Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. (R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave.)
Q. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? My husband grew up without a lot of money in a very well-off community, and when his parents died, we returned to live in the house we inherited because it’s a neighborhood with strong public schools. We’ve been here for almost 10 years and have two children, both of whom are thriving in the school system. Our neighbors are mostly much higher-earning than we are, but we are not struggling—it’s more like not having a vacation house, instead of not having everything we need—and they are all very nice. The problem is my husband remains so upset by his childhood experience that he’s suspicious of and unfriendly to everyone with money in the neighborhood, and it’s driving me crazy. If neighbors ask us for a favor as simple as watering their outdoor plants while they’re away he’ll say no; when we have a conflict at pickup time, he won’t let me ask them if our kids can walk home with theirs because “then they’ll expect something in return.” Recently, a neighbor who knows he grew up here emailed to ask if he had the contact info for someone who used to live on the street. He forwarded me the email saying, “This seems fishy to me, right?” This is making me nuts—I want to be part of the community we’ve chosen to live in! Is there anything I can do to make him less paranoid?
A. I don’t think that making him less paranoid is something that you can do, at least not alone. And trying to do so will only make things tense between you. The damage from growing up aware of scarcity in an affluent area is clearly still unresolved for him and it’s making him unhappy in the present. You can suggest that he unpack some of his old trauma with a therapist, as moving back into his old home surely stirred up a lot of stuff that he can’t let go. You can also introduce frank conversations about whether you should stay in the house. Obviously, it sounds like the pros outweigh the cons, but opening that door conversationally might actually be freeing and push the issue beyond constant complaints and paranoia.
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Q. Scared For the Cat: For the past couple of years, our neighbors—whom I barely know—have been setting off a few fireworks on the Fourth of July. While they are illegal in our state (and, I believe, rightly so), I’m not going to call the cops over a few bottle rockets or cherry bombs, set off at a reasonable hour, on the holiday weekend. However, we have an elderly cat with a heart murmur who is scared by sudden, loud noises. While I can’t do anything about thunder or us sneezing, I feel like I could at least reduce this stressor for her. How can I ask our next-door neighbor to buy something quieter before the Fourth next year, assuming the cat is still with us? It’s not like I can put her in a thundershirt. If it matters, we live in an affluent town that is a few miles from a state where fireworks are legal.
A. Now that we’re at the farthest point in the year from July Fourth, try stopping by or sending a note—perhaps with a small goodwill gift—to explain the situation and ask about solutions. Obviously, they may not be receptive, as setting off explosives near one’s house is a right guaranteed by the Constitution, but one hopes that they are compassionate enough people and good enough neighbors that they can switch to sparklers for your cat’s sake.
Q. Spending Our Vacation Money on Other People’s Vacations: My husband and I live in a very popular beach town. We have visitors constantly and we LOVE it. Sometimes they stay with us, sometimes they get their own place. We always offer our car, beach equipment, and anything they could use to make their stay easier/cheaper. Everyone has been wonderful with this, no problems there. This issue is our time and mostly, our money. Everyone comes with VACATION on their mind and they are ready to go out every day. I get it. But a couple of months ago, some friends stayed and they expected us to be out with them every single night. We even had them over for dinner a night or two to make it a little cheaper, but it still got to be just a little much. Would it be rude to preface every guest visit with a message saying something like, “Looking forward to a beach day and a night or two with you all. We’re happy to give you some fun suggestions on some great places, but I’m sure you’ll want some time on your own” and then list out a bunch of activities/locations? We both have full-time jobs and things that we want to do in our own time.
A. It wouldn’t be rude at all. You’ve been very kind to offer up your home and/or your time to visiting friends. Clear communication will make everyone’s experience more enjoyable. I like your proposed language but I think you can go a step further and let people know that you’ll be working while they’re vacationing so you won’t be around much, but that you hope they have a great time. You can even let them know when, if ever, you are free and interested in doing something together—say a Tuesday happy hour is your only slot; if your friends can make that work great, if not, you don’t have to bend over backward. Vacation time can be unbounded and wild, but setting up some house rules will keep your extreme hospitality from becoming a source of resentment.
Q. Cease the Cat Control: My fiancé has four gorgeous Siamese cats that he helped rescue from a hoarding situation and nursed back to health. I grew up with multiple cats in and out of the house, and was raised in a rural area on a ranch, so my perspective on what is “reasonable” in terms of spoiling/caring for pets may be affected by my upbringing. But I still love the cats and do an equal share of the work for them. However, over the years my fiancé has drastically changed his house to make it more cat-friendly—think large, custom-made cat trees in every room connecting to a network of shelves and bridges on the walls so the cats can walk around the house “like their ancestors in the wild,” multiple fountain water dispensers kept full of the cats’ favorite brand of bottled water, and custom-mixed raw diets tailored to each cat.
Now, I get that it’s totally normal to invest time and money in hobbies, and he loves these cats like some people like fancy gaming setups, but it’s making me feel like it’s the cats’ house and we’re just living in it. We recently bought a four-bedroom house, and I don’t want to install the cat jungle gym in every room and leave the kitchen always faintly smelling of raw meat. There’s a large room in the back of the house that I’ve proposed turning into a dedicated cat room, where all of their walkways, litter boxes, water fountains, etc. would go, but they would of course be free to roam the rest of the house as they please, have beds in our room, and still be beloved family members. My fiancé says he feels it’s unfair to the cats and they would think he had stopped caring about them as much, even calling the idea of a cat room “kitty prison.” He has also suggested that growing up on a working ranch made me see animals as “less deserving of human affection,” and that I still held “backward ideas that they didn’t have feelings.” I think this is ridiculous. Is my request ridiculous or reasonable?
A. Your fiancé’s assessment of your emotional intelligence about pets is pretty harsh. It’s not unreasonable to think giving the cats an entire room of the house with custom amenities is a sweet deal. Think of it this way: If your cats were human roommates you could have a house meeting and talk about ground rules for shared space. If your cats were human roommates, they’d also be paying part of the rent or doing chores. You are right to ask for what you need in your own home. If this is a dealbreaker for your fiancé, it may be an indicator of a bigger problem in your relationship.
R. Eric Thomas: Thanks for you all your questions and comments! Be good to yourselves this week!
Don’t miss Part 1 of this week’s chat: Help! I’m Related to a Celebrity. Their Cult-Following Is Infiltrating My Dating Life.
From Care and Feeding
My boyfriend and I have been living together for four years and purchased our home together two years ago. He has a 7-year-old son, “Mikey,” whom we have a little less than half of the time. When it comes to the possibility of our own marriage and children, we have remained in a state of ambiguity, with neither of us really for or against it. Through the process of helping to raise Mikey, I’ve begun to realize that my partner and I have some fundamental differences in regard to child-rearing.