Romantic Revenge Refined
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Romantic Revenge Refined

Feeling post-breakup bitterness? Why sanely venting your anger will help you feel better -- and truly move on.

Urge to Avenge

After your last -- or worst -- breakup, did you fixate insanely on hatching revenge plots? Dead carp in his car, a vicious virus on his laptop, an e-mail to his mom telling her...everything?!

If so, you're actually not insane -- and you're not alone, according to Alison James, author of the book, I Used To Miss Him ... But My Aim Is Improving: Not Your Ordinary Breakup Survival Guide (Adams Media, 2004). "Either we're all crazy, or we're sane and guys just call us crazy," says James, whose book sets out to prove the latter. When women obsess over elaborate revenge scenarios against an ex, she says, "they feel bad not only because they're going through a breakup, but also because feel like they're losing their mind." Being told the desire for revenge is normal, she says, is a first step toward feeling normal.

Where does the itch to avenge come from? When should we -- or shouldn't we -- act on it?

The desire for revenge can be the perfectly natural spawn of rage and hurt, according to Carl Hindy, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Nashua, New Hampshire and author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? (Fawcett, 1990). "If you didn't have those feelings after a breakup, you'd question whether you had an attachment to the person at all," he says.

So perhaps you can understand why Tania, after finding her ex in bed with someone else, plastered his car with about 1,000 Post-its saying "YOU LIE." "Turned out it was it was the other woman's car -- he'd been picking me up in it all along," says the 35-year-old from Somerville, Massachusetts, adding, "That's not so much revenge as telling that woman to take him -- who wants him?"

Revenge also springs from our innate sense of justice, poetic or otherwise. "We would like to see destiny get around to punishing all our enemies. We feel that if our guardian angel were really doing her job, a safe would fall on his head. But since that's not working out, perhaps we need to e-mail embarrassing pictures of him to his new girlfriend," says Regina Barreca, PhD, author of Sweet Revenge: The Wicked Delights of Getting Even (Berkeley, 1997). Barreca notes that we start rooting for revenge in childhood, when we read about Peter Rabbit avenging his father's death at the hands of Farmer McGregor.

Move On

However, there's a difference between wanting -- even plotting -- revenge, and actually exacting it. While it's natural to want revenge, it can be risky to carry it out.

Here's the main problem: When you carry out -- or even just dwell on -- revenge, "you're stirring up the ashes of your own hurt and resentment," says Dr. Hindy. "It's really harming you more than the other person. You're not sharing the pain; you're increasing it. It's not like you have a gallon of pain, and when you give him some, you've got less. It's more like you have a gallon -- and create two gallons."

It's not advisable, for example, to host an "I'm Over Bill" party, as Stella, 29, of Chicago, now realizes -- though she sure was tempted to after her marriage ended. Calling it by that name're not.

Also, consider that poorly conceived revenge plots might wind up making you look bad -- and thus feeling worse. "You don't want to do anything now that's going to make you wince later," says Barreca. Why? Because you want him to experience regret, not relief. In other words: the last thing you want to be is the "psycho ex."

"I don't recommend the 'psycho ex' revenge plots," says Dawn, 29, of New York City. "Let's just say everyone should go for a nice long run or hit the weights instead of calling the mother of her ex's new girlfriend at 2 a.m. and asking if she knows where her daughter is." Yes, Dawn actually did make that call -- and yes, it still makes her wince. Recently, someone asked Dawn's friend if he knew her, adding, "I heard she was totally crazy."

As if that's not deterrent enough, look at it this way: We think of revenge as "getting even." But why would you want to be "even" with a "jerk"?

Feeling Better

But don't worry! You don't have to deny your anger, "forgive and forget," or even "live well" and leave it at that. The key is to focus not on making him feel bad, but on making yourself feel better. Try these suggestions:

  1. Decide whether he truly "deserves" revenge. Did he do something objectively despicable -- two-time you, lie, just stop calling after six months -- or, well, just break up with you? The latter is awful, but, alas, it's part of love life. In this case, you might try some secret, victimless revenge, like penning a viciously nasty letter -- and not mailing it. Or doing some arts and crafts: cutting your ex's head out of happy-couple photos of you two and replacing it with Brad Pitt's. Or writing your ex's name on the bottom of your shoe. "That way at least you know some sort of cosmic balance has been established," says Barreca.
  2. Ask yourself: Is there something I need to say to him? The urge to communicate something specific to him -- as opposed to just wanting to scream in his face -- may be what's giving you that unfinished-business feeling. If so, have a calm conversation with him (tip: calm anger is more intimidating to the listener than loud anger), or write a letter (one that you may send only after writing several revisions and checking with two friends), instead of staging a stunt.

    When you communicate with him, "Emphasize your reaction -- say 'I was really hurt' -- instead of what he person did -- 'You hurt me!'", advises Charles Hill, PhD, professor of psychology at Whittier College in Whittier, California. That way, you'll know he got the message in plain English -- and you'll come across as sympathetic.
  3. If you're driven to hatch an actual plot -- say, intercepting his clothes at the cleaners and returning them in tatters -- run it by a friend first. If she says she'd be embarrassed or horrified (as she should by this one), stop -- and enjoy the fantasy instead.
  4. If you must do something, think elegant rather than destructive. "I had a garage sale and sold my ex's leather jacket -- which he'd given me as a gift -- to a friend of his, very cheap," says Bonnie, 37, of Pittsburgh. "I knew my ex would see it, and find out how much it was worth to me."

    Barreca describes a woman whose husband took up with a 19-year-old -- and got the house in the divorce. Her response? She sewed dried shrimp into the curtains; her ex and his new honey tore the house and the septic system apart looking for the source of the stench. They finally had to move -- and they took the curtains with them.
  5. Live well -- and let him know about it. "Have a friend spread the word that you're doing great -- or be seen with someone new, even someone temporary," says Alison James. "He might not care, but it makes you feel better." (Notes Barreca: "Alumni Notes are also an excellent tool.")

Bottom line, says Dr. Hill, "Instead of thinking, 'I'll show him,' think, 'I'll show him -- that I can get along without him.'" Sooner than you think, you'll get to the sweetest revenge of all: Living well not because you're getting back at him, but because you've truly gotten your life back.