Dear Prudence

Help! The Woman I Bullied in High School Is Taking Her Revenge on My Sons.

I’m a little ashamed and just don’t know what to do.

Two boys sit on a bench with an illustrated drop behind them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns—your first month is only $1.

Dear Prudence,

I enrolled my two boys into an exclusive private school in our new hometown. At a school event I bumped into an attractive woman whom I didn’t recognize. She came by and asked if I remember her. It turns out that she was someone I bullied in high school. After that day I noticed other moms slowly avoiding me. I think she must have told them about how I used to bully her. Eventually my boys started coming home, crying and upset that other kids wouldn’t play with them. My younger son was not allowed to join a game of hockey during recess because another boy told him, “My mom says your mom is a b***h.” They are now openly being ridiculed and ostracized at school by their peers. I asked to meet my former classmate and apologized for bullying her as I was young and stupid, although I don’t much remember what I did. She smiled at me in a creepy way and said she went through therapy for what I put her through. I haven’t told my husband about this woman because I’m a little ashamed at how I used to treat her. Putting my boys into another school is not a feasible option, but I just don’t know what to do.

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So this woman’s revenge on your long ago mistreatment of her is to lead her children in a campaign to ostracize and bully your children. Boy, oh, boy does she need more therapy. You’re understandably ashamed of what you did and want to keep it quiet, but for the sake of your sons you need to tell your husband about it, and how your misdeeds are being revisited on your innocent boys. Then the two of you need to get in touch with the school administration and get this issue addressed. They should take immediate steps to stop the bullying of your sons.

But what may never stop is your own shunning. You have entered a Hollywood-ready high school revenge story. Twenty years after your reign as a mean girl, you’re going to find yourself black-balled at the school bake sales and rejected as class mother. Even if you get the other kids to back off your boys, you’ve got a tough road ahead since now all the other mothers know just how miserably you treated their friend. Let’s hope some parents will decide not to relive the worst of high school, understand people change, and refuse to be drawn into this drama. Leading a campaign to have your children mistreated may eventually backfire on this other mother and she may find herself as the unpopular girl all over again. Let’s hope with some intervention, your sons’ situation dramatically improves in the fall. You say there is no other feasible option but this school, but if all of you find yourselves isolated and unhappy there, there are always other choices. —Emily Yoffe

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From: “Mean girls, grabby men, ex-boyfriend obsession, and family secrets.” (June 6, 2011)

Dear Prudence,

I am at rock bottom. I love my husband more than anything in this world, but I cheated on him. I kissed another man—twice. He wants a divorce. I want to spend the rest of my life with him, but things between us have been frayed for some time now. For the past six months, every conversation we have had has been filled with irritation and defensiveness. It doesn’t seem like he likes me at all. We both have been preoccupied with our phones and no longer communicate at all. He doesn’t seem interested in me and I have often wondered if he wanted to leave me. The only time he seems happy with me is when I do my chores and contribute to the housework. He is very stressed and overwhelmed, but we both work full-time and I do my best to help around the house.

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He has a wonderful daughter whom I love dearly. There has always been pressure on me to be her full-on mother, and I think those expectations are stressful for both of us. He never seems satisfied with my level of contribution or participation, and as a result, my relationship with his daughter can feel strained. I have communicated that I want to be a trusted adult she can have fun with and am his backup support when he needs me. I want to cook for her, take her shopping, and watch movies. He needs me to be her June Cleaver.

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My husband is a wonderful person, but we both come from traumatic backgrounds. While he doesn’t have a drinking problem, he is a bad drinker, and all of his trauma comes out in a way that is upsetting to me. I have expressed my discomfort with his drinking many times over the years and he brushes me off. I felt alone, unliked, and unwanted, and I looked to someone else to remind me that I am a person worth talking to. My husband and I only talk about chores and money. We are capable of so much more, and there is a real, profound love between us. I made a huge mistake in kissing someone else, and I feel disgusted that I could hurt him like this. I would never do this again. He has agreed to counseling, but every day he changes his mind and says he wants a divorce. He wants to talk to the man I kissed, and I agreed—but actually I think that would be unwise and unhelpful. I want to prove to him that I love him and am committed to rebuilding our marriage. Prudence, he trusts you and listens to your podcast/reads your column regularly—what do I do?

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I’m sorry to hear that your husband is a regular reader of the column, given how little that’s seemed to help him in his personal life. You say that he’s a “wonderful person,” but no evidence for that made it into your letter. He doesn’t seem to like you, you two have barely spoken except about chores in six months, he’s not satisfied with your performance as a wonderful stepmother but expects you to act like a Stepford parent to his daughter (even though neither you nor she want that from one another), he constantly makes you feel inadequate, he abuses alcohol and dismisses your concerns around it, he threatens to divorce you on a daily basis, he jerks you around when it comes to going to couples counseling, and instead of dealing with any of these issues, he wants to meet the man you kissed twice, as if that man could possibly have any answers or information useful to him.

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Frankly, I’m amazed you only kissed this guy twice. You must have extraordinary willpower, because anyone in the marriage you’ve described, no matter how much they loved their partner, would be looking frantically for a self-destruct button just to change something. I think your faith that the two of you are capable of so much more is misplaced. Your husband isn’t interested in developing more with you, and you can’t fix this marriage without his participation. I don’t think you should feel disgusted with yourself. Yes, kissing someone else went against the terms of your marriage, but your marriage is unbearable. The only time your husband is happy with you is when you’re doing chores. That’s grim. I think you should go to a counselor by yourself and figure out how to get the support you need as you pursue a divorce, rather than waiting to find out when your husband will make good on his threat to file first. —Danny M. Lavery

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From: “Help! I Kissed Another Man, and Now My Husband Wants a Divorce.” (July 12, 2018)

Dear Prudence,

My mother-in-law taught third grade for about 40 years before she retired from teaching. We have 6-year-old boy-and-girl twins and a 4-year-old daughter. Our twins are at their age level for every subject, and more importantly love school and are well-adjusted. Our 4-year-old is quite advanced. She reads at a level beyond her siblings, can solve complex mathematics, and has logical reasoning skills better suited for an 8- or 9-year-old child. My husband and I challenge and enrich all of our children’s lives with access to reading materials and family learning activities. My mother-in-law noticed my younger daughter’s natural intellect and constantly brings it up in conversation. To make things even more awkward, she will give her tests far beyond her grade level in front of her siblings. As a result, our daughter feels pressure to perform around grandma, and our twins think that they aren’t smart (which isn’t true, and a damaging idea at their formative years). My husband and I tried a direct conversation with her about this, but she brushed us off and told us that one of our children is smarter than the other two—and coddling our twins isn’t going to change that. She also said that parents of our generation are too focused on self-esteem over achievement. My husband and I disagree with her, but we do not think this is a big enough issue to warrant cutting contact with her. But it is big enough that we do not want to just let it go. What should we do to strike some middle ground?

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I wonder if for 40 years your mother-in-law shredded the little hearts and minds of the charges she considered to be underperforming dunderheads. Given her attitude, third-graders in her school district are probably much happier people now that she’s out of the classroom. The middle ground you strike is that you tell her that her job as grandmother is to be a loving, fun, inspirational figure to all her grandchildren. Unfortunately, her excitement about your younger daughter is distorting their relationship and putting pressure on your little girl to be some kind of performing bear. It’s also insulting the intelligence of the twins—and all the rest of you. Say she is visiting as a grandmother, not a proctor at the SATs. Tell her that maybe you haven’t made your objections explicit enough before, but she needs to lay off the chattering about smarts and the invidious comparisons. If she can’t, fewer visits will be sad for everyone. —E.Y.

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From: “Help! My Mother-in-Law Won’t Stop Telling My Young Daughter How Gifted She Is.” (July 23, 2012)

Dear Prudence,

I was in a marriage for 15 years that I thought was great. We got along well and had lots of friends and two wonderful kids. My world fell apart after I learned my husband had been carrying on a five-year affair with one of my friends. We traveled with this family—our kids were the best of friends. I will admit that we were going through a rough patch in our marriage, but nothing earth-shattering that couldn’t be dealt with, or so I thought. We divorced. I couldn’t forgive him.

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Seven years later and I am in a long-term relationship with a wonderful man. He loves me like no one else ever has. I trust him implicitly. But I can’t commit. I’ve told him I won’t remarry, and he’s fine with this. He wants to live together (my kids are grown and on their own), but something is holding me back. Part of me still loves my ex and the life we had, but I know I could never trust him. (He’s had several girlfriends over the years and has cheated on all of them.) But I can’t help but miss the life I used to have. I realize it’s not fair to my new man that I feel this way. (He doesn’t know.) I love him and want to have a life with him, but I want to do so without reservation or longing for what I used to have.

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I know in cases like this one, where the betrayal was both significant and long ago, it’s customary to recommend therapy as a way to help process and release your feelings of longing and resentment toward your ex, so that you can move forward in your new relationship. And I do! Go to therapy, if you haven’t already, and talk about all the things you wish you could have done with your ex-husband, the father of your children, the person you had hoped to stay with for the rest of your life, and find a way to order, rather than ignore, those feelings in such a way that they don’t keep you from doing the things you want to do now. These are completely normal thoughts that should be shared with a trusted and neutral third party, not with the man you’re seeing now.

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But I also don’t think you have to get married or even live with your current boyfriend in order to have a good life with him. I don’t think that occasionally missing your old life means you’re helplessly mired in the past; I think everyone experiences reservations about the various directions their lives could have taken and that you in particular experienced a serious “two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood” moment that would make anyone think a great deal about what might have been. Give yourself permission to experience regret and longing sometimes—don’t feel as if you have to make perfect peace with an imperfect past. —D.L.

From: “Help! My Husband Destroyed Our Marriage Years Ago, but I Still Miss Him.” (May 17, 2016)

More Advice From Dear Prudence

My wife died last year. My college-aged daughter wants me to get a vasectomy. She’s heard stories of younger women taking advantage of older men and sometimes having their babies. She feels I wouldn’t be prepared for a new child (and I’m sure she’s also thinking of her inheritance). I think I have more self-control than that, but should I get a vasectomy just for my daughter’s peace of mind?

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