Dorm Rules, Coming Clean

Posted on September 12, 2014


Sometime between the invention of the lightbulb and the cellular phone (after cassette and before CD), I went to college.  I lived three years on the sixth floor of Argo Hall on UCSD.  Back in those days, Argo was affectionately referred to as “The Zoo.”  It was considered a risky and perhaps foolish move to pass directly through the open center courtyard.  Anyone with experience stuck to the perimeter as safer.

I remember one incident in which a group of students had made a water balloon launcher out of a plastic funnel and surgical tubing.  They were launching water balloons from the walkway on the side of Argo 6 away from the quad over the top of the building into a lunchtime crowd on the quad.  Since my room faced the quad, a number of people had come into my room to watch the balloons fly.  Someone soon showed up to question me about the incident.  I pointed out that the attack could not possibly have come from my room.  It was then asserted that I probably knew who had done it.  I did, but to give them up would have been to violate the dorm rules (heretofore unwritten).[1]

The rules were something like this.  If they have evidence, deny it.  If they have witnesses, deny it.  If they have pictures, deny it.  There was no advantage to coming clean.  It was somewhat like the old “prisoner’s dilemma” scenario only with the advantage to not confessing.

In one memorable incident, someone actually built a brick wall (I’m talking cinder blocks and mortar) in front of my friends’ door during the night.  The entrance to their dorm room was set back in such a way that it lent itself naturally to building the wall between the two side walls by the entrance (if you can picture that).  My room was at the other end of the suite.  I was awakened early to the sound of the bricks being knocked down.  I rushed out to see my suitemate knocking the wall down with a baseball bat.  Apparently, what had happened is that one of the guys got up in the morning to head to the bathroom, opened the dorm room door to find himself faced with a brick wall.  He woke his roommate who got out his baseball bat and began using it as a battering ram.  One of the things that made this event so memorable is that no one had heard the construction or actually knew who did it.  I remember overhearing the resident dean and her assistant talking as they left our suite after surveying the damage.  The dean said, “And of course no one heard anything.”  In this case it was true.

Let me make a disclaimer that I am not endorsing “dorm rules” in any circumstance.  This mode of operating is particularly damaging in an intimate relationship.  Sometimes a couple comes to therapy when one partner suspects the other of an affair or some other betrayal of trust.  As I see it, one of three things is happening: 1) there is nothing going on and nothing being hidden; 2) there is no affair going on, but the partner is being secretive[2]; 3) there is an affair going on.  My experience would be that #1 is the exception (something was usually setting off someone’s spidey senses) though this is usually the accused partner’s starting position.  This position is frequently defended with righteous indignation.  Similar to dorm rules, innocence is maintained despite whatever evidence may indicate otherwise.[3]  This is a form of “crazymaking” that asks your partner to deny his or her own perceptions.

Eventually, things come out, and it is often the lying that does as much or more damage[4] to the relationship as whatever you were doing.  This is often the case when one partner is in recovery from sexual addiction.  After perhaps years of being told you are just being crazy and paranoid[5], it is hard to ever feel that you know what is real in the relationship.  If you live by dorm rules in your marriage, it is devastating to your partner.  Transparency is way better.  A partial truth or a staggered disclosure is also traumatic for your partner.  If the truth is going to be devastating, you might want to get some help to prepare to come clean.

[1] There was another situation where they fined everyone in the suite.  I was not even around on the weekend of the incident.  Nobody told me who had done the damage as I was threatening to give them up rather than take the fine.  Probably just as well.  The impact of being the narc is not pretty.

[2] Sometimes this is its own negative cycle in which one partner snoops so the other partner is more guarded.  The more the secretive partner hides, the more the snooping partner investigates.  And around we go in an escalation of secrecy and investigation.

[3] Incidentally, my operating assumption is that whatever each partner tells me in session is what he or she believes to be true.  My feelings won’t be hurt if you lie to me, but you are wasting your money on therapy.

[4] Just ask Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, or Martha Stewart.

[5] There is the old joke that said “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t really out to get you.”