top of page

Retaliation and Retribution in Romantic Relationships

The dark sides of love gone wrong.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

The emotional bond between committed lovers gives each entry into the others’ deepest and most vulnerable secrets. When in that haven of mutual trust, they share their innermost thoughts, feelings, and experiences, trusting that they will be held forever sacred.

Sadly, when for whatever reasons, an act of betrayal ends that trust, those private thoughts and feelings can then be used as weapons of destruction. When wounded partners feel the need to retaliate, all prior agreements are no longer valid.

Most people exercise some restraint no matter how betrayed they feel. They understand that they do not want to bear the consequences if acting out backfires. Sadly, that is not always the case. Whether from prior trauma, too many betrayals, personality traits, or feeling too broken, some feel driven to “get even” no matter the consequences, and cannot rest until they feel that justice has been done.

The need to avenge, no matter the crimes committed, is always a two-edged sword. Those obsessed with the need for revenge cannot let the transgressions go. They are consumed with powerless feelings of injustice and rage, and cannot let an unjust conclusion remain. The partners on the other end of the retaliation, then may feel the need to retaliate in kind. Both become locked into a toxic dance.

When the desire for justice becomes an obsession to punish, the avenger often appears to many as irrational and unstable. The harassed ex-partner may be seen as the victim, and his or her contribution to the situation white-washed, further fueling the hurt and impotent rage that is driving the need to retaliate.

I have sadly watched many couples intertwined in this ongoing, futile, and mutually destructive toxic interaction. I have learned so much about how the human psyche responds to perceived, extended torture and why some people cannot seem to refrain from the need to seek justice at any cost. It is important to get into the mind of those compelled to act out and those who have contributed.

Personal Revenge

It is crucial to understand what drives people to retaliation rather than to transformation. The motives that drive the need for revenge, however created, often end up hurting the pursuer of justice more than they harm the alleged betrayer.

Those who feel they will never be validated by others as to why their behavior is justified, feel they must take things into their own hands. Because of those feelings of loneliness and abandonment, they may be willing to risk everything in order that the justice they seek is done.

They are driven to preserve their honor and self-respect at any cost so that the partner who has harmed them suffers as they have. In that quest, they can no longer afford to care how they appear to others, what might happen to them if they continue, or whatever punishment they might have to endure once their revenge is achieved.

If they have to live in the hell that drives them, they can only rest when those that have harmed them suffer the same fate. An “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” seems the only choice they have to survive.

Avenging Injustice that Society Supports

There are people whose lives have been emotionally, physically, and spiritually destroyed by others who have put them through torture and cannot find justice in a system that supports their behavior. Feeling that they are not just fighting for themselves, they feel they must become avatars, committed to righting the situations that favor oppression over justice in others who have suffered as they have.

Unable to see any other roles but powerful and supported persecutors and helpless victims, they feel they must fight to the death to set the record straight. Many tell me that they tried every way they could to stop the persecution but to no avail. Their own situation must become an inclusive cause and they are responsible to fight that battle or be seen as supporting the oppressors. When abusive people have the power to do whatever they want, and can rationalize their behavior as benign, exaggerated, or deserved, anguished victims are unable to gain the validation that could rescue them from their quest.

Victims of trafficking, those who have had to sell out to survive or to protect others, or those that have no other resources or places to go, seek society’s support that their avenging behaviors are justified if many others are being equally abused. But, even if society tacitly agrees that they had reason to avenge their anguish, they may not receive the help they need and still must go it alone.

Any person subjected to emotional or physical torture over a long period of time will hit his or her breaking point. That is especially true if they have a history of abuse or neglect in the past. Because of those prior traumas, they may believe that they somehow deserved some of what they have had to endure and tolerate the abusive behavior too long.

Most people observing retaliations gone amok, don’t want to know, or don’t know to care, what preceded the obsession to retaliate. Without support, those who seek justice feel they have no option but to rely on their own internal experience to justify their need to see justice done. As the outside world condemns, they may feel the need to double-down, having lost all hope for support. They have now been classified as the perpetrators, rather as the victims.

These situations are the most heartbreaking. It is as if the bad guys win, and, no matter how justified, those oppressed are now driven to find justice in any way they can, and will be held accountable as the problem.

Collateral Victims

Whether or not it appears reasonable to others, these perpetrator/victim entanglements are anguishing to those who are subjected to them. They often feel helpless to stop the carnage or feel guilty for not being able to stop it as the process was unfolding.

Children, particularly, have often been living on a long-existing battlefield before the eruption occurs. Often torn in loyalties between two parents they feel obligated to respect, they want to flee from any responsibility for either parent. That is especially true if one parent seems to be the innocent one and the other the evil perpetrator. They often cannot understand the processes that have caused the severity of the situation, and ping-pong between their two parents, forced to choose who is responsible and who is being treated unfairly.

If they side with the more seemingly innocent parent, they run the risk of not seeing the process that occurred before the breakdown. They are inadvertently being taught to make bad choices in future mates who may gaslight them into the same process, or be driven to exasperated retaliation. If they side with the now retaliatory parent, they are seen as aiding and abetting the revengeful behaviors that they made not fully support.

Friends and family are often drawn in as well, sometimes taking the position of favoring whichever party they feel is more righteous. That can be devastating for someone retaliating for what they believe as significantly legitimate reasons.

How to respond

When you are facing people who cannot heal without seeing that the justice they seek is done, you can only listen to the legitimacy of their internal experience even if you don’t see things as they do. Their perceptions are valid to them and are entrapped in pain and trauma.

It is crucial not to try to minimize their current experiences. You are not required to offer an opinion or to join in their quest, only to believe that what is true for them is their only reality.

If they are able to hear you, you can help them carefully discern what they can do to rectify the situation without incurring more injustice as a result of their actions. Your emotional support and care for their pain may be all they need. If they make it clear that they cannot go on without bringing their perpetrator to justice, and you cannot support their journey, you may need to disconnect and let them do what they must do. There will hopefully be a future time when they can reach out for healing, and will trust that you will be there for them.

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page