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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.
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 means...you'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"?
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:
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.