Reader question #33: “Tone down the Devil’s orchestra!”

The devil's orchestra!Dear Captain Awkward:

I live in a townhouse. The walls between units, despite appearing to be made of solid concrete, seem to actually amplify rather than muffle sound. The neighbor on one side of me is pretty reasonable about how much noise he makes, and when. The ones on the other side, I’ve nicknamed the Howler Monkeys, because that’s what they sound like when they have sex. Their preferred time seems to be about 4AM. They tend to have several bouts of half an hour on, half an hour off, which is just enough time for me to start to doze off, then get woken up again. Sleep deprivation is a migraine trigger for me. My partner moved in with me a month ago, and it’s driving him batty too. He has a high-stress job and if he’s not fully awake and on the ball, people can get hurt. We do want to move, but financially and logistically we can’t swing it right now.

The obvious solution would be to wear earplugs, except that every brand of earplugs I’ve tried is uncomfortable enough that they keep me awake just as effectively as the HMs do. My partner can wear earplugs comfortably, but my startle response when the HMs wake me up, wakes him up.

The next step, I suppose, would be to talk to them, which would be awkward enough if we had a friendly-neighbor relationship, but (for reasons I’ll describe) we really, really don’t. Plus this has been going on for just short of TWO YEARS so it’s extra weird to say anything now.

The reason it’s gone on so long is, at first I let it slide because it was the least bad of their behaviours. Plus the boyfriend was really large and hyper-masculine and aggressive-looking, and at the time I lived alone and frankly I didn’t feel safe confronting them directly. When their parties were too loud, and/or broke into fistfights in the parking lot, I’d call the police; when they left their empty beer cans, broken dishes, and cigarette butts in my planters or stomped around in my flowerbeds, I’d call the landlord. When they were having sex, at least I wasn’t sitting by the phone trying to decide on the threshold for calling 911 – too early and I’m a whiner, too late and I’ll need an ambulance as well as police.

She’s no longer with the asshole boyfriend whose asshole friends were the cause of the violence and property damage, but the loud sex with subsequent partners goes on. The gratitude that at least nobody is getting beat up is fading. We are getting to the end of our ropes. Something has to change.

Also some possible overthinking: Ms HM is young enough that probably porn has been the primary – maybe only – shaper of her sexuality. She may well think 90dB is normal, natural, even required. Her partner(s), being about that age too, might have that same expectation. Ms HM appears to be a dedicated patriarchy-complier. I’ve never seen her outdoors other than perfectly coiffed and made up and shaved and waxed and preened and fashionably dressed. So she’s probably living under a significant burden of pressure and shame about her body and sexuality. Being told to cut the howler monkey antics could hit her pretty hard, and not in a good way.
So Captain Awkward, what should I/we do?

Best Regards and thanks for any advice you can offer,
Sleepless in an Undisclosed Location

Dear Sleepless:

I love your letter because it’s a good example of not speaking up, letting things to on too long, and then working yourself up and worrying about other people’s feelings way more than you worry about your own quality of life. Your neighbor’s relationship with the patriarchy is not your problem. Your sleepless nights are.

Living in close quarters means maintaining courtesy and an air of plausible “no, we didn’t hear anything!” to preserve the social contract. Your neighbor took that section of the social contract and set it on fire a long time ago.
This situation is tailor-made for a passive-aggressive note, except, is it really passive-aggressive if you are telling the person directly what you want? I especially like the suggestion from this site to not refer to sex specifically and just call it nonspecific “loud noises.”
Dear Neighbor:
We’ve been hearing some loud noises late at night (4am-ish) and they are waking us up. Can you keep it down?

Thank you,
Your neighbors

Write it up nicely, slide it under the door when she’s out. Leave out threats of further action, gory details about migraines and your husband’s job (you don’t have to explain why you need them to be quiet, it’s your right to ask them to be quiet no matter the reason). Make a copy of the note and document when you gave it to them.
The next time they have relations, if it wakes you up, use the old classic standby of knocking on the wall. The bad news is that you’re already awake, but the knocking might throw them off their rhythm and let them know that yeah, you weren’t kidding. You might have to do that a couple times before they get the message. Just keep in mind: This is a longstanding problem for you, but a new problem for them, so you have to give them a chance to work it out and give you what you want.

If the noise level does go down and you start living in peace and quiet again, bake some cookies and drop them by with a friendly note. “Hey, we really appreciate your courtesy and hope all is well with you. Thank you for understanding.”

If the noise keeps going, or worse, escalates in some kind of hostile exhibitionist display, somewhere in your lease there has to be language about noise and the tenant’s right to not be disturbed by their neighbors. Pull that clause out, and write a letter to your landlord documenting everything and asking him or her to step in. Depending on how evil you are, this may include an audio recording of the problem.

You have the right to ask them to be quiet and to ask the landlord to enforce that. May not work, and you said you can’t move out right now. Audio nerds to the rescue! Implement some creative decorating and soundproofing solutions. A bunch of sound blankets hung on the offending wall, with nice floor-to-ceiling drapes over them to hide them might turn you bedroom into a cushy cave where you can get some sleep for a change.

I feel like a lot of apartment-dwellers read this site, so here also is advice on how to BE a polite sexy neighbor.

11 comments
  1. Passive aggressive notes FTW!

    And, yeah, keep it short and sweet. I once got a note from my downstairs neighbor about stomping around late at night. It went into detail about how much she needed the sleep and why, bla bla bla, which ended up annoying me more than the request to be quiet. But the note worked: I and my guests do trod a little more carefully late at night. No more elephant dancing!

    I think the cookie thing is a little much. I would simply bake the cookies and eat them yourselves as a reward for standing up for yourself.

    Also, in terms of blocking out the noise: one alternative is to drown it out with some sort of white noise. It could be a fan in the summertime, or a noise machine. I find actual white noise to be a bit harsh; instead, I use an mp3 of the sound or rain that I just loop on a laptop all night. Sometimes I also use the sound of a waterfall or a stream. You can also get surf sounds, though I don’t think they work so well because the sound isn’t quite as constant; sometimes too quiet, sometimes too loud. Also, don’t use any “sounds of the rainforest” mp3s or cds, unless you want to be woken up by the unexpected screams of howler monkeys at 3 AM.

    May or may not work for you, but worth a try.

    • Tanzenlicht said:

      If your computer is in your bedroom http://simplynoise.com/ is pretty good. It has a variety of noise ‘color’ and an oscillation setting so it can pretend to be volume regulated surf.

  2. Veronica said:

    I’ll chime in that the white noise helps, especially since I work nights and my neighbors are, understandably, quite active during the days. The only downside to it is that that your body will start to associate this with sleep, so you’ll need to pick a consistent one. I got used to using my electric heater being mine, and now that the warmer weather’s hitting, it’s starting to disrupt my sleep patterns not having it on.

    Also, letter writer, while I understand where you’re coming from with the patriarchy angle, I think it’s a little unfair to pinhole your lady neighbor like that unless you know her well. Assuming a woman’s motivations is just as bad as influencing them through social pressure.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’ve been trying for 3 days to think of some kind of clever way to say “You must always be sure to fuck in a way that also Fucks The Patriarchy!”

      This is me failing.

      • Veronica said:

        “DRRTY SNOW 4 LYFE!!!!11one”

  3. k said:

    Um, maybe the neighbor is just a screamer and it has nothing to do with being socialized by porn?

    I for one have a natural tendency toward 90 decibels, and though I try to keep it down, I really really hope that my neighbors would let me know if my moaning is keeping them up at night. If you don’t tell her she can’t know, right?

    Capt. Awkward’s strategy is pure gold.

  4. Schadenfreude said:

    Absolutely agree/hope that a nice note should get things settled, but I wanted to pop in with a note about earplugs in case it doesn’t go so well:

    I’ve been wearing earplugs continuously since moving into residence at a university outside of my hometown– previously I couldn’t stand them because they either hurt my ears, or protruded from my ears if I tried not jamming them in quite so far, and since I sleep on my side, this was super uncomfortable.

    My suggestion is to find some “soft” earplugs made of memory foam (try searching for Hearos’ Ultimate Soft earplugs), not the horrible hard foam ones. Next, insert them into your ears at a comfortable depth (no need to jam them nearly into your cerebellum, as I used to do), and make a note of how much of the earplug is protruding. Take them out and cut off the excess. They’ll still block out quite a lot of noise, won’t be pushed super far into your ear canal and will be way more comfortable if you sleep on your side.

    Option 2 is getting a nice pair of noise-canceling headphones or earbuds and putting on a (quiet) brown noise (I personally find white too high-pitched) or thunderstorm recording. Works like a charm for those friday/saturday nights when I want to sleep earlier than 2 AM.

  5. Jennifer said:

    If you have a landlord, you could also contact him/her to complain. That’s what my neighbor and I ended up doing about the upstairs neighbor who had the world’s loudest bed that sounded like we were being attacked by aliens every time they rolled over (and just imagine the sex).

  6. betoma said:

    I have a horrible time trying to sleep when there are noises, so I often sleep with a white noise machine & earplugs. I use these soft purple ones, I’m not sure what the brand is, I think the packaging refers to them as “flents” for some ungodly reason. Could be worthwhile trying one more time to get used to earplugs? Maybe put them in occasionally during the day so it doesn’t feel so weird to have them in at night?

    I’d like to strongly recommend the Marpac Sleepmate. http://www.marpac.com/. They make a nice whoosing noise like a really powerful fan, are pleasantly sturdy & retro-looking, & they’re made in America. More convenient than a CD or white noise website IMO,

  7. betoma said:

    Also not to argue with the letter writer, but I don’t think you can determine whether someone is a “patriarchy-complier” by the way she dresses. I prefer to look “feminine,” made-up, and stylishly dressed when I’m out in public, but my professional work, voting record, relationship with my boyfriend, & overall inner life don’t fit the stereotype of someone who accepts the patriarchy. And as far as I can tell, the patriarchy has enough hate in its heart to spare some for sexually active single women in sexy clothes. (In fact, its official representatives seem to have an extraordinary amount of ire reserved for such women.)

    For all we know (for all I know, at least), the loud-sex-haver may out kicking ass in various aspects of her life. Let’s not judge the quality of women’s minds by their appearance, please!

    • piny said:

      It sounds like sniping masquerading as concern. “I just don’t like to see you disrespect yourself like that, hon.”

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