Is Retaliation an Option in Marriage?

Couple fighting pointing fingers“I’ve been suffering for years,” Marcelle said. “When I tell Andrew that he’s hurt my feelings, he gets angry. Can you imagine that? What kind of human being gets angry when he sees his wife crying?”

This is a good question, and one that I get asked often. The answer is that a person like Andrew, who gets angry at being told that he has—once again—done it wrong, is a human who has never heard a word of praise and experienced more criticism in his life than he knows what to do with.

Such a person—often, but not always, a man—is highly conflicted. In moments when he does not feel put on the defensive, he cares deeply for his wife, loves her, and doesn’t want her to hurt. On the other hand, when he thinks he’s being attacked, he reflexively circles the wagons to protect himself.

“So finally, I got good and angry myself,” Marcelle went on. “How much of this can I take? I get mistreated and I can’t even express myself. That’s not right! That’s not fair! I deserve better, so I told him a thing or two. I let him have it. And, frankly, I felt much better after that.”

That’s a typical pattern—and highly destructive.

The Elusive Satisfaction of Retaliation
Marcelle has every justification in the world to feel hurt. It is also human for her to be angry at the cause of that hurt when he is so unsympathetic. But her reaction in this scenario is wrong. For one thing, she’s hurting herself more by lowering herself to his level. If she acknowledges that his anger is hurtful, then her anger is hurtful too. If she acknowledges that anger displays a lack of humanity on his part, then it displays a lack of humanity on hers as well.

Later, alone with her feelings, Marcelle will confide that the good feeling of “giving it back” was short lived. Over time, the idea that she had betrayed herself by stooping to his level gnawed at her innermost being. She had always liked herself for her own kindness and goodness. “Now who am I?” she wondered. Not only did she reduce herself to a level that she did not respect, but in doing so, she also became alienated from herself.

Many victims of mistreatment feel this way. They feel estranged from the person they thought they were, they don’t like the person they’ve become, and they’re still depressed over the way they were treated. They add depression to depression. Being mean and striking back is completely self-defeating.

How Retaliation Makes Bad Behavior Worse
There’s another, even worse problem with Marcelle’s reaction: it ensures that Andrew’s behavior will also get worse. Now that’s bad.

Andrew doesn’t want to be the bad guy that he is, but he has no clue how to make the awful feelings go away when he is repeatedly reminded of his failings. When he hears what comes across to him as a criticism, he is thrown into a pit of despair. After all, if he knew how to handle the problem in the first place, he would not have created it. Growing up in a home in which such things as compassion, sharing, consideration, and respect were not taught or modeled, he is unaware of how to deal with situations which call for these traits. How can he fix a problem he’s clueless about?

But Andrew does know the one thing he learned very well growing up: how to defend himself, strike back, or tune out. It’s only natural that when he feels attacked, he’s going to do what it takes to prevent those old feelings from rushing in. What better smokescreen than for him to attack back?

Will he feel better? No, just as Marcelle didn’t feel better when she retaliated. Will the marriage improve this way? Obviously not. What should be done?

Alternatives to Retaliation
Marcelle has to switch her approach from telling Andrew what he did wrong to what she wants him to do. It means changing a negative sentence to a positive one. This might not seem hard to do, but listen to what Marcelle has to say about it: “What about my feelings? Are you telling me to stifle my feelings? He’s my husband; shouldn’t I be able to tell my own husband that he hurt my feelings?”

Marcelle has a point. She should not have to stifle her feelings; she should be able to express them to her own husband. But we are not operating in a fair and just world. Her husband simply cannot hear this until he has healed from his past pain.

So Marcelle’s real job is to deal with her “shoulds.” Theoretically, she should be free to express herself, and in reality, she shoots herself in the foot when she does. What are Marcelle’s options?

  • Marcelle has to make a list for herself of healthy ways to self-soothe such as doing affirmations, practicing relaxation and deep breathing, getting sufficient sleep and exercise, and deriving pleasure from her work and daily tasks. She can also journal or talk to a marriage counselor who is pro-marriage. All of these serve both as channels for her bad feelings and as ways to empower herself to feel good, despite the tough hand that she was dealt.
  • Marcelle should learn to assertively ask for what she wants in very specific terms, such as, “When I come home with groceries, please help me with them, and please smile at me when you do.” She herself should be pleasant and smiling when making these requests. Andrew did not have the benefit of learning how to handle interpersonal relationships growing up, so part of his attraction to Marcelle was that she was so skilled at them. He is actually looking to her for a way out of the labyrinth. Furthermore, by being pleasant in her request, she is also modeling the very behavior she wants—and putting in a teaspoon of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Retaliation is not one of Marcelle’s options, but she will find that if she follows the options above, she will be empowered and happier, even before Andrew has started to “get it.” Eventually, he will “get it” and then they will both be happier.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, therapist in Far Rockaway, New York

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Kayla B

    Kayla B

    March 14th, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    There has to be grace and practicing though – when a husband is so used to putting up attacks at anything done or said – because everything will be wrong to him – there has to be practice with a counselor involved.

  • Paula


    March 14th, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    There is a big difference between retaliating and standing up for yourself. You don’t have to stand by and let someone continuously hurt you on purpose. Stand your ground and say what you mean and mean what you say. But I have always felt like if you retaliate and try to intentionally hurt someone because they have hurt you, then how does that make you any better than the first? I am not going to say that I have not done that because I am sure that I have. But I can’t say that I am necessarily proud of that either. You don’t have to be a whipping boy, but you don’t have to turn someone else into that for you either to make things right.

  • Paul


    March 15th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    Why would I even want to be married to someone who even thought that retaliation was something that she would consider?
    I would never think to bring this into the marriage, having to always be watching my back.

  • Jones


    March 15th, 2012 at 2:54 PM

    Don’t you think that with people like Andrew, they provoke you to get a reaction? It is like they know that what they are doing is wrong, so to make them feel better about those actions, they then provoke you so much so that you will do the same thing to them. And then they don’t have to feel so bad about their own actions because they are getting someone else to behave in the exact same wya and they can hold this against you. Whew! Complicated thought there, but I do believe that to be true. Someone always wants someone else to be down on their level just to make them feel better about themselves.

  • Jillian


    March 15th, 2012 at 9:39 PM

    While this sounds great and is probably the way to go,it becomes difficult to follow because if you’re hurt then it’s not easy to be nice in turn.Yes it may be my partner but it’s. Ever going to be easy to do that :|

  • pete wallace

    pete wallace

    March 16th, 2012 at 11:30 AM

    Let us all remember that marriage should not be a war

  • Ronni


    March 17th, 2012 at 7:48 AM

    What ALWAYS stuns me is the number of women who would choose to stay in a relatinship like this instead of walking away. I get it that it can be scary to leave a marriage, but is it better to stay with someone whose goal in life is to constantly be all about bringing you down? Sorry but that’s not for me.

  • Lisa


    May 27th, 2015 at 4:18 AM

    It’s not for anyone and judging the situation isn’t going to help women stuck in a cycle they, themselves, don’t understand any better.

    Rest assured of two things: Most people in abusive situations would leave them if they had more non-abusive experiences in their lives than experiences as the victim of abuse. If they believed other possibilities existed, they wouldn’t put up with it. And second, no one wants life to be hard and if they knew another way to be or do things, they wouldn’t be in the situation for very long, if at all.

    On a more positive note, I’m glad you wouldn’t put up with being abused. I’m curious why this article solicited your attention, and based on your comment I’d assume that if you were the one wmotionally injured in the relationship, there’d be no point in retaliating. You’d just leave. And that may be the ideal thing to do. Perhaps you were simply curious about why others retaliate – maybe you wanted to know why they retaliate against you – either way, advocating a personal standard of not tolerating abuse is a positive thing because it sends a message to all women that they needn’t tolerate it either and to find a better way of dealing with such situations.

  • Meghan


    March 18th, 2012 at 6:16 AM

    Know what really rubs me the wrong way? I feel like you are stating all of the things that Marcelle has to do to make the situation better in the marriage. Why not Andrew? He is the agitator, the one who starts all of this, at least that is how he is portrayed here. Why doesn’t he have to make some concessions that his behavior is wrong and that he is hurting Marcelle by continuing to berate her in such a way? It always feels like it is the women in these marriages having to smooth out the wrinkles. But I am a 50-50 kind of gal. It takes two to create these problems so we two in the marriage to go about fixing it.

  • Max


    January 20th, 2014 at 1:52 AM

    He has a problem. They’re a couple, so She has to learn to deal with the problem until he overcomes the problem. She has to do all the dealing, he has to do all the overcoming. 50-50

  • Kalvinder


    August 10th, 2014 at 4:36 PM

    My ex would laugh if I cried when I was upset or when he hurt me emotionally becayse I think he had been humiliated for crying and if I got angry he got angrier. But I loved him so much and wish someone had suggested the way above as I think we could have made it as we both wanted out marriage to work but we were at loss as to how to make it work.

  • Kathy


    August 18th, 2014 at 5:33 AM

    There is much validity to the situation and She Should not retaliate but instead insist on him getting the proper counseling. Obviously she can difuse the situation to Get by but if He treats her like that most likely it would be the same way he treats everyone else. If there are children involved in the mix it could be real sad! They will most likely mature to be defensive as they only react to their environment. He needs help!!

  • Natalie


    November 26th, 2017 at 5:44 PM

    This article is shockingly bad. Marcelle need’s to set ground rules for how she expects to be treated and a time-limit for minimum change in behavior from Andrew, and Andrew needs therapy to learn appropriate coping methods. It is not Marcelle’s responsibility to teach another adult how to behave.

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