By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “Why shouldn’t I exact revenge from my ex for all the pain inflicted on me in our divorce?” Divorce leaves us angry, sad, disappointed, ashamed, and full of justified anger and self-righteous resentment. Friends and relatives stoke the fires by reminding us all the ways we were mistreated. It sure feels good to imagine getting back at my ex.
(This is the 15th article in a series of articles describing how contentment and satisfaction with life after divorce depends on being able to dissolve the very human resistance to the changes that divorce imposes on our lives.)
You Hurt Me, So I’ll Hurt You Back.
We all get hurt during divorce. Therefore, it is quite normal for you to want to strike out in anger at your ex for all the pain you suffered. This can be done in a myriad of ways.
You can attack your ex verbally. You can tell your children how horrible your ex is. You can complain to your friends about what your ex did to you and how you were mistreated. You can dis-invite your ex from your kids’ birthdays and holiday celebrations. You can ignore or dismiss your ex when you meet in public. You can tell your friends what a despicable person your ex is dating. You can tell your friends the infidelities that your ex perpetrated. You can reveal the addictive behaviors your ex may have done, as well as other secrets. You can fail to forward your ex’s mail. You can neglect to tell your ex your child was injured in a car crash, leaving her partially impaired for over a year.
The options are limitless.
Pros and Cons of the Retaliation Mindset: I Want Revenge!
There are both reasons for and reasons against adopting a mindset of revenge.
The upside of revenge. It feels good to inflict pain on the person who caused you so much of it. You can reassure yourself you are in the right because your ex deserves it. Choosing to punish your ex provides a simple answer to the question of how you should react to your divorce. You do not have to be bothered by such pesky issues as what were your contributions to the death of your relationship. You get to ignore such difficult issues as how to prevent your next relationship from ending up in divorce court again. You do not have to take responsibility for the quality of your life going forward if your ex is the cause of your constant misery. But most of all, it just feels good!
The downside of revenge. Being on the lookout for ways to inflict revenge on your ex causes you to live life through a negative filter. Over time, looking for ways to hurt another person is depressing and damaging to your self-concept and self-confidence. You forfeit the right to live a happy and optimistic life, being ever on the offensive and obsessed with maintaining a thick defensive skin. You run the risk of not having a healthy, positive intimate relationship since any long-term relationship partner would have to accept you as someone who values anger and retribution. This only attracts others who treat life with cynicism and negativity. This makes it exceedingly difficult to raise children who have a positive, optimistic view of life. It causes your children to resent you for how you treat their other parent.
In addition, if your ex has healed to the point that he or she doesn’t care about you and what you think, you have no power over your ex. Then all your efforts to punish your ex are totally futile which will be extremely frustrating to you. You are tilting at windmills and everyone is observing how irrational and mean-spirited you are.
Pros and Cons of a Problem-Solving Mindset: I Want to Remove the Roadblocks to My Happiness!
Likewise, there are both reasons for and against taking a problem-solving approach for divorce recovery.
The downside of problem-solving. If you drop the option of punishing your ex, some past hurts will go unacknowledged and unpunished. Some friends might see you as weak and ineffectual for not attacking your ex for legitimate offenses. You will not have an opportunity to gloat over the pain you administered to your ex. You won’t be able to entertain the fantasy that you are omnipotent. Your ego will not be stroked by exercising the power to inflict pain on another human being.
The upside of problem-solving. You get to focus on living in the present and looking to the future with hope and optimism. Your life energy is used to build and create, not tear down and destroy. Your children will appreciate your ability to overlook the obvious shortcomings of your ex and appreciate your strength in making life better for yourself and your children. Your friends will admire you for making the choice to live life from a positive point of view. You open the possibility of finding a healthy, long-term relationship with a good chance it will not fail.
So, What’s the Point?
Divorce leaves both sides traumatized and with plenty excuses to retaliate. How we choose to react to our divorce will determine the likelihood of living a happy, contented life after divorce. To see divorce and divorce recovery as permission to punish your ex has some short-term, ego-satisfying outcomes. To treat it as an opportunity to solve the problems that are preventing you from living a life after divorce of contentment and optimism provides you with a lifetime of positive satisfaction.
You are faced with the conflicting choices of acknowledging the long-term value of logical problem-solving versus succumbing to the short-term temptation to retaliate for all the pain you suffered.
My hope is that while you are pondering your choice, you will heed the wisdom of Confucius when he reminds us: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”