Conflict stirs up strong emotions. When they are not managed well, these emotions can fester and lead us to respond in very destructive ways. One such response is retaliation or getting even with the other person.
Researchers suggest that our retaliatory response was an evolutionary development that helped let others know when they were doing something unacceptable. (McCullough, 2008) When we see someone doing something that offends our values, it is easy to want to stop them from doing it again. Many people also feel a short-term sense of satisfaction in getting back at the other person. This feeling usually falls away as things begin to get more complex.
If you have ever been the target of retaliation, you know that it is not pleasant. It can provoke negative emotions in the targeted person that can lead to an escalation of the conflict. Sometimes this happens right away, but often it happens a considerable time after the initial action that angered you in the first place. In these cases, the person against whom you retaliate may have no idea what is causing your actions because they are not able to connect them back to an original cause.
When we ask program participants about whether they would like others to retaliate against them, they almost always say “no.” When we ask them how long they remember it if someone does retaliate against them, they usually say “forever.” So retaliation can cause long-term problems related to a specific conflict and can even create problems in the future.
If you are someone that retaliates against others in conflict situations, even only occasionally, it can cause major problems for the other person and eventually for you. So what can you do if you want to change this pattern?
It helps to recognize that retaliatory behaviors are closely linked with emotions. It is normal to feel emotions like anger or fear in conflict situations. Unless you have a way of managing these emotions, they can build up and eventually drive negative responses like retaliation. It helps to be able to develop techniques that can help cool down the emotions (a number of articles in our blog discuss this process).
It also can be helpful to find ways of expressing your emotions. By telling the person with whom you are having conflict how his actions have made you feel, you can defuse some of the internal tension you are feeling. This constructive alternative to retaliating against the other can also prevent an escalation of the conflict. If done properly, it can also point out to the other person the actions that he has taken that you want him to stop doing.
Substituting constructive behaviors such as expressing emotions for the destructive retaliatory ones can have a positive impact not only on the immediate conflict but on the dynamics of the relationship going forward.
McCullough, M. Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.