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Punishment

When Does Revenge Turn Into Post-Separation Abuse?

Taking a Louisville slugger to both headlights.

Key points

  • The end of a relationship brings many painful feelings, leading some to seek revenge for feeling wronged.
  • Revenge-seeking behaviors can put another person's safety or livelihood at risk.
  • Post-separation abuse is often passed off as a bad breakup or a high-conflict divorce, wrongly blaming both parties.

Roger ended his five-year marriage with his wife, Sara, when he realized that it just was not working, and it was unfair to keep going. The couple had been in couples therapy for the better part of two years, and it just was not helping at all. He just wanted to move on.

Roger did his best to end the relationship fairly, but breaking up with someone is never a fun- or easy- thing to do, and of course she was upset. They fought. They cried. They initiated divorce proceedings. And he moved into an apartment across town.

For months after he moved out, he would wake in the middle of the night because of glass shattering, with windows and doors cracking after rocks, eggs, and other objects were thrown repeatedly at his home. When he came outside one morning to his tires slashed, making him late to work, he finally called the police.

 Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay
Experiencing post-separation abuse can feel very isolating for many survivors
Source: Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

He knew it would be pointless, she would deny everything, and he could not prove that it was her. But he was hoping that this would show her that he was serious and that she needed to stop. But instead, she just changed tactics. Calling their mutual friends and family to turn them against him, calling the finance company to have his car repossessed, and posting horrible lies all over social media that he was a "drunk," a "deadbeat", and "an abusive cheater."

Again he went to the police, thinking it would be pointless. "Just ignore it," the officer said, "she just seems angry. Let it blow over."

"I'm trying," he stammered, feeling more helpless and hopeless than ever before. Let it blow over? He thought. How? He was being terrorized. He went back to his home, and the harassment and dangerous behaviors continued. He remained powerless to stop everything; the judge refused to grant him a protection order since they were going through a "messy divorce" and he didn't want to "hear about any drama". Everything she did was from more than 150 yards away anyway, there would be no violation of any hypothetical protection order.

Stories of people getting revenge for feeling betrayed or wronged in relationships fill movie scripts, memes on social media, and fill billboard charts. But when does a cliché statement cross over from "normal" revenge wish-seeking to actual revenge-filled post-separation abuse?

It is no secret that the ending of a relationship brings with it heartbreak, pain, anger, and many other difficult and uncomfortable feelings. It's a horrible experience. And we all handle these feelings differently. But when pain and anger turn into behaviors that put another person's safety or livelihood at risk, this is abusive and should not be tolerated. Yet it is just a bad breakup in the eyes of the law, as well as many friends and family.

Would our opinion of the above case vignette be different if the situation were reversed, and Sara was the one targeted for revenge from Roger? Some people may more easily see this as domestic violence and stalking when done by a male. Victims of all genders need protection from this form of abuse, a form of domestic violence that the world needs to be more aware of.

This form of revenge is what mental health clinicians refer to as Post-Separation Abuse, and the courts and law officials are often powerless to stop it. "Perhaps one of the characteristics of revenge is that it takes place despite the justice system’s actions. This may happen because the perpetrator considers that the perceived harm must be directly repaired beyond the solutions provided by law and society." (Clemente & Espinosa 2021)

Sara's behavior is not normal. The firm belief that she was wronged drove her reciprocal behavior in the pursuit of justice that she thought she deserved. While many would grab a pint of ice cream for a movie marathon, or go on a girls' weekend trip, she was getting revenge, which shows her pathology. Research that appeared in the journal Personality and Individual Differences showed that individuals with antisocial traits are more likely to engage in these revenge-seeking behaviors.

Sara's cognitive distortions convinced her that she was doing the right thing, which is common for people with traits of antisocial, narcissism, or another personality disorder. They may feel victimized, and combined with the convincing nature of a charming abuser, that conviction makes them sound more believable. For the people watching, conflicting stories make it more difficult to see the truth, and they may wonder if both people are lying.

This can happen with mutual friends, or even judges and juries. The court system often has no background in mental health and may be vulnerable to the manipulations of a person who believes in their own lies. But when a friend, family member, or the legal system goes along with an abuser’s claims, a distorted reality is unknowingly reinforced.

References

Clemente, M., & Espinosa, P. (2021). Revenge in Couple Relationships and Their Relation to the Dark Triad. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(14), 7653. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18147653

Brewer, G., Hunt, D., James, G., & Abell, L. (2015). Dark Triad traits, infidelity and romantic revenge. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 122-127.

Thehotline.org: support if you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence 1-800-799-7233

If you are looking for support from Post-Separation Abuse, check out my book Invisible Bruises, How a Better Understanding of the Patterns of Domestic Violence can help Survivors Navigate the Legal System, link in my bio.

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