Hi Page, I was wondering what you think of this…
She’s sent me links to several articles about “breakup revenge.”
“What?” I say aloud (even though I’m alone). “That’s a thing?”
I click through. And sure ’nuff, it’s a thing.
There are scads of how-to articles teaching people how to “get even” with their ex. Comprehensive lists of creative acts of vengeance. And subforums where people discuss techniques extensively. So much so that it would seem that there’s practically an Internet subculture where people teach one another how to exact the most devastating breakup revenge.
Get even for breaking up with them? I wonder. Do they really want to stay in a relationship with someone who doesn’t want to be with them?
But I find myself embarking out into an odd maze of online reading that consumes most of an evening. Clicking one link after another. Googling terms mentioned in posts. I disagree with 95% of what I’m reading, but at the same time, it’s oddly fascinating.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Especially When You Think There Has to Be a Bad Guy
I’m not saying that breaking up is fun. Or easy. But sometimes, even though you want it to work, it just doesn’t. And I can say this as someone who has been on both sides of it within recent history. I broke up with a partner last year and I was recently dumped myself. (Not to mention a rich romantic history that’s littered with a trail of hits and misses, meetings and partings.)
I just posted an article the other day called “What People Get Wrong When They Talk About Partner Selection,” in which I outline our overly simplistic cultural script for breakups (which originally appeared in another piece) and how it can make them more confusing:
When it comes to breakups, there’s not much in the way of education. It’s like a lot of our cultural scripts surrounding relationships. We view breakups in such simplistic terms.
Relationships continue until something happens. Someone has to screw up. And at that point, they become the bad guy. The other person then has the option to forgive them for their misdeeds. Or break up with them.
This is actually the only approved way to break up with someone. If you break up with a person who hasn’t done anything wrong, then you’re the bad guy for breaking up with them. This is because in the larger cultural narrative every breakup is viewed as a bad thing.
There are a number of break-up-able offenses. And depending who you ask, some might make the list and others not. But one that’s guaranteed? Cheating. If your partner cheats on you, you can break up with them, and no one will bat an eyelash. Bonus: Your ex is an insta social pariah. No awkward 20-second interactions near the crudités at social gatherings. The tribe has spoken. Out goes the torch.
After that piece went live, I had readers writing in to me with their doubts. Nobody really thinks this way about breakups, one wrote. Say it isn’t so.
But I didn’t pull it out of thin air. And apparently it’s a popular enough belief system that people are teaching one another how to best punish the perceived “bad guy” post breakup. Go figure.
Some People Think There’s Nothing Worse a Person Can Do Than to Leave You
At the end of my night of following links, falling into one breakup revenge rabbithole after another, I walk away more confused than ever.
I’ve spent the night reading stories from people who describe relationships that were by their own accounts dysfunctional. Where there was mental, emotional, or physical abuse on one or both sides. But it’s oddly not a focus of their anger. The harrowing details of their former relationships are framed as footnotes, incidental occurrences. Instead, they’re fixated on the fact that the person left.
It’s a troubling theme that I keep encountering in this one evening: That there’s nothing worse a person can do than to leave you.
It’s such an alien idea to me. Sure, rejection hurts. And incompatibility can be deeply disappointing.
But if someone wants to leave me, I want them to go. It can hurt to learn that someone doesn’t feel the same way about me as I do about them. But at the end of the day, I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me.
Does Revenge Make Us Feel Better?
But setting all of that aside, there’s another question to consider: Does revenge make us feel better?
Extensive research has been done on the subject. The answer is no, unless you feel like the revenge target completely understands the connection between their original offense and the revenge.
And even then, the revenge target often thinks the punishment is too harsh, which undermines their understanding (and therefore your satisfaction) and may even cycle into a retaliatory act from them, perpetuating the cycle.
So rather than being the gratifying experience we may fantasize that it will be, revenge in practice is often a big ole letdown.