There are few criticisms that provoke more defensiveness than the accusation of being “vengeful.” For most of us, this is a particularly nasty attribute, even more negative than being egotistical, selfish, lazy, or controlling. To be vengeful is to deliberately seek to cause harm or suffering to someone who we think has wronged us. It’s not easy to acknowledge, but we are being vengeful whenever we strike out in reaction to our experience of being injured.
Every time we use our words to punish, control, or retaliate against someone, we are being vengeful. It is easy to think that because we never lift a finger to physically harm our partner, that we are not a vengeful person. It is even possible to take solace in this and even feel a kind of smug superiority.
Consider the case of Jonas and Patricia.
There was rigidity about Jonas that Patricia could not penetrate despite years of effort that finally convinced her to leave him. Jonas was furious and openly declared “I’m going to make you pay for breaking up our family.” Knowing that she was anxious to complete the divorce proceedings to divide their assets and formalize their custody agreement, Jonas dragged the divorce out for two years that he knew would aggravate her.
Whenever they had communication about the times to pick up and drop off the children for visit, Jonas used those moments to make nasty remarks like “You bitch.” He often indulged himself in speaking in derogatory ways to his ex-wife in front of his son and daughter. To get herself out of 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 visit with their dad so that she never had to see him. The neighbor was quite willing to help her friend.
Jonas never did recover from his separation and divorce. He didn’t date or remarry. He continued his vendetta against his ex-wife for years. He was the big looser. Although he 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 visited him only sporadically. Although Patricia was careful to not say anything negative about their dad, Jonas was convinced that she had turned the children against him.
Over the years, he remained a grumpy old guy, attached to his victim story of how he had been wronged. He was alone with his revenge fantasies, wishing harm to Patricia. He never did realize that it was his own vindictiveness that had taken him down. Patricia went onto co-create a successful marriage.
It is hard to accept that the violence of our words is also destructive. Once we understand that our desire to “get our partner to understand” or to “make our point”, or to convince them that we are right, they are ill-concealed efforts to punish them.
This realization is humbling. It forces us to not only confront this shadow part of ourselves, but to see the price that we paying for being vengeful, lashing out when we feel attacked, scared, or wounded. Acting or speaking from that impulse inevitably leaves us feeing 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 feet in being vengeful.
When we realize that we are the cause of our pain and that we are responsible, our vengeful instincts loose their power. The tendency to lash out verbally may still arises 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 this kind of 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.