like you gave him a great deal of room to decide for himself what kind of relationship he wanted to have to his stepfather when you married. Now your son is fully grown, with his own family, and seemingly quite content with his life. Being supportive and slightly removed from his decision to connect with his father’s family strikes me as just the right move for you here. However, I don’t think it’s none of your business that your son is getting to know a whole new side of the family. If you want to ask him open-ended questions about how things are going on that front or if it raises any questions for him about his upbringing, you might both find such a conversation moving and powerful. But if you’re worried that you’re not doing enough or that you’ve been doing something wrong, rest easy.

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Danny M. Lavery is joined by Anna Hetherington on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,

I moved away from my “hometown” two years ago. I moved around nearly every year as a child then stayed in my college town for six more years after graduation and really saw it as home. I left behind huge circles of friends because my partner got a job across the country. For the first year, the move was exciting. We slowly started to meet new people, find local must-see experiences, and generally settle in. Then the pandemic hit. Many of those new friendships fizzled because there’s only so much you can do on Zoom, and people here are still very locked down. My partner and I work all day in our small studio apartment and go on weekend hikes, but the monotony is getting to both of us. Every time I Zoom with my friends from my old town, I’m reminded of how loved I felt in that community and how much I miss it. I don’t want to be this unhappy anymore. My partner will not be able to get a job in our old town, and I don’t want to break up with her. I feel lonely and hopeless. What should I do?

—Cabin Fever

The loneliness and hopelessness make an unfortunate amount of sense, I’m sorry to say. You went from having a vibrant, active social life to being largely confined to a studio apartment with one other person, and there’s as yet no real end in sight. It’s worth remembering that the pandemic still exists in your hometown, and even if the restrictions there are more relaxed, you might be in the same situation anyway. That’s not to say you should never consider moving back, only that the primary cause of your present unhappiness exists in both cities, and you’ll have to find ways to address it no matter where you live. It might help not to think of your options as only “move home but lose my wonderful partner” or “stay in this new city, keep my partner, but grow sadder and sadder.” This might mean talking to your partner about how much you’re struggling, changing your daily schedule so you get more time alone (or more time outside), hiking more often, hiking less often, asking your friends back home about their COVID-affected schedules so you have a clearer sense of what restrictions they’re operating under, speaking to your doctor about your mental health, looking for a therapist, finding safe ways to volunteer in your new town, or some combination of all of the above. Take this one day at a time, and focus on coming up with a robust, all-hands-on-deck approach to dealing with this depression and anxiety before you tackle bigger questions like how long you’re prepared to live in this city.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Monogamy, bottoming, and cats: three of the biggest issues dividing the community.”
Danny Lavery and Slate podcast producer Benjamin Frisch discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

Is it rude to invite your partner to events you were invited to as an individual? I’ve had this issue a few times with my closest friends. We all met in the same teaching program, and while I was a lot closer with them than my boyfriend was, we all had classes together and often went to the same parties (he was invited along with me). We graduated a year and a half ago, and since then, they often invite just me and not him. They seem to get along fine, so I’m not sure what’s going on. I wonder if it’s because he’s slightly conservative, while the rest of us are pretty far to the left. But he never brings up politics, and they’d only know his leanings from our discussions in grad school classes, so it wouldn’t be a new dynamic.

In the past I’ve asked if he can come too, and they always say yes. I wonder if this is rude, but I also feel like it’s a little rude of them not to invite him, since we live together and it makes things awkward for me, and I don’t want his feelings to be hurt when he isn’t invited. Recently one of my friends invited me to a socially distanced party in a park. It will be my first time seeing them in person since March, so I’m really excited, but I was sad that my boyfriend wasn’t invited.

—Rudeness or Rescue?

It’s not rude to ask if you can bring your live-in boyfriend to a party. I wonder if the dynamic you’re trying to describe is something closer to “uncomfortable” or “unclear,” especially since this happens often and you’re not sure if it’s deliberate, and if it is deliberate, what the underlying cause might be. It’s possible that your friends stopped inviting your boyfriend to parties in his own right after graduation because they started to assume that extending an invitation to you was effectively an invitation to you both. It’s possible they want to see you without him. It’s possible they don’t like him as much as they like you, either because of his conservative politics or something else. Ask for clarification whenever you need it, or if you’d rather not, you can say, “Usually [boyfriend] and I go to parties together, so unless you’re thinking of catching up without significant others, we’ll both be there,” to stress that you’re usually a package deal at group events.

But whether you want to open this particular can of worms is another question entirely. If your friends always say yes when you ask to bring him, and they’re friendly and convivial when they get together, it might not be worth it to go borrowing trouble. There’s a world of difference between “My boyfriend has noticed this, and it really hurts his feelings” and “I’m worried that someday my boyfriend will notice this, and it might hurt his feelings.” Perhaps your boyfriend doesn’t cultivate his friendships in the same way you do. Does he ever invite those people out for coffee, or call them to catch up, or remember their birthdays, or otherwise take initiative for maintaining social connections? Or have you found yourself becoming his unofficial social director since moving in together? It’s important to draw a line between “We like to go out together” and “It’s my job to maintain my boyfriend’s friendships, even if he hasn’t asked me to.” If you think you can handle leaving well enough alone, if you’re willing to accept politeness and mild warmth between your friends and your boyfriend as good enough, I’d encourage you to let it go.

Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate

Dear Prudence,

My partner just accepted a fly-in, fly-out job with a two-week rotation. We live together, which means I’ll be home alone roughly half the time in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a short contract for now, so he also wants to maintain his current job, in case things don’t work out. This means that he’d then be on call for more than half of the days he’s home with me, including weekends. I don’t know if I can handle this much time apart, especially since it’s almost winter, and I can’t get together with anyone else indoors due to our city’s serious COVID restrictions. I work from home and already struggle with loneliness. We have a really strong relationship, and I’m encouraging him to make choices that will improve his career, but I’m also scared and sad. How do I handle the distance, support my partner, while also staying sane and positive?

—Fly-By Relationship

Looking for ways to support your partner and maintain your own sanity are excellent goals, but working overtime to remain positive is not. If this schedule ultimately proves unsustainable for you, then the best outcome is not to force yourself to remain relentlessly upbeat, but to be honest with your partner so you two can figure out an alternative. Holding down two jobs is difficult enough on its own. If one of them involves weeks of separation from your partner and the other requires being on-call around the clock and having to drop your plans on short notice, it may very well prove unsustainable for your partner, too.

In the short term, you can schedule regular check-ins with friends and family (both in your city and elsewhere) over the phone while your partner’s away. You can canvass fellow work-from-homers to see if anyone’s available to have on a background video chat for part of your workday, just to have a friendly presence and the sound of someone else making coffee or feeding the cat. But you and your partner should be talking seriously and openly about how difficult this new schedule will likely prove for both of you and establish a deadline for choosing one job over the other, so you have the same end date in mind. “In case things don’t work out” is too vague. What does “working out” mean for both of you? At what point do you hope to have sufficient information to make an informed decision? Salary, benefits, the scope and focus of his new duties, and personal preference will all play a significant role in this decision, and it is primarily your partner’s choice to make. But the ability to see each other regularly, to make consistent plans, to get enough sleep every night uninterrupted by jet lag or a last-minute shift call—those are all really important quality-of-life issues too, and you shouldn’t ignore them in favor of trying to stay upbeat.

Classic Prudie

After seeing several friends go through bitter and prolonged divorces, my husband has decided that he wants us to have a postnuptial agreement. He explains that our marriage is a “limited liability partnership” with no “out clause” and that he wants to put a “stop loss” in place, as if our marriage is one of his stock market trades. He says he doesn’t want to go on in this “contract”—meaning our marriage—unless I sign a postnup. We have been married four years and have a toddler son. We live in a state that says assets should be divided equitably in a divorce, but the postnup he offers would give me only 20 percent of his financial assets and he’d keep the house because he owned it before we were married. We both work, though I make two-thirds of his income. I consulted an attorney who says my husband’s proposal is “total B.S.” and I shouldn’t sign. My husband says if I don’t he will serve me with divorce papers. He adds this has nothing to do with his feelings for me or our son, and would prefer to continue living together even if we do divorce. I love the life we had together and don’t want to lose it. We even had been talking about having a second child. But he is obviously more worried about protecting his growing wealth than he is about our family. I just don’t know what to do.