Don't get mad, get even... Revenge is sweet... An eye for an eye.... Were these clichés drumming through Christie Brinkley's head when she decided to push for divorce proceedings that would be open to the public? She must have calculated the media frenzy that would ensue when her husband's transgressions—18-year-old mistress, swinger websites, porn habits—were blared in open court. Thankfully, they reached a settlement this morning, so we won't need to hear any more.
I can't help agreeing with a psychiatrist who questioned Brinkley's good sense when it came to protecting the couple's two children, ages 10 and 13. What will their lives be like, I wonder, when they return to school in the fall to classmates who have heard all the sordid details about their father?
But I'm even more curious about whether she was motivated by revenge, as so often we are when a person we love lets us down. What compels women, as well as men, to spend thousands on divorce lawyers rather than give their soon-to-be-ex any "undeserved" assets? Or to air all the dirty laundry of their marriage? I asked Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, to explain what drives us to seek revenge.
It turns out the inclination is entirely natural. "Your brain is doing what it's supposed to be doing," he tells me via E-mail from Amsterdam. "When someone is acting out of revenge, she's in a state of desire or craving and engages in a behavior that she thinks will produce a reward for her." He says the Olympic athletes now training in Beijing experience the same patterns of brain activation when thinking about achieving the gold as someone plotting a stick-it-to-him scenario. Both induce feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. "There was probably some evolutionary process of natural selection put into our brains," he explains, "to make sure we'd be motivated to defend our interests and punish people who have harmed them."
Divorce, McCullough adds, is a common time to experience these emotions, as couples go from trying to live together, with all the sacrifices that entailed, to living in a very self-protective, self-focused way. That said, getting even, while it may yield short-term satisfaction, usually leads to more harm than benefit by triggering a tit-for-tat that escalates the situation. Mediation is better than hiring lawyers, he says, if the couple is willing and able to participate with one mediator. Beyond that, you can work to bring vengeful impulses under control by intentionally trying to forgive the person who has harmed you.
Forgiveness is far easier in the case of betrayal, says McCullough, if the cheating spouse makes a sincere attempt to apologize and displays genuine remorse. When a wronged person feels apologized to, compensated for the injury, and safe, he says, revenge usually becomes beside the point.
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