Revenge is one of the most common themes in literature and film. Who doesn’t love a good get-even story? While we might tell ourselves we are looking for justice, what we really might be experiencing is a revenge-fuelled emotional tidal wave that takes us places we would be better off avoiding.
I confess to going to one of those places myself. After my ex moved out, when the house was in my name and his stuff cleared out, I opened a storage closet in my house one day and spotted a suitcase that wasn’t mine. I opened it. It was filled with some of my ex’s clothes and personal items, but also paperwork, including letters from his current girlfriend.
I saw red, and every other colour on the spectrum. I called my adult son and he admitted that his father had dropped by and asked if he could leave it at our house for a while and pick it up after he had moved into his new place, which happened to be in another city. I pointed out that the house was mine and any abandoned property on it was also mine. My son was sorry about letting his father do it, even sorrier that he had let the revenge-genie out of her bottle.
I emailed my ex. I gave him three options: first, pick it up within the week; second, I would store it, but in the leaky garden shed, the one he had never gotten around to repairing. I couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t get wet and mildewed. In fact, I could guarantee it would be damaged. Or thee, pay me storage fees.
He paid, after consulting his lawyer girlfriend, who advised that although he could sue if I damaged it, I also had a strong argument and he probably would not win and have damages awarded over a suitcase of old clothes and love letters.
Revenge is one of the most studied of human emotions. There is research suggesting that it is hardwired into our brains. The findings of one (August 2004 Science magazine) showed that brain imaging of people administering punishment because they believed they had been wronged activated the reward circuitry of the brain.
Mike McCullough, psychologist and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, calls it a tax on offensive behavior.
The problem is that what feels like justice to one person might be interpreted as unwarranted revenge to another. And it often sets up an escalating pattern that will come back to bite the instigator.
Even worse for women, a study led by Tania Singer of University College London using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to analyze the brain activity of 32 volunteers after their participation in a simple game, called the Prisoner’s Dilemma showed that the men in the study experienced greater pleasure at seeing revenge on the game cheaters than the women who participated.
And while you might feel elated after watching a movie where the bad guy gets what he deserves, it doesn’t work that way in real life. A paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Brad Bushman, Ohio State University) reported more aggression in people who vented as opposed to those who had not.
So where does this leave us: hardwired to seek revenge, firing up the pleasure circuitry of the brain when we do, then feeling worse for longer afterwards?
Perhaps I’ll become one of those ‘Karma’s a bitch’ people. You know the ones: believers that “Time Heals All Wounds and Wounds All Heels,” who leave it to the universe to sort things out.
If you’ve got a revenge story, or perhaps dabbled in it yourself, please feel free to share it. I love nothing better than a good read where the nasty ex gets what is coming to him or her. But in future dealings with my ex, I’ll probably refrain from active revenge. I have to admit that it did feel satisfying at the time but long term only focussed me on petty things that I should have ignored.
In conclusion, I’m going to give the last words to William Makepeace Thackeray who let us know it’s okay to feel it but not deal it: “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural.”
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Jennifer Juniper says
They say revenge is best served cold, but I say just as long as it’s served……
And I like to see it served up to an offender by many different people. It makes it even more gratifying.
I find small acts of revenge quite satisfying. The larger ones I leave to the cosmos.
That sounds like a good strategy, especially since the larger acts of revenge are the ones most likely to get us into trouble.
After my husband walked out suddenly 2 years ago from our 35 year marriage, I was devastated, lost and eventually anrgy too, but realized I cannot change the past, cannot change events nor my husband and his actions. What I find most comforting now is Karma always comes back to those who treat others like garbage. And while going through divorce now… it has come back to him in many ways.
So, life will go on and know I will be fine going forward again.
I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s abandonment. It hurts to be tossed away after investing so much in a relationship. But you sound like you have the strength and determination to make a life without him.
Thank you for your support. Yes, it tryly has been tragic because I researched wife abandonment in a book called “Runaway Husbands” by Dr. Vicki Stark and my own cconclusiions about the how and why this happened to me, the signs I missed, and the “aha” moments I clearly see now. I think my being a military wife for over 20 years also helped me since I pretty much did things on my own aanyway while he was gone helped me heal a bit quicker.
the truly stunning thing is I thought I was marrying “up”, but I married “down” to a full-fledgeed narcissist who cares nothing about anyone, self-serving without compassion nor empathy for others including our own mentally disabled son who lives with me. My huaband never mentioned even having a disabled son, but luckily my attorney told his about this fact, so now I am waiting for a fair and reasonable alimony settlement so I can move on and forward with my new life.
It is hard to begin again after a long-term marriage and age 58, but not impossible. Learning so much about myself, with dreams and hopes for things I never did while married either.
When it comes to forgiveness of someone like my spouse, I never asked for the event to be abanoned, didn’t do anything to deserve it either and will let life and karma take care of itself
I also had several decades of marriage before it ended. Starting again in one’s 50’s, as a single person, is hard in different ways than being younger. But we have a lot more experience of life and we’ve gotten through a lot, and it all helps when we have to start again. Your comment about ‘marrying down’ reminded me of something a long-term friend said to another friend when I got married. She said ‘One of them married up’.
It must have been obvious to all my friends which one of us she meant.
I have been incredibly fair to my former husband, even during our protracted divorce because people who know told me it would work out for the best for me and my kids. But I admit that revenge fantasies helped me cope sometimes after he had been a complete jerk to me or the kids. Thinking up real whoppers like taking dog droppings and placing them under his front door mat (which had cut outs), or brewing up some poison ivy tea to spray on his car door handle so that he would end up itchy all over. Turns out that thinking up a dasterdly revenge plot and then NOT acting on it is fairly therapeutic. You get to be all mean in your imagination while still taking the high road in your real life.
Excellent advice! I wonder if a brain scan would show that just fantasizing about revenge activates the reward circuitry of the brain as much as taking actual revenge.
Revenge I was told is never a good thing. It demoralizes those who are not mean. In the book about wife abandonment, many of the wives in the nook Runaway Husbands had really bad visions of revenge towrds their spouses who left them without notice. It was Shakespeare who said “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” so here are some of the women’s fantasises they had:
“I had a recurring fantasy to roast him over an open campfire. However, every time I thought of this, i saw him with the same pasted-on-smile that he alwasy wore, while he went round and round the skeewer”
Anther funny point of revengeful thought
” I’d love to strip him naked, cover his skin in dimes secured with Crazy-Glue and dump his sorry behind at the corner of Yonge and Bloor (prime panhandling territory in Toronto)” Brutal but that is how she felt
The best revenge I have read is to treat yourself well. life life to the fullest like you never did before.
A common revenge plan is to look as hot as possible so that the next time you see the ex, he will regret the divorce. I think I’ll leave that to others: for me it is too much hard work and probably unattainable.
But I can work on other things in my life, and I have, and I will continue to do so.
(I have actually been to the corner of Yonge and Bloor, but many decades ago, before it was panhandling territory).