Revenge Is Its Own Punishment

Jonas and Patricia had been married for seven years, but things had been going downhill for the last three. Patricia had been feeling increasingly frustrated over what she described as Jonas’s rigidity; he refused to make an effort to soften towards her. She finally reached a point where she was unwilling to tolerate his abusiveness and she announced to him that she was planning to leave the marriage. Upon hearing the news, Jonas flew into a rage and shouted,

“You’ll be sorry for this! I’m going to make you pay for breaking up our family.”

He refused to cooperate with divorce proceedings to divide their assets and formalize their custody agreement. Knowing that she was anxious to complete the divorce, divide their assets, and formalize their custody agreement, Jonas deliberately dragged the process out for over two years. “I know that he did that just to torture me,” Patricia said.

Whenever they had communication about matters such as timing to pick up and drop off the children, Jonas made hurtful remarks like, “You selfish bitch!” He often indulged himself by speaking in derogatory ways to Patricia in front of the children. In an effort to remove herself from harm’s way, Patricia asked her neighbor if she could bring the kids to her house for Jonas to pick them up and drop them off for their visits with their dad in order to avoid any direct contact with him. The neighbor, who was well aware of Jonas’s hot temper, willingly obliged her.

When we last heard, Jonas still hadn’t recovered from the divorce. He didn’t date or remarry, and he continued his vendetta for years. Although he genuinely loved his son and daughter and wanted to spend time with them, when they became teenagers, they refused to go to their dad for visits. As adults, they had only sporadic, infrequent contact with him. Although Patricia was careful to not say anything negative about their dad, Jonas was convinced that she had turned the children against him.

Jonas never did let go of his victim story and never took any responsibility for the breakdown of his marriage, continuing to insist to anyone who would listen that it was all Patricia’s fault and that she had planned the divorce from the beginning. He obsessed about his revenge fantasies, wishing harm to Patricia. He never did realize that it was his own vindictiveness that had taken him down. Patricia eventually found another partner, got married, and found out that there were some really good, kind men out there.

It can be hard to accept that our words also can be as violent and destructive as our actions. Even those that we believe are spoken out of an intention to serve our partner can be hurtful. Words that are spoken with a tone of anger, criticism, out of an intention to coerce someone to take the desired action, to get them to understand something, or to convince them that we are right, can all have an implicit threat contained within them. And threats, whether overt or covert, are inherently intimidating.

It can be humbling to realize that we may use words to threaten or punish someone whom we feel is withholding something from us that we believe we have a right to when they are unwilling to provide it. But there are times when it is necessary to feel embarrassment in order to wake up to the effects that words that we believe to be harmless can be anything but. There is a part of all of us that, particularly when we feel victimized, wish that the perpetrator of our pain suffers to “get what they deserve.”

These feelings are understandable. Feeling them does not make us a monster. But expressing them through our words or actions perpetuates the cycle of violence causing harm not only to others but to ourselves. We are left feeling shut down, mistrusting, closed-hearted, and isolated. It isn’t our partner’s behavior that causes us to feel these things; it is our own reactivity. The more we indulge ourselves, the more justified we feel in being vengeful.

When we realize that we are the cause of our pain and are responsible for dealing with it, our vengeful instincts lose their power over us. The impulse to lash out verbally may still arise from time to time, but we are no longer consumed by it. It’s not because we think it is the wrong thing to do, but because we are no longer willing to cause ourselves unnecessary pain. It isn’t until we truly see that it is not our partner who was creating our personal prison that we can take back the power to free ourselves and move from hell to happiness.

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Linda & Charlie Bloom

Linda & Charlie Bloom

Linda Bloom LCSW and Charlie Bloom MSW, married since 1972, are experts in the field of relationships and have published four successful books.