While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself. – Douglas Horton
When my friend Betsy was fifteen, her mother moved out of the house. Betsy’s parents had a difficult relationship and her mother had wanted to leave for quite some time. It was the eighties, so divorce was not a foreign concept to Betsy and a lot of our friends’ parents were going through it. Betsy was able to understand her mother’s decision, however, she noticed that her mother moved out on the date of her parents’ wedding anniversary. When Betsy pointed this out to her mother – since it seemed to be adding insult to what was already a difficult event – her mother looked at her wide-eyed and insisted it was nothing but a coincidence.
Betsy remained with her father in the house in which she grew up. It was much closer to her school and she wanted to avoid further upheaval in light of her parents’ breakup and her mother seemed fine with that arrangement since Betsy still spent a fair amount of time at her mother’s house. However, some time later, Betsy’s mother announced that she would not be paying for any of Betsy’s college tuition. At first her mother insisted that it was because she couldn’t afford it, but Betsy knew that to be false. Many years later her mother finally admitted that she refused to pay the tuition because Betsy had not come to live with her when she had separated from her father.
Moving out on your wedding anniversary is vindictive. Holding a fifteen year old child responsible for her own custody decisions is unreasonable and reacting to that decision by withholding support for that child’s education is even more so. Otherwise known as ‘stabbing someone in the back’ or ‘throwing someone under the bus’, vindictiveness is the kind of deal breaker behavior that, if done often enough, will eventually end a relationship.
Vindictiveness is behavior that is deliberately meant to hurt someone. The irony is that as painful as vindictiveness is for the recipient, the one who suffers the most is the perpetrator. One by one, over time, people who get ‘dinged’ with another’s vindictive behavior will distance themselves from that person. There is a popular expression that characterizes vindictiveness as drinking poison while waiting for the other person to die.
One of the most basic fears that we humans have is that we will end up alone. We want to have relationships with people whom we really love and who truly love us in return. Our lives afford us the opportunity to sustain loving relationships with our friends, with our children, with our extended family members, neighbors, colleagues, partners and our spouses. Unfortunately, if we engage in deal breaker behaviors they can result in our isolation.
Recently, I visited my aunt and uncle in England. They are both just shy of 90 years old, they live independently and both are in good health. They have been married for more than sixty years and they enjoy their children, their grandchildren and now their great-grandchildren. My aunt described how one morning her great-grandchildren had burst into their bedroom and were bouncing all over the bed. She told me that she and my uncle realized when they had grandchildren that they had now had a second chance to make up for the mistakes they had made as parents. Now, they were even more thankful for having lived long enough to enjoy relationships with yet another generation of their family.
Was it always easy for my aunt and uncle? Absolutely not. As in many families, their parenting has been judged by their children as far from perfect. To this day, they still worry about their children who are now in their late middle age. They have watched their family members suffer through mental illness, divorce and alcoholism. They have had to weather World War II, cancer, the tragic loss of loved ones, financial strains and their own aging process.
By contrast, Betsy’s family was lucky to have avoided a lot of outside challenges. No one had died prematurely, everyone was healthy, they had more money than most, lived in a nice neighborhood and they were all well-educated and had the means to access any support system available. Yet, despite all of that abundance and opportunity, Betsy’s mother was unable to sustain relationships with either of her children, any of her grandchildren or with her spouses due to her vengeful behavior toward the people around her. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle, who have experienced significant challenges in their lives – that would strain any relationship – were able to sustain close and long-term relationships with their family members since they never ventured down the path of deal breaker behavior.
Even the closest relationships experience difficult patches and people can hurt each other unintentionally. A mature relationship is one in which we are able to trust that the hurtful act was not willful. We seek to understand and to forgive our partners, our friends, our parents and our children for not being perfect and we receive the same compassion for our own foibles in return. If, instead, we vow revenge for every wrong done to us, if we hang on to our anger and our resentment and if we carry grudges for years at a time, our relationships will ultimately crumble.
“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.