Coping With the Neighbors From Hell

To those who’ve never experienced it, a bad neighbor is no more than a minor irritation. In fact, they literally ruin lives. One’s home is supposed to be a place of rest and relaxation, a refuge from the noise and stress of the world. Having that destroyed by other people’s selfishness is unacceptable.

Typical Problems

Unfortunately, you must find a way of living around horrible people, even if you despise them. This is a major problem in life generally. Most people have family, neighbors or work colleagues they cannot stand. But they have no choice. They are in your life, and there is often no way to remove them. If some random stranger is rude to you on a bus, you confront him and move on. But if you have a row with your neighbor or work colleague you must then deal with them the next day – and the next.

Noise is perhaps the single biggest complaint. Again, this should not be underestimated. For the sensitive, it can be deeply distressing. And the word “sensitive” is key: some people are woken by the distant rumble of a train, while others will sleep through an artillery barrage! The worst sorts of neighbors, those who throw all-night parties, play loud music during the day, scream at one another for hours on end, etc, can reduce those around them to nervous wrecks. Others start work early and make a terrible noise when they leave: running a shower, slamming the car door, and so on.

Then there are pets and children. Some people are completely thoughtless. They will let their teenage son play his drums when you are trying to work, or will let their dogs out late at night and leave them to bark for hours. When people take a dislike to their neighbor, they often use their children to persecute him, encouraging them to knock on his door, scratch his car, swear at him in the street, etc.

Such noise isn’t always the neighbor’s fault of course. Often, in order to save money, builders and property developers use the cheapest, thinnest walling and flooring. The misery caused by this is incalculable. Noisy neighbors ruin family meals, wake you up at night, and reduce you to the state of a shell-shocked soldier.

Another problem is the neighbor who constantly complains. No matter how hard you try to be quiet they are never satisfied. Maybe they retired, or were made redundant, and have no money to go anywhere or do anything. Victimizing a neighbor then becomes a kind of entertainment or sport. For others, it is a form of bullying, a way to vent spite, frustration or jealousy. Everything you do is wrong, from the angle at which you park your car to the bird table you build in the garden. If your neighbor has a persecution complex, these problems can spiral. Soon, she convinces herself you are the devil incarnate. After a few months, she is constantly knocking at your door and leaving notes on your car. Some become obsessed and start spreading rumors or trying to turn the neighbors against you.

Then there is the slob. He leaves his trash laying around, which creates a bad smell and encourages foxes, is drunk in the middle of the day, and has a front garden strewn with car parts and weeds. Unpleasant as such people can be, they are often the least toxic. Indeed, so long as they are polite and friendly, they can make tolerable neighbors. Given the choice, most people would rather live near a likeable slob than someone malignant, spiteful or noisy.

Intrusive people can also be unbearable. Often, they are lonely or bored. Some have no sense of boundaries and will wander into your garden or call you late at night. Women who live alone often encounter intrusive male neighbors, especially odd or isolated men. In some cases it escalates to the point of obsession. The real problems begin when a lonely and intrusive person is also nasty and spiteful. Some have nothing better to do and will quite literally persecute a neighbor. Before you know it, they have told everyone that you abuse your dog, that they saw you burying something in the garden, that they heard you beating your children, and so on.

Dealing With the Problem

First, you need to establish friendly relations. Some find this intolerable. Why should they be polite to the ignorant monster who plays loud music and lets his dogs bark all night? Isn’t that like creeping around the school bully? The simple fact is that you will get much further with people if you treat them respectfully. Should a confrontation arise, it will be much easier to deal with them.

But that does not mean trying too hard. Neither does it mean passively accepting their behavior. There are essentially three ways to deal with rude and unpleasant people: you can be passive, aggressive, or assertive. Always be assertive.

It is also vital to establish good relationships with your other neighbors. For a start, they too may have suffered at his or her hands. If they have, hopefully they’ll stand by your side should a confrontation arise. You will also have people to back you up when you go to the authorities.

And choose your battles carefully. If your neighbor is a generally well-meaning slob, you will have to make some allowances. If you complain about everything, they will soon ignore you, rather like an over-criticised child who feels it can do nothing right.

Next, try to head off problems before they arise. For example, an intrusive neighbor probably doesn’t know he is being intrusive. If you do or say nothing, his behavior will simply escalate. The same is true of a bully. You will have to judge this for yourself, but some people need to be put in their place at the first opportunity. Like a nasty child in the playground, they will bully until they meet resistance. When they do, they move on to someone else.

For example, you buy a new house and quickly notice how intrusive the man next door is becoming. Every time you set foot in the garden he seems to appear. And he keeps making silly, personal comments. When you reply, he pretends he cannot hear you, which gives him an excuse to jump over the fence. The passive simply accept this, laughing at his jokes and ignoring the sarcastic remarks. But that merely gives him the green light to continue. If you are a single woman, he may even misread these signals. However, aggression could turn him from nosy intruder into bitter enemy, so don’t yell and swear at him either. After all, he isn’t going away.

Instead, be calm and polite, but put your shoulders back and look him straight in the eyes. If you want to avoid confrontation, you could simply draw attention to his behavior. For example, you are hanging out the washing and he pokes his head through the window and says “bit late this morning aren’t we?” Turn, look him full in the face, and say “I didn’t realize you were keeping notes.” Don’t be too aggressive when you say this, or you may find yourself in a nasty row. But don’t be too polite or friendly either. The next time he goes to speak, he will remember this put down and bite his tongue. His intrusive, nosy behavior has been flagged up. In other words, he knows that you know.

When you do confront someone, be careful. You must always give people a chance. For a start, you could have made a mistake. For example, you accuse their child of smashing your window, and it turns out that you’ve mistaken her for someone else. People don’t always know they’ve done wrong. Many live stressful or unhappy lives. And during periods of stress we become thoughtless. Always give the other person a chance to explain themselves. This is why it is so important to establish some kind of a relationship with them. That way, you find out why they are acting badly. Maybe their mother has just been diagnosed with cancer, or they are in danger of losing their job.

When you confront them about parking their car too close or leaving their trash on your driveway, add it as an afterthought. Engage them in casual conversation about football or the weather, then, as you leave, say “oh, just while I think of it, could you not park your car so close to mine please. It makes it hard for me to see the traffic when I’m reversing onto the road.”

Always explain why you are making this complaint. In other words, don’t just say “hey, stop playing your music at night.” That is an order, and no one responds well to an order. Explain that you can’t sleep. Don’t be aggressive and dictatorial, but do be assertive. Explain why you want them to stop and then add nothing. Be polite and reasonable, but don’t behave as though you have something apologize for. Some people will complain to their neighbor about his barking dog but apologize while they are complaining “I’m sorry to bring this up…but could you not let your dogs out late at night…I don’t want to cause you any inconvenience, but they do wake me up…sorry.”

And never get too personal. Always focus on how their behavior is affecting you, not on who or what they are. Someone keeps you awake at night with her loud TV. Explain that it wakes you up, that you need your sleep because work is stressful and then leave it there. Do not add “this is typical of you – you’re so selfish.”

If the situation becomes really bad, you could of course try the authorities. But you will need plenty of evidence. If the police or housing officers confront someone, they will simply deny it and claim that you are paranoid or deranged. Always seek advice. Ask the police what you should do. Remember, they have probably seen this numerous times, and they will know what works. You could also seek help online. Horrible neighbors are very common. All over the world people are dealing with such people, and there are plenty of online discussions. Here you will find not only support but advice.

Record everything. Write down every incident, noting the time, place and exact sequence of events. And also note down any witnesses. More importantly, use recording devices. All sorts of small recording devices are now available. Indeed, you could even hide cameras. And you could use such cameras to record the loud noises.

Finally, be wary of confronting another man on his own property. When one man complains to another, it touches some deep, primal instinct. Men do not like to back down or be humiliated in front of their partner or children. Confronting them on their own ground is also dangerous. Again, this touches a primal instinct to protect one’s possessions. Obviously you are not threatening such things (you just want him to stop banging his car door at four in the morning), and he may know you are not, but at the emotional, primal level his instinct may be to attack and defend, especially if he has children in the house.

Never underestimate the effect a bad neighbor can have on someone’s life. Such people break those around them. And sadly, this is common. If you are struggling, at least take comfort from this – you are not alone.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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