Jeanne Safer Ph.D.

The Last Taboos

In Praise of Healthy Revenge

Getting even can be good for you.

Posted Feb 08, 2017

Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock
Source: Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock

Almost fifty years ago, in a fit of moral outrage, I committed a gleeful act of vengeance that I still recall with pride: I spray-painted a condom gold and sent it in an envelope marked “fragile” to my ex-boyfriend. Why did I send him such a gift?  I’d just received a letter from him asking advice on how to seduce another woman, and I could not just let it stand.

This was the sweetest, healthiest retribution I ever hope to exact, a shining moment of self-assertion after a year of silently tolerating bad treatment, as a nineteen year-old college student is wont to do when she is in love with someone who does not love her back. Creating and mailing that cheeky piece of performance art diminished the pain I suffered and helped me eventually improve my taste in men; it was the beginning of the end of my masochism.     

In four decades as a psychoanalyst, I have been privy to many fantasies, and several completed acts, of retaliation for assorted crimes of the heart. These experiences confirmed my own insight: By no means is every vengeful thought or deed hazardous to one’s mental health or worthy of condemnation. Many are, like mine, emotionally beneficial—even witty and wise. Some are profoundly moral. They can be both a palliative for mental distress and a prelude to working through humiliation and betrayal, a potent short-term anti-depressant with few side effects.

“Healthy sadism” sounds like an oxymoron, but that is because we fail to make distinctions between truly vicious behavior and benign hostility—the kind that is the mainstay of torch songs like “Cry Me a River”, which owe their enduring popularity to the universality of the sentiments they express.

Revenge has a bad rep in traditional religions. Plotting or carrying out any act of reprisal is considered a serious sin—the Biblical injunction “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” is intended to discourage us from making it ours. Most psychotherapists, even non-religious ones, agree that vengefulness is a sign of serious pathology, “acting out” that entraps the avenger in a vicious cycle of hatred and prevents any resolution of the original harmful experience. But one of Freud’s early followers, Theodore Reik, agrees with me; “A thought-murder a day keeps the doctor away,” he declared in his autobiography, Listening with the Third Ear. Violence in fantasy, he argues, actually prevents violence in reality, safely releasing aggressive and even sadistic impulses without harming anybody.

Most vengeful actions are based on the misconception that harm to the self can be undone or at least mitigated by harming the perpetrator, when, in fact, magical undoing of what has already happened is impossible. It never erases your own suffering, and can even cause it to fester; the hard job of working through the feelings of powerlessness that betrayal always causes is the only permanent solution. But even though there are no shortcuts, there can be jumpstarts that galvanize the will.  

In addition to my own salutary experience, I have seen numerous examples where revenge, within safe limits, can assuage the pain of a broken heart, a demoralized spirit or a wounded ego—providing, as one woman put it, “the strength to go on.”

My favorite avenging angel is a former patient of mine, whose husband stole her PIN number when they were newlyweds and absconded with a large sum of her money. Several years later he called to ask her to meet him for a drink as a prelude to rekindling their relationship. The same day, she was contacted by an FBI agent who told her that her ex had been under surveillance as a con man, and that she was not his only victim. Would she assist in his capture by agreeing to the reunion? I enthusiastically encouraged her to comply. The trap was set, the prey was caught, and she later had the profound satisfaction of meeting his other victims and prospective victims at his trial, which sent him to the federal penitentiary. Her savings were lost forever, but her self-esteem was eventually restored, with interest.

I even heard of another condom that served as the instrument of revenge—luckily, in this instance, only in fantasy: A man, wounded to the quick by his beloved wife’s infidelity, consoled himself by imagining coating the outside of a condom with hot pepper powder and having sex with her so that she would suffer physically what he had endured emotionally. His good nature and solid moral sense restrained him from going through with it—something he was proud of—but the short-lived sadistic pleasure he felt when he imagined the scene bolstered his sense of agency and diminished his shame and his rage. Depending on the situation, carrying out an act of vengeance, or refraining from doing so, can be equally effective.

What differentiates healthy thought-murders from the pathological kind? They are not the deranged avenger’s knee-jerk reaction to every slight, and can even be funny, the way killing someone’s cat, sending a hate-letter, or wishing even in private that the perpetrator would die of AIDS, never is. The narcissistic injury (a psychoanalytic term for wounds to the sense of self) that inspires benign vengeance is transient, not all-consuming like the narcissistic rage that overcomes a person whose sense of self is extremely vulnerable. For such people, only mayhem or murder will do. They are dead-serious about their vicious thoughts or deeds, and obsessed with getting even. To listen to them is grim, dull, and frightening.

There is also a grey area between fantasies and behaviors that safely diminish anguish and those that torment one’s soul, even though they do no real harm to anybody but the avenger. A woman described to me the black magic ritual she performed after discovering that her boyfriend was having an affair with her best friend. Under a full moon, she gathered and incinerated belongings and photographs of the lovers, with evil intent: “I wanted to deny them their love, and the possibility of love for all time,” she told me, regretfully, years later. The plan, she believes, worked perfectly—but affected the wrong person: herself. The man she attempted to curse has a loving long-term relationship, but she is still alone. Her guilty conscience (an indicator that she is actually a moral person) will not let her rest.

When the chemicals in the spray paint interacted with the latex of my golden condom, it unexpectedly expanded threefold. I laughed at the ludicrous sight—which stayed in my memory far longer than my fury. My intention had been sadistic—I had wanted to humiliate my ex—but the absurdity of the situation had transformed wrath to mirth, and I have never been tempted to repeat it.

So don’t be too hard on yourself, or anybody else, for yielding to the temptation to inflict a little payback in thought or deed. Living well may be the best revenge, but a golden condom or its equivalent judiciously applied can do you a world of good.

I recently joined Sarah Brokaw in her podcast Shared Secrets to discuss my story—as well as the shame that can accompany being single on Valentine’s Day and throughout the year.

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