So many couples I see are trapped in a circle of retaliation, where one partner’s hurtful actions lead to reciprocation, back and forth, over and over.
Sound familiar? Here’s one couple’s story (all names and identifying information altered), and a way out of this awful cycle.
Tom* and Joe* sit in my office, fuming at each other.
Both are in their late 30s, with successful careers, together for seven years. And yet—somehow they’ve wound up at this point, each having stepped out of the relationship, each furiously blaming his partner.
“Why are you angry at me for cheating?” Joe shouts. “Didn’t you cheat on me? What did you expect? That I should just sit at home while you’re out playing the field?”
“And what was I supposed to do?” Tom shouts back. “You never wanted to have sex. It was always too late, or you were too tired, or some other excuse. You knew how frustrated I was and you didn’t give a damn. Do you know how much it hurts me that when you finally decided to have sex, it was with someone else?”
“Why would I want to have sex with you? After you cheated on me?”
The room falls silent.
“So you cheated on him because he cheated on you?” I ask.
“Ummm… .yeah,” responds Joe. “Pretty much. I wanted him to know how it felt.”
“And you cheated on him because he wouldn’t have sex with you?”
“Well…yes. It had been a while,” Tom replies.
“Why don’t you tell him why it had been a while?” Joe asks. He turns to me. “I lost my job and I was seriously depressed.” Glaring back at his partner, he adds, “I’m sorry I wasn’t in the mood to have sex when I was unemployed.”
“Was it my fault you lost your job? I didn’t tell you to mess up on that contract. Especially when we had just bought the new house.”
“I did not mess anything up. You know that there were major budget problems at the firm.”
“OK, guys,” I say. “We could keep going around and around, trying to figure out who messed up first.”
“Or you could decide what kind of relationship you want to have, going forward.”
This story is common. While the details may differ, many relationships, both romantic and non-romantic, suffer from ongoing retaliation as each party, in turn, feels aggrieved and strikes back. Usually, as in this case, it’s difficult to sort out who started what. If Joe and Tom want to have a different relationship, they have some difficult work ahead. It’s hard not to retaliate when someone you love hurts you, intentionally or not.
“So what are you saying, that I should be a saint when he sticks it to me?” Joe responds.
“No, not a saint,” I reply. “But if you keep sticking it back to each other, I don’t see how things will improve.”
Both men look thoughtful.
“And how much fun is it to keep torturing your partner?” I ask.
“Well,” Tom smiles, “sometimes it’s pretty fun. But it’s also sort of sickening.”
“So why do it?”
“I keep thinking that if I hit him back hard enough, maybe he’ll behave next time.”
“So do you want to have a relationship where you each behave because you’re afraid of what will happen when you don’t?”
“Not really. But what’s the alternative?”
I decide to answer with a question. Not a rhetorical question, but a real question. “What kind of partner do you want to be? A guy who slams your partner whenever you think he’s slammed you? Or someone different?”
In all of my work, with individuals and couples, this is the essential point: To figure out how you want to handle yourself in tough situations, no matter how the other person is behaving, so that rather than acting out of anger, or fear, you can be your best self.
This isn’t easy, but if you do this (regardless of what your person does), you will make a powerful change in your relationship.