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How revenge makes it fair

scalesUnfairness arises in situations of powerlessness, disrespect and a lack of reciprocity in your most intimate relationships. Often in relationships you want something or someone to change, but you cannot make it happen, which fuels your desire to defend against this feeling of impotence. Sometimes you cannot even get your significant other to listen to you, which is surely the epitome of powerlessness. Such incidents are a common feature of everyday life as individuals act in their social roles of family and work.

To some degree, all anger occurs in an effort to resolve discrepancies with fairness. Yet, fairness is temptingly self-serving. It is tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued you. But the other person hardly ever sees it that way. Fairness is based on what you believe and perceive as ‘fair’. So when you are angry, you feel resentful because you think this is not meeting my standards of what’s fair. But the real anger comes up when other people won’t agree with you. No matter how much you plead your case, explain yourself and suggesting logical reasons for what is wrong, no one will agree with you. You end up causing yourself a lot of pain and an ever-growing pile of resentment. Those sensitive to the unfairness of life suffers from the mistaken conviction that:

(a) Life should be fair

(b) Unfairness is awful and intolerable

(c) There is an objective standard of fairness that everyone agrees upon

(d) I must act to bring about the fairness I am entitled to

We watched others deal with unfairness for not getting their way and exhibit anger. This is not always a useful way to learn how to handle a feeling. In my view, intelligent anger management does not mean eradication of anger. Complete elimination of anger is neither possible nor desirable, because anger has self-protective functions such as maintaining boundaries and mobilizing courage to correct injustices. Intelligent anger management means that one can (a) transform excessive physiological arousal, (b) alter absurd aggressive thoughts, and (c) modify unhealthy behaviors that hinder problem solving.

Anger from unfairness may arise, for instance, if a family member speaks in a sarcastic tone of voice. It is displayed when a coworker gets promoted ahead of you, when traffic is at a stand still, when bills pile up, when the dog pees on the rug, when a friend fails to keep a promise, when a parent criticizes you, when a child refuses to obey you, or when you are feeling ignored. These are moments where life feels immensely unfair and hard. We don’t know how to fix a problem, feel vulnerable and become protective. So all too often, a feeling of anger manifests and is managed defensively, usually with insulting or insensitive behavior.

To get others to comply with our vision of fairness, we try to make them understand the error of their ways. This is done in the name of bringing about a “fairer,” more equitable distribution of the rights and privileges in the relationship.  This good intention not only insults the other partner’s ability to solve problems, but it makes the relationship worse.  The other partner feels victimized emotionally, which is often followed by intense hurt. As the misunderstanding escalates, the cycle of hurt continues, so if we hurt you again then things will be fair.

This is what we call ‘justice’. Justice is to have your hurts repaired by some form of compensation. Of course it does not have to be like this. Repair of relationships can be achieved with a simple apology, and sometimes that is enough. If, however, compensation is not quickly given, then demands can escalate. If you have lost something, then you will not feel happy until it has been restored to you. Justice is thus concerned with making things fair by offering compensation for an offense. However, if we do not get compensation, there is a natural desire for revenge. When seeking revenge, our perception of fairness takes on a bizarre and twisted form. The problem with revenge is that you seek to hurt the other person, far greater than they have hurt you. This is the stuff of conflict and wars, as an act of revenge leads to more vengeful acts, which rapidly escalate into a spiral of violence.

Scales image available from Shutterstock.

How revenge makes it fair

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2019). How revenge makes it fair. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 May 2019
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