I have an attention needy neighbor and I don’t want to hurt her feelings but I also need her to back off. Full disclosure, my neighbor has some type of mild cognitive impairment. I’m not 100% sure what it is. She is incredibly sweet and also doesn’t completely understand social norms and struggles to have free flowing conversation. She’s also a stay at home mom which means she is fairly isolated most of her days. She has my cell number. She knows where I live, obviously. She needs friends and doesn’t really have any. She desperately wants to be friends with me. I don’t know what to do.
I don’t mind the occasional play date for our kids or when she texts me once in a while with a question. Right now she texts me everyday, sometimes all day. I space out my replies. She asks to hang out 4x a week, I will set a date in the future for a play date like “why don’t we get together for an hour on Friday so the kids can play?” Now that I am writing this out, I think the two things I feel bad about are having to say no to her in small ways on a regular basis and the fact that we are just not going to be best friends. Her mental health isn’t great so I don’t want to be too direct or harsh. At the same time, I think her coming on too strong is part of why she doesn’t have a lot of friends. That and because of whatever her delay is, the friendship isn’t able to be truly equal. I feel like a jerk. What do I do?
It can be hard when we just don’t mesh with someone. Even setting aside the possibility of a cognitive impairment, there are loads of lovely people out there that we aren’t ever going to be friends with because we just don’t connect. Of course it can be hard to know that another person is reaching out for connection, but your only obligation in this relationship is to be a pleasant neighbor.
Given that, I see a couple of options for you. They both help you avoid being a jerk; I think one requires a little more work and energy on your part that you absolutely do not have to give, but you may want to.
Option 1 – The Hard Line
You say that you don’t mind the occasional play date or question response, but given that perhaps she doesn’t have the whole social interaction thing down, I wonder if she’s taking that as a sign that you are interested in pursuing a friendship with her but are just super busy. In this case, the questions and invitations to hang out are not going to end.
With that in mind, the next time she suggests getting together, consider going the break-up route: don’t accept any invitations, and don’t offer any either. Don’t apologize for not being available, or say you wish you could, or any other version where the decline sounds more like a rain check. Let’s run a couple of scenarios:
Her: “Want to get together this week?”
You: “I am booked solid all week. Thanks though.”
Her: “Tommy misses Bobby. Play date Friday?”
You: “Thank you, but we’re not available this weekend.”
I struggle with including any sort of “thank you but” or “unfortunately,” because even those can lead her to think that you would if only you could but you can’t, and that’s not what you want to convey. But you don’t want to be a jerk about it, so I think it’s fine to thank her for the invitation, and then explain that you will not be doing the thing. Don’t apologize for not being available, don’t try to soften it with a “wish we could” or some variety of sad emoji.
Like I said, this is a hard line, but it does allow you to be straightforward without being mean about it.
As for when she asks questions, you can gently redirect her to resources that might help her out.
Her: “Is Tommy supposed to be walking yet? I’m worried.”
You: “You know, I’ve found that “Famous Actor’s Guide to Parenting” is a really good resource for all things toddler. I bet they have some good suggestions!”
Her: “Can you pick up my mail this weekend while we go out of town?”
You: “I can’t BUT I know that if you go to the post office or even their website you can hold your mail and they’ll deliver it when you get back.”
If the questions don’t stop, then unless they constitute a situation that may be dangerous for the child ( “Tommy is covered in welts – is that normal?” ), I think at some point it is okay to not respond.
“But,” you might be thinking, “doesn’t all of this make me a jerk?”
No. Because the thing is, you do not own anyone your friendship or time. She is asking you to perform emotional labor, and that is not something you must do. You get to choose how to spend the limited time you have outside of work or home, and it is okay to not want to spend time with someone who you only know because you live near her.
Option 2 – Scheduled Interactions
That said, if the above is too harsh for you, consider allowing yourself to build a friendly acquaintanceship with your neighbor. This works if you feel that you might be able to, on occasion, perform some emotional labor in support of this woman.
However, this also means that you need to set some clear boundaries and then stick to them, both around getting together and avoiding being a stand-in for Google.
Wanting to get together four times a week sounds utterly exhausting to me. I don’t see my best friend more than once a month these days – she has a kid, we both have work, stuff happens. If she lived down the street from me, sure, I’d see her more, but even then it’d be more like once every week or two.
Given that, I think it’s okay to be firm on this. You mention that she might struggle with building friendships because she comes on strong, so you might serve as a way for her to learn how to tone it down.
Her: “Let’s get together this week. Tonight, are you free? Tomorrow?”
You: “With everything going on, I just don’t have a lot of time right now. But I know that Tommy and Bobby have fun together. I think we can definitely work out at least one play-date this month. Any dates work for you?”
Her: “Friday works this week. Want to do that and then maybe the Wednesday after?”
You: “Friday sounds great. Unfortunately we really can’t do more than that. But on Friday let’s pick a time that works for June.”
Having something on the calendar for her to look forward to might help keep her from constantly asking to make plans together. But it might not, so you may need to remind her. I know you said in your question that you hate having to say no repeatedly, but if you can get into a rhythm of when you can hang out, you can point to the next time you’re scheduled to meet up.
Her: “I need a drink! You free tonight?”
You: “No, Thursdays are family game night. But looking forward to our May play date!”
The trouble with this approach is that you may worry you are leading your neighbor on, and that she thinks this is going to develop into a deeper friendship. If you are sure that’s not on the table, then there are a few extra steps you might be able to take that could help her find people who she might have a more reciprocal relationship.
If you have some time, consider looking at activities that might be good for her and her child to participate in that you cannot also attend. So the next time she says “let’s meet up tonight!” you can say “I’m not available, but I saw a flier for evening story-time at the library then – I bet your son would love to go!” If her child is young, perhaps you can suggest a new mom group she could join.
Or, the next time you get together, you could talk to her more about what her interests are outside of the work she does raising her kids, and see if that conjures up other ideas. It can be hard to make friends, and you certainly don’t need to play matchmaker for her, but if she mentions how much she loves some activity, and you know there is a group that engages in it, offer up that information and encourage her to go.
Good luck – and if you try any of these out and things go well (or don’t), let me know.