Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth: Who Deserves Revenge?

eye of manWhen I was in college, my friend Matt hit an old woman with his car and killed her. Every time he passes the street where she died, he remembers what happened and feels scared and sad. She died on a dark and windy night; it was raining hard. She came out from between two cars, suddenly, into the middle of the street, probably in a hurry and trying to avoid getting too wet.

Matt didn’t see her, didn’t know she was there until the moment of impact. He stopped his car, tried to help her, and called for the police and an ambulance, but it was too late. He is filled with remorse and has nightmares. Even if it was a mistake, he killed someone’s mother and grandmother. Matt lives feeling sorry, but he cannot make up for this tragedy.

Matt’s story, of course, is not unique—many similar tragedies unfold every day. The lives of all involved and their families are permanently stained. How will they sleep? How will they come to terms with what happened, even though it may have been an accident? Are friends and relatives of the deceased ever able to accept the tragic consequences, or should they extract revenge? What would that look like? Perhaps as time passes they no longer feel angry, although they will probably carry the sad memory of the incident forever. History can’t be changed, but the way we relate to it and remember sometimes can be.

A person can’t be brought back to life, but there are circumstances that are less dire and sometimes our feelings about what happened can change. I’m thinking here about breach of trust, about infidelity, about people who thoughtlessly hurt the people they love. In a moment, or maybe a series of moments, they have an affair, and then, after some time, they are caught by their partner. “I’m sorry,” they might say. “It didn’t mean anything. I didn’t mean it.” And perhaps they are genuinely regretful, filled with remorse, about the loss of trust they’ve caused, about the wound to their relationship.

Is their remorse worth anything? Should they suffer, to make up for the suffering they’ve caused? Is it possible to make up for anything?

Can they ever be trusted again? Can they trust themselves, can their partners trust them, or will there always be questions? “Where did you go?” “Who were you with?” “How come you’re home so late?” “Who were you just talking to on the phone?”

In the Dear GoodTherapy.org section of this site, there are many people asking themselves, “Can I forgive?” “Can I ever trust again?” “How can I get even?” These are unbearable, painful, suffering questions—tears seem to seep through the Internet and onto these pages.

I started off with examples of a woman who was killed in a car accident. An affair is not a car accident—nobody dies—but there is a murder of trust. My friend Matt lost trust in himself after the accident and never wanted to drive again, although he had to and does, regularly. The people writing about their partners’ infidelity lose trust in their partners and in themselves, too. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? They ask, “What do I do now?” “Should I leave?” “Get divorced?” “End the relationship?” “Should I forgive?” “I want revenge! I want them to know what I suffered. I want them to suffer even more than I did!”

Who deserves revenge? Maybe people who have been wronged feel like they do, but the cycle of revenge can be endless—eyes for eyes until we are all blind. So I think no one deserves revenge, really, even if you feel like you do, even if you’ve been treated unfairly, even if people or circumstances have been horribly mean to you. Do what helps you live your life well now.

Destroying trust is a hateful action, and sometimes people take a long time to get over it, but we need to get on with our lives, to make ourselves whole. You know what they say: “Living well is the best revenge.”

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • shandy

    shandy

    April 30th, 2014 at 7:15 AM

    I have gone both ways with a person, tried to get revenge and then tried to forgive. While getting revenge might feel good in the moment, in the end you feel so much better when you can try to forget about it and let it go. If someone wrongs you and then you try to get them back, how does that make you any better than what they are? It doesn’t. So why not try to rise above it instead? I know that this is not the easy path to take, the easy thing is to figure out a way to make them hurt or suffer like they have, but in the end who does that do any good? If you are a good person then you are going to feel remorseful and it isn’t worth living witht hat. I say forgive, forget, move on and for most people this will hurt them more that any action against them ever could.

  • Estelle

    Estelle

    April 30th, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    After I found out that my husband chetaed on me I was bent on revenge. I didn’t think that there was anything that would satisfy me more than to have an affair and for him to find out about it. But I couldn’t do it, to myself or to the family because this was not what I wnated and I loved him and didn’t wnat to risk that we wouldn’t be able to work things out if I decided that this was what I wanted to do. So I took him back and tried the forgiveness route. Well that didn’t work either so eventually we decided that a divorce was what would be best for us. It wasn’t what I wanted initially but I am glad that I didn’t compromise my moral to get even with him when we were going to end up divorced anyway. I didn’t lose sight of who I am and what I wanted for something petty and that I would be disappointed in myself about.

  • Ron

    Ron

    June 4th, 2014 at 3:19 AM

    Good dedication I have thesane situation I know she was doing something wrong and even she. Knew that I know what her doing she didn’t admit or even tell the truth but still I don’t want to make a divorce

  • Mattie

    Mattie

    May 1st, 2014 at 3:38 AM

    it does feel like it si the easy way to make yourself feel better… but having been there I can attest that I felt even worse after getting back at someone… so not worth it

  • Kim

    Kim

    May 1st, 2014 at 6:40 AM

    I was hoping your article would continue on to the next logical place: if revenge is not then answer, what is the next step? The loss of trust and comfort that accompanies the infidelity is worse than your death example. The person you turn to and seek comfort in was the one who violated every sense of yourself. It is really a lot like a burglary or rape by ur own spouse.

    I know all the stock lists for learning to trust again. However those ring hollow as I am unable to grasp the logistics of implementation. A list of activities or concrete exercises that a horribly damaged couple can attempt to work through in order to try to Hole. Not home. Talk to u latersave the marriage would be much more useful than a checklist of changes. I was hoping to get something similar from the marriage counselor but that is not happening. Any input would be appreciated.

  • tom b

    tom b

    May 1st, 2014 at 2:40 PM

    even my five year old is deep enough to know that revenge is not the job of humans, that our job and directive is to love one another, not punish

  • Barbara

    Barbara

    May 2nd, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    I am sorry, I want to be cool headed and rational but I guess that is not me. I am a firm believer in if someone hurts me then they deserve to get hurt right back a little in return. Isn’t that the way it has always been? I don’t see that there is anything wrong with that line of thinking. We all know that karma can be downright rude to you, so maybe we ought to think about that bebfore choosing our actions and behavior. Do unto others, right? That’s what we have all been taught so why doesn’t that same rule apply here?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    May 2nd, 2014 at 5:46 AM

    Revenge hurts everyone, including yourself. I know how to lust after revenge– and I know what that does to my body physiologically when my insides become sour and bitter and acid, and I eat your self up from the inside. I don’t want to do that.
    The bitterness is associated with the release of bile. So for self protection and health I work to release my desire for revenge instead.
    Here’s a quotation from greekmedicine.net/hygiene/Emotions_and_Organs.html
    Liver, Gall Bladder: Bile is produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder, which makes these two organs vulnerable to negative Choleric emotions like anger, irritability, frustration, resentment, jealousy and envy. These negative Choleric emotions are stored in these organs, and can slowly eat away at them if allowed to fester. Anger and rage can explode upwards from the liver into the head, causing a lot of havoc in their wake: headaches, migraines; red, sore, bloodshot eyes; and muscular tension in the neck and shoulders.

  • Kenneth

    Kenneth

    May 3rd, 2014 at 4:46 AM

    Lynn you are so right about how that need for revenge and the things that that need ultimately does to you will tear you up on the inside. Most of us don’t think much about the physical aspect of carrying around that much need for hate and getting even but it can take more of a serious toll on you than I think most people understand or want to understand. What they understand and think about is getting even and doing what might feel like a release for them… but they don’t stop to think about how this need is killing them from the inside out. Forgive and let it go. It feels so much better than the alternative and I can almost promise you that it is much healthier for you.

  • jayma l

    jayma l

    May 5th, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    I do not want to be so consumed by the need and desire to hurt someone else that I wind up hurting myself even more.

  • Jerry H

    Jerry H

    August 20th, 2014 at 9:40 AM

    Living well is definitely the best revenge, however my twist is making sure the weirdos that caused me grief know I succeeded far more than they ever will along with making them understand what their problems are and in how they acted against me served mostly as the reason they did not succeed. Helping them know how and why they’re losers and how I helped cement the nature of their own miserable existences is vindictive however it sure is sweet! It’s actually the best FU ever. $$$$$

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