Good fences make good neighbors is a time worn phrase. Taken literally, it doesn’t make much sense. Why would something that keeps people apart make them good neighbors? It’s counterintuitive. You’d think that no fences would make good neighbors. But that’s not the case.

If we take the phrase as a metaphor, it makes much more sense. It’s all about borders and boundaries. And in relationships, no matter whether it is a business partnership, a romantic relationship, an international border, or literally, neighbors, defined roles and limitations in the relationship provide security to each side.

Take my law partnership for an example. We’re two semi-normal men with healthy egos, and a willingness to be combative at times if we feel that our interests are not being respected. Our partnership has lasted 15 years now. We’ve done it because we each have different roles to play, and we acknowledge the differences between us, and use those differences for our mutual gain.

I am a gregarious, frequently loud man. I’ll talk to just about anyone. My partner is more reserved, shy even. So when it comes to doing marketing and meeting people, that’s my job. You’ll find me at a party, or a mixer, and I chat up people with great enjoyment.

My partner, he’s the guy who remembers that the rent needs to be paid, and keeps the phones on. He likes the paper side of the business.

I like to be in the courtroom, arguing to a judge about why my client is not the way that the other counsel is portraying him. Or why the law should be read in a way that is more advantageous to my client.

This is all about balance — each side knowing where they stand, and feeling safe. I have a client who has a “bad fence” problem with their neighbors. It’s been brewing for years. One side of the fence is “that neighbor” who is always watching what the other side is doing. They keep tabs on everyone in the neighborhood, and stick their nose in to issues that are not their concern.

The war between them has escalated to calling the police often, filing complaints with City Hall, unapproved hedge removals and claims of vandalism. It’s all a matter of not minding one’s own business. I watch this and see how important it is to maintain boundaries in a relationship.

When I look to my own neighbors, we have an 8-foot high fence, and about once a month, I’m in the back watering and from the other side I hear, “Hey Dave, how’s it going?” And once a year I am invited to their Christmas bash. We have a very cordial relationship, but they do what they want on their side, and I do what I want on mine.

My other neighbors and I have even less interaction, but it remains a cordial relationship. Occasionally she has people over and it gets loud for a night. But I have more parties than she does, so I don’t complain to her, and she doesn’t complain to me.

Communicating clear wants in relationships is not easy. It involves knowing what you want out of a relationship, and sometimes people have trouble distinguishing that. I just completed mediation training, and the story of two kids who are fighting over an orange was told about five times.

The story goes like this, two kids are arguing over who gets the last orange. Mom comes in and has one kid cut the orange, and the other one pick. It’s a classic solution. The problem is that one kid wanted the orange peel to make cookies with, and one kid wanted the orange fruit for his soccer practice.

Had they each been clear in the interests and wants, they each could have had 100 percent of their wants met.

I have a case right now where the parties decided to have a child together, and mom wanted to have all the legal cards, and dad would have the ability to say he was dad, but had none of the responsibilities. Problem is that dad wanted to be an active father, and mom doesn’t want dad that involved.

The case will be resolved, and one side will be upset with the result, but it’s only because they weren’t clear on their roles. Had they been clearer, they might have avoided the hours of agony and arguing, and the expense of lawyers, but more importantly, they might each have spent more time with their child being happy.

Keeping those fences well tended will make everyone a lot happier.


David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at or (310) 664-9969.

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