Help! My Dorm Mate Diddles Herself While I’m in the Room.

Advice on manners and morals.
April 2 2012 3:09 PM

The Wrong Touch

In a live chat, Dear Prudence offers advice on a frisky roommate, felonious family members, and friends who become lovers.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Lights Out Happy Time: I am a freshman at college. My roommate is pretty great—except for one thing. I'm pretty sure she "takes care of herself" after we turn out the lights and she thinks I'm asleep. The motions and noises she makes are consistent with this theory. I have no problem with her doing that, but it makes me uncomfortable that she does it while I'm in the room. I'm also absolutely mortified about possibly discussing this with her. They did not cover this in freshman orientation, so I'm counting on you for some insight.

A: I'm going to suggest this is covered under the same rubric as bathroom noises—you pretend you don't hear them. Once the lights are out and all is quiet, you are in a zone of assuming each of you is drifting off to sleep, and if under the covers she indulges in some quiet stress relief to help bring on pleasant dreams, I think you should ignore it. Instead of lying there anxiously listening for the sounds of self-gratification, just tell yourself your roommate tends to toss and turn before the delta waves hit. Unless to accomplish her task your roommate brings out a screaming, high-decibel vibrator, talking about this with her, or a resident adviser, is going to just be mortifying for you. Look, the school year is almost over, your roommate decided she couldn't get through freshman year going hands-off, and there's not really any other time or place for her to indulge herself. Just think of this as one of those "out of classroom" learning experiences admissions officers are always touting.

Q. UPDATE RE: Pregnancy After Unimaginable Tragedy: Thank you for your advice last week. I told my husband about the pregnancy, and he's overjoyed. It now seems insane that I thought he might want me to abort our baby, but the past few months have been physically and emotionally exhausting for us. Their mother's death has understandably devastated my stepchildren. My stepson in particular has spiraled into a deep depression. I am terrified at my inability to comfort him. I think my pregnancy hormones, combined with my feelings of inadequacy as a new primary caregiver, caused me to only see the negative side of being pregnant. I couldn't imagine bringing a child into our chaotic, sometimes unhappy new world. Now that I have my husband's support, it's much easier for me to see how exciting and joyous this baby will be for us. We hope my pregnancy will give the kids somewhere positive to focus their attention, too, and that they don't see their new sibling as an encroachment on their dad’s attention. I've been reminded of how we've survived the past few months: together, as a united family.

A: Thank you so much for this update. (This is the letter writer from last week who now has full custody of her stepchildren because their mother died suddenly. She discovered she was pregnant—hadn't told her husband—and was considering an abortion because of all the turmoil the family was under.) You're right, we do live in a world that sometimes feels like it's all chaos and unhappiness, and you know it's also one of incredible beauty and joy. Your pregnancy is part of the latter. There wouldn't be any people if children were only conceived who were guaranteed to come into the perfect situation. You are obviously a deeply caring stepmother, so just continue to be a stable, loving presence for your stepchildren. They could certainly use some grief counseling, and you and your husband would be helped by getting guidance from an expert on how to help them—and yourselves. And congratulations on your wonderful news.

Q. Love Letters: After four years with my partner, he tells me that he has some love letters from his teens, and he wants me to send them to him. He has moved away and I'll be joining him soon. I was very angry about these letters and he said they are his memories and he wants to keep them. Also, we've argued about photos of women from his past which he keeps because of the nice memories he has of them. We threw out all his photos with his ex, and two years later I found some of them, which he took out of the bin and kept them behind my back. When I asked him about them he said that he can't remember and that he was under a lot of stress. He’s much better now but will still have a go at me about the photos. He does see what all the anger is about. Please help. I don't know what to make of him. After 4 years together, I feel very betrayed by his response. Thank you

A: It sounds like robot partners can't come too soon for you because you would prefer a machine programmed to meet your specifications. Your partner's previous experiences helped form who he is and presumably you find who he is appealing. I'm trying to imagine the Dumpster event you organized that was supposed to consume all evidence that he even had an ex. You are not entitled to go through his memorabilia and edit it to suit your insecurities. You don't say that he disappears for hours and you find him obsessively poring over photos of his exes, so I will assume you are not objecting to some Vertigo style obsession with his past. Given the level of your jealousy, it is odd that he would specify that he wanted his high school love letters. But maybe he realized he left a box of high school stuff behind and the only way to get it was for you to forward it, and he knew you would squirrel through it for content. The real questions here, given the evidence you have presented, is not about his betrayal, but why he's spent four years with you.

Q. Baby Shower?: I work in small, female dominated, office. One of our employees is pregnant with a new boyfriend. She has had no problem in sharing that he is a convicted sex offender for an incident that involved a 4-year-old girl. While she was not with him during the period of incident, she vehemently denies he did anything wrong. Since she was not there, the rest of us in the office are in agreement that she has no basis to defend him as he could be feeding her a line of bull. We are disgusted that she has not only allowed him in her life and gotten purposely pregnant by him but she also brings him around her underage son. Illegally, nonetheless (to her account she is not shy about sharing information). She hasn't shared his real name, unfortunately, so we are unable to alert anyone. In the office, it is common that we throw the mom-to-be a shower, however we are all in agreement that we disagree with this relationship. What do we do?

A: She's going to have the baby whether or not you throw the shower, so forgoing a shower for her is not going to persuade her that she is making a terrible mistake. Since she's been so open about the fact that she is allowing a child molester to hang around her young son, that is all the information any of you need to alert the authorities. Someone should call child protective services and explain the situation as you know it. This can be done anonymously. Maybe after your office shower, she will come home to find some social workers waiting at her door.

Q. Roommate Noises: While, yes, it is nearly the end of the year, it also isn't too late to invest in a white noise machine. You can't make her stop, but you can provide enough ambient noise so you don't have to hear it.

A: Good idea. Also people are suggesting earplugs. (I do have a question whether it's advisable to keep earplugs in every night for hours—but maybe someone can enlighten me.) The roommate sounds experienced at her activity, so I'm assuming these sessions don't last all night but are actually rather brief.

Q. Reveal an Affair?: Almost a year ago my husband caught me sleeping with one of our closest friends. He was devastated and demanded I have no contact with the man if I wanted to save our marriage. He also decided he did not want to tell my very good friend, my affair partner's wife, about the affair. My infidelity humiliated him. I respected his wishes and disappeared from my friend's life. At first she called me frequently, because we were a big part of each other's lives. Then she started to ask what she did to anger me. Lately she's taken to emailing or calling me once a month to tell me how much she loves and misses me. I am sick over how much I have hurt her. I want to respect my husband's wishes but can barely handle this additional pain I'm causing my friend.

A: I occasionally get letters from people who have suddenly, and for no apparent reason, had a friend disappear from their life. That this is a possible reason makes a lot of sense. You have betrayed your husband and your friend, and she has been left in the dark as to why. What a jerk of a husband she must have. Surely she has turned to him distraught over the inexplicable end of the friendship. He's just sat there and lied that he has no idea what happened. Your husband made an unfair demand about leaving your friend in the dark. But if you were to tell her, you would have to let your husband know and also consider the effect it would have on her marriage. If you don't want to tell, I still think she deserves an explanation, however cryptic. I think you owe her the courtesy of telling her that she has done nothing to harm the friendship, and that it's end is your responsibility. Explain you know your behavior has been cruel and you hate having to hurt her, but that sadly, for reasons you don't want to go into, your friendship can't be repaired.

Q. Greedy Surrogate: I am hugely grateful towards my cousin for being a surrogate for us. We are obviously paying all pregnancy related expenses, however, some of her recent requests are causing an eyebrow raise. It started when she asked us to pay for someone to cook and clean for her family after the birth. We happily agreed, until she said she wanted the home help for three months. We thought it was a little over the top but didn't want to make an issue out of it—this wonderful woman is giving us a child, after all. Then she asked us for gym membership for a year and ongoing personal training until she went back to her 120 pound figure. We agreed to this as well, thinking that I might have done this for myself if I had the baby. Then she started sending us receipts for expensive, upmarket maternity clothes. I knew she gave away her maternity clothes after her two kids so I was expecting to take her shopping, but she buys clothes that would have been completely out of her budget with her own pregnancies. In this situation is it out of line for me to ask her to keep to a reasonable price range? I'm also reconsidering personal training because it seems unnecessary when we're paying for her gym membership after birth.

A: You don't mention you are paying your cousin outright for the surrogacy. I've read that when contracting with a stranger to carry your child the cost can run around $20,000. So if she's coming in under that budget, and a personal trainer, some help at home, and high-end maternity clothes shouldn’t break the bank, then you should consider yourselves lucky. Three months of help for her while she recovers from her pregnancy sound reasonable, and once she gives birth her leverage to ask for lifetime domestic help will vastly decrease. Pay up with a smile—in a few months she will be giving you the most precious gift imaginable.

Q. Perping Grandpa: While doing my new in-laws’ taxes a few years ago I needed a birth date and availed myself of our state's online court records. I was shocked to find my new father-in-law had been charged with child molestation and I confronted my husband, who was also shocked. Over the past few years we have never said anything, and the only child we have is never allowed alone with FIL, but I feel like a fraud when they're around. Should we tell them we know and are glad he got help/therapy? Do we mention to the victim (his granddaughter, who is now grown) that we know? Or do we keep quiet and go on pretending we don't know?

A: I think your husband should have a private meeting with his parents to tell them what he discovered. Obviously he will explain this was very distressing, but he can say he wants to hear the full story. You write that he was charged with molestation, but not convicted. Maybe there wasn't enough evidence, maybe your then-young niece was pressured not to cooperate, maybe it was a grotesque misunderstanding. How his parents react will help your husband know whether his father (and mother) have really addressed what happened, or are full of excuses and denial. This is also an opportunity to say that because of the charges, your child will not be left alone with his parents, and surely they can understand this decision.

Q. The Last Resort: My brother is divorced with two kids. Their mom is disabled and lives in a home for people with disabilities. He used to live with our sister, who would help him look after the kids after school. The two of them had a huge argument and have completely severed their relationship. My brother asked if I could look after his girls for three months while he sorted out a house and childcare. I agreed, thinking I was doing something to help my brother and my nieces. The three months have now turned into two years. He keeps saying he will take them in a couple of months but it has never happened. He quits his work frequently over minor disputes and moves around a lot. My older niece has just turned 12. I was willing to help my brother out on a temporary basis, but I can't do this for the next several years. I have my own kids to raise and our finances are tight. Things are already hectic at home and my marriage is under severe strain because of the stress of having five kids in the house. We have three bedrooms and one bathroom, so everybody screams and fights every single morning. That's Every. Single. Morning. My children are resentful because I can't spend much time with them. I am so stressed that I find myself regularly screaming at the children and hating my nieces for being in my home, then feeling horrendously guilty because I know it's not their fault. My younger niece needs weekly (and expensive) speech therapy and my brother refuses to contribute. Would it make me a bad person if I just take the girls and leave them at their father's place?

A: It would not make you bad person if you find your nieces a stable situation that is better for them than the one you are providing. That situation is not with your brother, sadly. Think of the life these girls have led with two parents who are unable to care for them. That's tragic, and given that you have taken them in for two years, you obviously have a great deal of compassion for these girls, even as they drive you crazy. This is my day to add to the case load of child protective services, but that is who you should call. Social services should step in to help you sort this out. It could be that with a case worker and occasional respite care you might be able to keep the girls. It might be that a kind foster home is the best place for them. But because both parents are unable to be parents, these girls need a professional advocate, and you, too, need some professional help to make sure everyone is getting the best care possible under the circumstances.

Q. Wedding Dilemma—Sorry, Another One!: I'm getting married this year and we're getting the invite list together. My fiance has a huge family and countless friends. He's a social butterfly and has been involved with various hobbies and sports clubs over the years. He also works at a large firm where he got to know a lot of his co-workers personally. I, on the other hand, am an only child with relatives scattered across the world. I have no hopes of them attending. Worse, my parents are divorced and they're both arguing they won't come if I invite the other. At this stage I don't even know if my own parents will make it. I have four close friends I meet up with on a regular basis. I met them at different stages of my life and they don't really know each other well. Although my fiance assures me it doesn't matter, my guest list looks pitiful. I would feel embarrassed taking photos where the bridal side is over in thirty seconds. I'm wondering if I should just invite people I don't know well (neighbors, random co-workers, etc) to make up for it. What do you think?

A: How sad that your parents would cancel each out of their only child's wedding. How wonderful that you are marrying into a large, happy family. Since your wedding will not end with a festive tug of war between the bride and groom's side, it doesn't matter how many people you have there. But make sure the ones you do invite are special to you. You can talk to the ushers who are seating people and explain they don't need to do a groom's or bride's side. And pull the photographer aside in advance and explain you only have a few family members with you. Please don't think of yourself as pitiful—you are about to marry a wonderful guy and gain a huge family.

Q. Surrogacy: Prudie: Maybe I'm missing something, but why would cousin require three months to recover from giving birth, particularly if she won't have a newborn or responsibilities related to having a new child to deal with?

A: Yes, the cousin may be milking the situation, especially since she won't be providing milk to the new infant. But three months of housekeeping is still going to be cheaper than the going rate for a surrogate, so the couple should shell out the cash.

Q. Re: Lights Out Happy Time: Since this chat is anonymous, I'll confess. I used to do this when my college roommate was in the room, wide awake, studying (with her back to me, but still)! I put my knee up with bathrobe over it to hide what I was doing, but it would have been hard to miss. Teenage hormones! She was great—didn't mention a thing!

A: Perhaps one of those times she was researching a paper for her Human Biology class.  I hope she got an A.

Q. In Response To Reveal an Affair: A few years ago, my husband had an affair and I found out about it. Turns out, the person he had the affair was a "friend" of mine. When I didn't know for certain what was going on, both of them were lying to me, saying I was imagining things. My husband and I have worked through things and are happy to this day. The friend deserves the truth. It is the only way to possibly salvage the friendship—it is up to her friend if she still wants to be around, not the husband of the writer.

A: I don't think the friendship is salvageable.  But you're right, knowing something is wrong and being treated as if you are the crazy one can actually make you feel crazy.  I do agree that the innocent friend is entitled to the truth, or at the very least an acknowledgment of the letter writer's strange behavior.

Q. Brother’s Children: The OP should also see if she can find some advice from a family law expert and their local social services office. It seems that if the brother is incapable of caring for his children, he can potentially be required to provide child support at some level. The OP could also find out if these children qualify for Medicaid or other assistance programs given their situation. It may be that the speech therapy and even some other services may be covered through some kind of assistance. The OP is doing a wonderful thing in supporting these kids, but may be able to reduce her family stress by tapping all the resources that may be available for these kids.

A: Agreed that the aunt needs to avail herself of all the financial and other assistance that's available and wherever the girls end up, there has to be some legal protection for them.  Another reader pointed out that if the mother is completely disabled, the children are likely eligible for Social Security benefits.

Q. Sister Cursed Out Other Woman in Front of Our Kids: My sister and I recently took our kids (all under 12) to a children's play. While there we had the misfortune to encounter the former friend with whom my sister's husband cheated on her. The other woman and her daughter had tickets in the row in front of us, and my sister began insulting her. My sister called the other woman a dumb whore and worse. I understood my sister's rage, but because we were all with our kids and surrounded by other children, urged her to calm down. Eventually security was involved, and my sister was escorted from the premises. I did not want her to be alone with her kids, so I chose to leave with my kids as well. Outside we argued about whether her behavior was appropriate. I pointed out that the other woman's daughter overheard the exchange, and she accused me of caring more about a random child than her. Now she won't talk to me until I apologize. I love my sister very much and know she's gone through an incredible amount of pain in the past year, but I can't see any justification for using the language she did around kids. Plus, the other woman's child is innocent. What should I do to mend our relationship?

A: Oh, married people with the hots for the spouses of your friends, please think first about the havoc you will wreak. Your sister was outrageously out of line, so much so that I think she needs professional help.  She's the one who should be apologizing, but go ahead and say you are sorry for what you said.  If this allows you to get to the more important point—that you sister needs help—that's a small price to pay. Tell her you're concerned about her and that a counselor, and maybe medication, will help her cope with what's she's been through.

Q. Brother-in-Law: My husband's sister's husband is facing three to five years in federal prison when he gets sentenced next week. We are kind of at a loss as to how to treat him. His crimes were financial, but they were predatory and show an amazing lack of moral character. My sister-in-law intends to stay married and wait out the prison sentence, but they have no children, and I'm not sure how her intentions will play out. A part of me feels sympathy for the predicament he is facing; he was the best man at our wedding and the godfather to our son. Another part of me is absolutely horrified at the greed and callousness of his behavior. My husband intends to visit him while he's away, which is fine, but I don't know whether I want to, and I am much more concerned that my husband has told him that he will try to bring our kids (9 and 6) to visit. I don't want to throw him away, but I'm just at a total loss as to how to handle this with both compassion and some sense of the fact that he is being punished for his crimes, and maybe he should be isolated. I just don't know, and as best I know, no one I know has been in this predicament, so my friends’ attitude of "screw him" is much more heart wrenching than they realize.

A: You and your husband are each free to make your own decision. If you find your brother-in-law beyond the pale, then don't visit.  But you understand that your husband feels it would be better not to isolate your brother-in-law, so it's good you understand and accept his decision. As for the kids, I think you should explain to them in a way they will understand that their uncle committed some serious crimes involving other people's money.  But this guy is their uncle, not their father, so I don't think they need to be exposed to the clanging bars. 

Q. My Adulteress Daughter Wants Advice: I recently found out my daughter is embroiled in an affair with a married man. She's been encouraging him to leave his wife and is despondent when he refuses. She confessed her relationship to me because we've always been close and she needs support. Even though I love her beyond all reason, I'm appalled at how my daughter has been conducting herself. She told me the other night she hates this man's wife and thinks the wife must be aware of the affair, just willfully ignoring it. I want to help my daughter, but I think she wants a free pass on her behavior. I cannot offer her that. Am I being too judgmental? She is an independent woman in her mid-twenties. What should I tell her? I know she's a good person but cannot bring myself to approve of an affair.

A: You tell her the truth. And that is that you love her but are dismayed to see her involved in such a tawdry situation. You say hearing her express a desire to hurt someone else doesn't sound like her, and you think this situation is terribly damaging. Then you say that having expressed your thoughts, you can't be her confidante as regards the affair.  Reiterate that you adore her, and you understand the power of a new love, but that you two will have to carve out  zone of silence around the affair.

Q. Earplugs: I sleep with earplugs every night and I feel much more refreshed in the morning. I asked an otolaryngologist and they said it is not a problem.

A: Thanks for the (second-hand) medical endorsement!

Emily Yoffe:  Thanks everyone.   Maybe this chat will convince someone on the verge of that affair to act more like the college roommate and save everyone a load of heartache.