Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
R. Eric Thomas: Hi, I’m R. Eric Thomas! I’m a playwright, screenwriter, and bestselling author (the memoir Here for It and the forthcoming YA novel Kings of B’more). I’ll be taking over for Jenée while she’s on leave. Excited to join the Prudie-verse!
Q. I barked back: I moved into my apartment three years ago, and up until a few months ago, I’ve pretty much been the only person living in this building (there are three other apartments). A new neighbor recently moved in next door and they have a dog. The poor pup handled the move terribly, I think. He started howling most of the day while my neighbor is at work, and I hear his happy barks when the neighbor comes home. The howling and barks don’t bother me most of the time. I’ve always had multiple pets while growing up so I hardly notice it. But on my days off, I spend most of my time in the living room and it’s in that room that I hear his pitiful howls.
Now, I don’t know why I did this; it still puzzles me why I thought this would be a good idea. But one day he was howling nonstop for almost an hour and I felt like I had to do something, so I … barked. I barked at a poor howling dog that’s on the other side of my living room wall. For a minute or two, there was silence. But then, he barked! And this was a curious and unsure bark, I think. (I like to think I know the difference between barks, but who I am kidding? Maybe they are all the same!) It sounded like those happy barks he does every day when his owner comes home. So I kept it up! Every day, me and the neighbor dog would have a Bark-Off and I noticed his howling was getting less and less often. I really think this was helping! My thinking is that the pup felt less alone when having someone, even someone he can’t see, to interact with a few times during the day. And since no one else lives in this building currently, I don’t think we were bothering anyone.
But one day, the neighbor left for a few hours and came back when his dog and I were having a Bark-Off session and he did NOT like it one bit. He knocked aggressively at my door and told me to stop “teasing” his dog. I tried to explain how this all started, but he looked at me like I was crazy. I even offered to dogsit for him on my days off so the pup wouldn’t have to be alone for more than three days a week, but he didn’t like that either. I wanted to suggest that maybe he should get his dog a friend, but I had already pissed this guy off so I just apologized and agreed not to do it again.
But now the dog is confused. He happily barks throughout the day and I have to ignore it and not partake in our old game anymore and he just sounds so sad. He’s back to howling again and I feel like maybe I made the situation worse from the start. Should I try to talk to my neighbor again? Or do I just ignore the howls and barks and try to pretend that I’m not here? Maybe I should just move out and start over someplace new and never bark back?
A: Congratulations on starring in a charming Nora Ephron movie with your neighbor’s dog. I have to say, I’m rooting for this friendship. I have some questions about how much time you’re spending barking in your empty apartment, but that’s none of my business and not what you wrote about. In a similar vein, as we all learned in the major motion picture The Secret Life of Pets, wherein housebound animals get up to all manner of hijinks while their owners are away, what our furry friends do during the day is also none of our business. So there’s an argument to be made that your Bark-Offs don’t concern your neighbor and he needs to stay out of it. I don’t think taking that position is going to work out so well for you, though. It seems that your neighbor has not seen The Secret Life of Pets and is probably also feeling a bit criticized for his dog parenting.
The two of you have differing perspectives on how the dog was receiving your barks—teasing versus conversation—and alas the tiebreaker in this situation doesn’t speak. I say give it some time, and if the howling continues, write a nice, simple, kind note, perhaps attached to a pet supply store gift card, expressing both neighborly concern and a genuine desire to make the dog’s life easier. Your neighbor still may not want to share responsibilities for keeping his dog occupied, but being reminded that all three of you are in community together might be persuasive.
How to Get Advice From Prudie:
• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)
• Join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.
Q. Regretfully rehabilitating: My partner and I have been together for more than 12 years. When we met, I had recently recovered from a mental health break that caused me to rethink my previous life goals (essentially giving up on them). Meanwhile, he had big plans and life goals all mapped out, which I thought very impressive. We managed to marry, buy a home, advance our careers (his at least), and get two dogs as he wished (my cats didn’t count toward life goals). While we had ups and downs, we were always able to overcome our challenges together—until the last three years before/during COVID.
One of my partner’s last life goals was children. Early in our relationship, I had requested to adopt kids, as that was my personal preference. We went along with this plan and tried foster-to-adopt, but after one year, found it more difficult than we had imagined, especially with both of us having to work full time. After that, COVID hit and we decided to try having a child naturally. After over a year and a half trying, we were tested and found infertile; IVF was our only option.
At this point, after COVID and other anxieties around juggling children and work and marriage, I had a second breakdown. This time my partner was around for the fallout, and having no experience with mental health issues, he struggled to understand what I was going through. We fought, unkind things were said, and my mental health recovery slowed considerably. While I went to therapy and sought help, it didn’t really resolve my issues. I finally decided I did not want children due to my obviously unresolved mental health issues and the chance of these impacting our child, whether genetically or through another relapse in the future. My partner explained he understood I didn’t want children, but felt that I should have realized this long before, in the early stages of our relationship. When I had told him about my mental health issues, he hadn’t realized they would impact my confidence in becoming a mother (at the time I didn’t think they would; I had been living fully happy and healthy for nearly two years). In any case, children were nonnegotiable for him, and as such, we decided to divorce so he can continue to pursue his goal while I try to refocus on my mental health recovery.
My question, I guess, here is was I truly awful for not realizing 12 years ago that my mental health recovery would relapse, and that I would struggle with motherhood? I’d been told growing up that everyone was anxious about becoming a mother. Yet I didn’t see others have the stress of expectations contribute to a breakdown. Was my decision to pull out sound, or am I giving up on a relationship I’ve put so much into prematurely, based on my own fears?
A: You did what was right for you, for your relationship, and for a potential child. It is unreasonable for your partner to expect that you’d be able to tell the future or accurately predict how you’d react in a number of hypothetical situations. So I don’t see this as much as you giving up as the two of you going down separate paths. He is within his rights to keep pursuing kids, but this relationship isn’t going to work if he’s holding your mental health recovery against you.
Q. In need of a social translator: My fiancé and I have very similar values and interests, but there’s one issue: I’m an introvert and he is SUPER extroverted. He gets so much joy from meeting new people and going out anywhere he’s sure to be surrounded by lots of stimuli (bars, concerts, etc.). I get very overwhelmed by those things, but he seems to have a hard time understanding why. We’ve done a decent job at compromising, and he’s learned to enjoy a night in as much as I enjoy a night out, but the issue arises when he wants one night to turn into a weekend of nonstop social outings.
He’s the sweetest man and I know he wants me to feel comfortable, but he seems to have a hard time grasping how something that he finds invigorating can be so exhausting for me. How can I explain it to him in language an extrovert can understand?
A: It’s possible that he may never understand it. You’re both built differently, and the things that give him energy don’t do it for you. What you can explain, however, is that seeing him happy makes you happy. Invite him to have all the experiences he wants to have, just without you.
Early on in my marriage, my husband and I stumbled upon the phrase “this is not a trap” and use it all the time as a precursor to a request, a proclamation, or a change. So perhaps you want to tell your fiancé the same: “This is not a trap: The thing that would make me really happy is if you went out to the concert (or whatever the event may be) with a friend and told me about it when you get home.” He may not get why you don’t get the same charge as he does, but giving him a new way of sharing his adventures with you without dragging you along may solve the problem.
Q. What to give: A young, single, male neighbor occasionally takes care of our pets when we are out of town. In addition to paying him, we’ve decided that we’d like to bring back small souvenirs or tokens of thanks for taking care of our animals. We struck out with alcohol for the first gift (he does not drink). I gently inquired about his interests, but he demurred.
Do I forgo future tokens of appreciation? My partner thinks he’s vegan and says we should get him a gift certificate to a nice vegan restaurant. My partner also thinks I should confirm he doesn’t eat meat. Is there etiquette about asking someone if they are vegan?
A: I think you can just ask people if they’re vegan; many will be happy to tell you. But with regard to your neighbor, if he’s resisting your request to know more about him, he may not want another token of appreciation. It’s possible he feels it’s too much. Ask about his eating habits, but if he pushes back, leave it be.
Q. Re: Regretful rehabilitating: To answer your main question: No, you’re not awful because you didn’t come to this realization earlier. People, and therefore their priorities and desires, change over time. Even if you’re 100 percent sincere in what you think you want for your life today, there is nothing saying that later life experiences may cause you to change your mind later on. I’m not sure if your ex-husband’s response about how you should have known this sooner was meant to be deliberately hurtful or if he genuinely felt that you probably felt this way longer than you say, but either way, you know your own mind better than anyone. Try to go to counseling to work through your grief over the end of your marriage and hopefully get to a place where you can move forward with your life on your terms, whatever they may be at the moment.
A: This is a beautiful and affirming response. I hope the letter writer is able to process this hurt and move forward without blaming herself.
About a month ago, a woman somewhere in my age range moved immediately next door to me. She is Black. I am white. I was bringing my dog in when she was moving in, and she said she knew someone would want to say hello. She opened her door, and her own adorable dog ran out. The dogs happily greeted each other. I was happy and even harbored visions in the moment of exchanging keys with my new neighbor and helping each other with dog walks on occasion.
A few weeks passed, I had some travel, and then after I returned, I saw them on the street when I was racing off somewhere, and I cheerily said hello to the dog. Later that day I saw them again and, again, said hello to the dog. My neighbor yanked the dog away from me and my dog and yelled, “Don’t say hi to my dog if you aren’t going to say hi to me.” I was extremely surprised and faintly called after her, “I just really love dogs.” Prudie, she clearly thinks I’m racist.