Marriage 911: Letting go of resentment and revenge

Change revenge into forgiveness.

Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman ,

Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman
Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman

“I am so frustrated with Michael,” Devorah complains. “He is completely insensitive, doesn't know how to compliment, and is simply clueless  about how to treat a woman.  He does try to be nice every now and then, but it never lasts, and I know not to bother being nice back. You know, why should I be loving and throw a party for him every time he finally says something sweet?  Too little, too late, that's what I say.”

For his part, Michael says, “I have no idea why Devorah is so bitter. I really try my best.  And after all, Devorah is far from perfect. She complains that I don’t say 'I love you' often enough, but how am I supposed to feel love when I am still furious about the way she treated me yesterday?” 

Yossi and Sarah

Sarah resents that Yossi is completely focused on his work, excluding her from his life. Yossi is bitter that the children take up most of Sarah’s time. Besides, Yossi says, “Sarah is never satisfied with anything I do. If I get her flowers for her birthday, it won't make one bit of difference – it's never going to be enough.”

Shmuel and Rivka

Rivka is fed up with Shmuel's retirement. “I just can’t stand having Shmuel around all day.  The real kicker is that for years I pleaded with him to make time for me, and now he is the one who is needy.  I would love to tell him, ‘Well, buster, I have my own life now.  I have my books, hobbies and my friends.  You need to get a life!’”  

Rivka considered telling Shmuel to go to the bais medrash or spend more time with his sons and grandchildren. But, she admits, “Our sons don’t have time for him either. It’s not as if he made much time for them when they were kids.  That’s what you get when you ignore people your entire life!”

These couples are in deep trouble. Their relationships are being asphyxiated by their resentments. There is a simple antidote: let go of the need to control and the need to even the score.  Instead, respond to every request in a caring manner without regard for the past.  If each of these couples could just find a way to live in the present, without paying attention to past injuries or future expectations, a new cycle of positive and kind behaviors will take root.  

This antidote may be simple. But it is not easy for most people to do.

An Instinct for Justice

It would seem the instinct for revenge and justice runs deep in the human psyche.  In one study, researchers proved that young infants already have a finely tuned sense of morality and justice. They actually desire to see the “good guy” win.

A small device that measures blood pressure and galvanic skin response was unobtrusively hooked up to infants at play.  The machine measures emotional stress, operating in a similar fashion to a lie detector. 

The infants were shown a child playing with a doll.  When the doll was pulled away from the child, the machines registered that the infants were experiencing emotional distress.  This is amazing enough, indicating an infant’s ability to empathize and perceive another human being’s pain.  The infants seemed to be genuinely upset at the plight of the other child losing the doll.  But wait, it gets better.  

When the doll was returned to the original child, the infants' distress level went back down to normal. Yet if the doll was given to another child, the infants remained in a state of distress! The infants recognized who the doll belonged to, and were only calmed when it went back to the rightful owner.

Our lust for revenge and our self-righteous anger have origins that go far back into the most instinctive part of our minds.  It is an animalistic instinct, a primitive drive to punish people.  Deep down inside our limbic system, we are compelled to snarl, growl and intimidate any threats.  Scare them, hurt them, and if need be, beat them into submission!  As it says in Koheles (3:19), “Man is potentially no better than animal.”

If we have such a strong instinct to avenge injustice, that must make it moral and correct.  You can’t blame us for following our programming, can you?  If it's instinctive, at the very least it should be a good strategy.

Not so fast.  Let’s think about this. While instincts are necessary and helpful for survival on some levels, it is intellect that is most helpful.  The job of the human mind is to moderate instinct with thoughtful cognition and employ helpful strategies. This is why humans are by far the most dangerous and mightiest animals on the planet, despite there being many other creatures with sharper teeth, faster legs, and longer horns.  It is our supreme cleverness, not our instincts, that accounts for our survival.  The Torah expects us to use our G-d given instincts to inform us and energize us, but we also must moderate them with our intellect so we can function at our best.  The horse must be led by the rider, and not the reverse.  

The Gemara (Shabbos 156a) says, "Regarding one who is born under the star of Ma'adam (Mars, which appears red in the sky and connotes violence) … Rav Ashi says he will be either a bloodletter, a butcher, a bandit or a mohel." Maharsha (op. cit.) observes that Rav Ashi chooses a range of behaviors, some of which are sinful (banditry), some permissible (butcher and bloodletter), and some a mitzvah (mohel), to underscore the point that a person has the freedom to choose good or evil despite his tendencies and instincts.  In other words, his impulses and feelings can be channeled constructively, if he so chooses – and that is the challenge of life.

Rational thought trumps instinct. At the same time, there is a strong biological and instinctive basis for seeking justice and getting even.  Emotions can be overwhelming. Even when we want to be forgiving, it is hard to wipe the slate clean.   

Why Take Revenge?

What is the purpose of revenge? Does it achieve its objectives in relationships? If you have a goal of creating a strong and loving connection with your spouse, does seeking revenge or getting even bring you closer to this worthy goal?

Looking at it from one perspective, it only seems fair that if you have a gripe with a person you should be able to even the score. This is true from an individual standpoint as well as societal. Most religious and legal systems employ punishments and penalties not merely as a deterrent but also as some form of societal retribution. We are taught that people must pay a price for their crimes. And in fact, parents do punish children all the time.  Revenge, or at least retribution, is a part of life and would seem to be the price we must pay when we do something wrong.

Oddly, though, when we ourselves commit crimes, big or small, we usually do not voluntarily agree to pay this price. Few people come forward to confess crimes, even when they feel tormented by guilt. Why is this so, if we think that retribution is so important?

Yes, we think, retribution is important. Yet we also tell ourselves that our specific situation is different – we are special. We don’t deserve to be punished because we are really sorry.  Or we're not as bad as those other people.  When the policeman pulls you over for speeding, don't you secretly wish he would say, “Normally this behavior is reckless and deserves a punishment. But you – you're different. You're such a skillful driver. Even if you were speeding, you aren’t such a bad person.  I will let you off with a warning this time.”  Admit it, that is what you think.  If you didn’t, it would be hard to understand why you would speed in the first place!

How strange is it that we are so willing to cut ourselves slack, but if the person whom you love hurts you, you are eager to let her have a taste of her own medicine. When we're hurt, we immediately think, “She deserves to be hurt right back!” Incredibly, though, when we treat our spouses poorly, we expect them to overlook our faults and forgive us!  

You're probably thinking, “But he doesn’t deserve it!”  Or, “She really has it coming to her!”  

Let’s say you are right.  Let’s say he or she really doesn’t deserve your kindness or love.

Consider this carefully: who put you in charge of justice?  Even if you are “correct,” what is the smart thing to do?  What will bring the most happiness and joy into your relationship?  Keeping score and engaging in revenge, or kindness and generosity?

What is your real goal? Insisting on being right does not ensure you a successful outcome.  In fact, it can lead to disaster.  Israelis, who are well-known for their assertive and brash style of driving on the road, have a saying: “The two dead drivers were both right.”

Will foregoing justice and vengeance achieve your goal? You're probably thinking, “If I am forgiving and kind, my spouse will walk all over me! He or she will use me and take advantage of me!”  

This is definitely an important concern, and we will deal with in great detail later in this book.  But for the time being, keep in mind that you probably did not marry a psychopath or an abuser. (If you did, you would do better to purchase another book that gives you a good plan for self-defense.) Chances are your spouse is just like you. She isn’t a sinner or a saint; she is simply human, just as you are simply human.  

Once in a while, your spouse will say something mean or do something inappropriate. (If you both share years of rage and resentment, it probably happens more than once in a while.) If you break the cycle and respond with love and kindness, chances are that in time, you will get much of the same in return.  As you introduce more positive feelings into the relationship, the occasional hurts and lapses will be forgivable and survivable.

Control Tactics

If you enter a relationship with the intent to control, tactics that intimidate and coerce people will seem effective. In that sense, taking revenge fits right in. Go ahead, teach that person a lesson to never start up with you or disobey you again! 

Of course, no effort to control is perfectly effective. There are limitations to how much force you can apply.  And in fact, people are amazingly adept and resourceful in resisting control.  Parents of a recalcitrant teenager will tell you how difficult it is to control another person’s behavior – even when the person “needs” to be controlled for his or her own good.  Therefore, while at certain times and in certain relationships control tactics might work, they often don’t work too well.  

More important, you cannot control love or loyalty. It cannot be bought and it cannot be coerced. You might be able to compel people to listen to you, and sometimes obey you, but you can never force them to love you or care about you!

If you engage in revenge and other control tactics in your intimate relationships it will lead to resentment, power struggles and passive aggressive behavior.  In the face of power and control tactics, weak people may be outwardly compliant out of fear but still feel resentful.  This resentment quickly extinguishes love.  

Stronger individuals will react to controlling behavior by fighting back. If you take revenge against this type of person, he will hit you back harder. This can lead to escalating hostility and fights that soon spin out of control.  

Some people are strong enough to resist control, but too weak and disempowered to openly fight back.  Their tactic, often beneath their conscious awareness, is to passively resist.  Passive aggressive behavior is a refuge for individuals who do not have the upper hand.  Even though it is passive, make no mistake: it is still a subtle form of revenge and power. Being on the receiving end of passive aggressive behavior can be maddening because it is often devious and not even under the other person’s conscious control.

Passive aggressiveness takes many forms, from mild to major.  Forgetting to take care of chores and responsibilities, making mistakes such as getting parking tickets, can be mild forms of rebellion against a controlling spouse.  More hurtful examples include avoiding spending time with the person by becoming overly engaged with work, childcare, or even chessed and community functions.  

The best part about passive aggressive behavior is that it can easily be denied. This allows the person to duck out of any responsibility for his or her actions.  

“Oops, it was a mistake (for the tenth time)!”

“Why are you making such a big deal? Why are you getting so upset?” 

“Honey, I would love to spend more time with you, but I am so busy and I don’t see how I can.”  

Just as couples can enter into a downward spiral of escalating conflict and hostility, couples can also enter into a downward, ever-increasing spiral of passive aggressive behavior.  It may start as a response to controlling behavior and end up as its own form of control and punishment.  

Eventually, the victim of controlling and abusive behavior can learn to use the power of passive aggressive behavior to get even by infuriating and frustrating the other person.  Think of the relentless neat freak who drives her family crazy about every speck of dirt. Some of the family members may begin to “forget” to clean up, leave socks on the floor, offer only halfhearted efforts, and other behaviors that will drive the controlling person into a rage. 

We have seen relationships that are on the verge of completely disintegrating under the stress of continuous cycles of passive aggressive behavior, with each spouse unconsciously retaliating and taking revenge against the other.  Debts mount, children are neglected, and eventually chaos reigns.

Change Revenge into Forgiveness

Let’s go back and visit the three couples we met earlier in this book and see how patterns of control and revenge sapped the vitality of their marriages.   

Michael and Devorah

Michael is critical and emotionally distant from Devorah.  He probably does not even realize how much of his behavior is dictated by the bitterness he feels.  He allows many of his feelings about Devorah’s temper to interfere, instead of responding to her requests in a respectful, caring manner.  This is a form of passive aggressive revenge.

Devorah also reacts to the various slights and insults from Michael and seeks immediate justice.  She is often furious and cannot tolerate the way Michael behaves.  Devorah’s feelings are understandable, but her behavior is not wise.  Devorah has allowed her need for control and retribution to become dominant over any other concern in her relationship.  She has lost the capacity to be sympathetic toward Michael and see things from his perspective. 

Yossi and Sarah

Yossi and Sarah are each resentful about how they have been emotionally neglected.  Instead of finding a realistic adult way to work through their feelings of disappointment, they withdraw more and more.  Though they are not fighting like Devorah and Michael, their behavior is still damaging.  It is a slow-motion train wreck.

Shmuel and Rivka

Shmuel is an older version of Michael. In his later years he is reaping the rewards of years of contempt and controlling behavior toward Rivka.  Rivka found a life for herself without Shmuel.  But now that Shmuel is retired and less busy, he misses her.  

Rivka is being passive aggressive and would be better off choosing to reconnect with Shmuel – who sincerely wants to fix things up.  Nevertheless, it is easy to see why Rivka is not ready to give her heart to Shmuel anymore.  Rivka tried for years to get through to Shmuel, but he was always too busy.  She feels she has been burned too many times to try again.

In another chapter we will introduce ideas that will encourage you to meditate on the nature of forgiveness and help you change your attitude from judgmental to accepting. There are techniques and emotional strategies that can help you become a more forgiving person.  

Before learning the techniques of change, however, it is important to clarify exactly why it is important to forgive – and how to start the process of letting go. It is difficult to let go of your anger and resentment when you do not have a clear understanding of exact behaviors that could be defined as forgiving.  Even though forgiveness is an emotion, it can be operationalized – described and broken down in terms of precise behavioral steps and processes.  When you understand the distinct steps, it much easier to make changes in conduct and attitudes, because you can focus on one piece at a time.  

The sages of the Gemara had the incredible ability to pay attention to detail.  In the Gemara you will find that almost every manner of human activity, moral behavior and circumstance was analyzed, defined, deconstructed, operationalized and legally codified.  Nothing was too big or too small. The process of Talmudic logic weaves morality, legality and psychology all together in its explorations and discussions.  

For the purpose of understanding how to change your urge to seek revenge into a forgiving approach, let us study how the Gemara defines and delineates two revenge-related behaviors that are Biblically prohibited.  

We begin with the verse:  “Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge.” (Vayikra 19:18

The Torah forbids two activities or attitudes: revenge and bearing a grudge.  The Gemara (Yoma 23a) ponders what exactly constitutes bearing a grudge and what constitutes taking revenge:

Taking revenge is when one asks his neighbor to lend him his saw and he says 'No.'  The next day, his neighbor asks to borrow his axe and he says, 'I will not lend it to you just as you did not lend to me.'  This constitutes taking revenge.

What is bearing a grudge?  This when you ask your neighbor to lend you his axe and he says 'No.' The next day, your neighbor requests to borrow your garment and you say, 'Here, take it.  I am not like you who did not lend to me.'  This constitutes bearing a grudge.

Let us examine this definition of revenge more closely.  Essentially, revenge involves allowing your feelings about how you were treated in the past to affect your current response.  If a neighbor requests something and is in need of a favor, and you refuse to do it because of how he or she treated you yesterday, last week, last year or even a minute ago, this is considered taking revenge.

Take a moment to consider the revolutionary implications of this approach.  The Torah instructs us that moral behavior involves doing the right thing, and responding to another person’s needs or requests, without any consideration for how you were treated by him or her.  

This ethical formulation is surprising in its simplicity and irrefutable in its moral logic.  Loving behavior and kindness are not a form of business or commerce. They should not be based on, “You scratch my back and I will scratch yours.”  Though it is fine to reciprocate and there is nothing wrong with mutually beneficial arrangements in business and in relationships, friendship and love should go beyond that.  One friend can help another study for a test in exchange for the other helping her with a social connection.  These things go on all the time.  However, if you believe it is moral to be loving and kind, then do not confuse business with love and kindness.  Love and kindness should be done for their own sake, without any expectation of compensation and without regard for equality.  

Of course, one may choose to be loving or kind to people based on many factors such as is it a fair request, are you being taken advantage of, are there other people who could benefit more from your energies (including yourself!) and many other vital considerations.  The Torah does not forbid realistic considerations and does not expect you to offer generosity and love indiscriminately.  But the Torah does consider it to be immoral if you withhold kindness because of how you were treated. 

[Note: there is actually a dispute among the poskim as to whether the halachic definition of nekama is restricted to tangible benefits or also includes acts of emotional kindness and hostility.  The Chofetz Chaim, in his introduction to his sefer of the same name, discusses this in detail and concludes that since this is a potential violation of a Torah prohibition, one should assume the view that nekama includes all forms of chessed, even emotional retribution.]

Living in the Present, Not the Past

When Torah ethics forbid revenge, it trains us to remain constantly in the present moment without regard for the past.  Friend, if you can follow only one idea from this book, choose this one and it will change your life. This is the single greatest tool to enhance any relationship.  

Imagine responding to the people who you love without deliberating about old resentments. Envision how loved they will feel! This approach is guaranteed to stop cycles of negativity and resentment dead in their tracks. If you can do this, you have taught yourself how to truly forgive.

You may be thinking, “But how can I just let go of my anger? He did so many horrible things to me! It is unfair – he must pay for what he did!”  If you need to be angry, fine, be angry. Just let go of your desire to even the score. It is the act of revenge that is most toxic. Seeking to punish the other person is destructive and controlling behavior which only breeds more destructive and controlling behavior.  

Abstaining from vengeful behavior does not mean that you should let people walk all over you. It is healthy to be assertive and find ways to stop others from mistreating you.  Later, we will discuss how to channel anger and inform people of how they hurt you and how you want to be treated. In fact, we shall see that according to the Rambam, you are obligated to let people know about your resentments at the correct time.  

It is vital to understand, however, that the absolutely wrong time to act on anger and resentment is when you are presented with an opportunity to be loving or kind.  At such a moment, do the right thing by showing your care and love and forget about the other stuff.  It is what the Torah considers moral and one of the secrets we have discovered for a happy marriage. 

Ron and Matty had a terrible fight. They both went to sleep last night in a bitter and hostile frame of mind.  The next  morning there was a kind of cold peace, with no one wanting to say anything bad or good for fear that the fight would erupt all over again. 

Then, feeling a bit sheepish, Ron reached over to Matty, touched her shoulder and said, “Why don’t we go for a walk later and just reconnect?”  

Unfortunately, his attempt to make things better did not work out so well. Matty explained, “I was really happy that Ron was trying to make up, and I knew that I should have just smiled back, but instead it was like a demon suddenly took me  over.  I fell right back into the fight from yesterday and started lashing out at Ron.”

Matty made one of the common mistakes that occur with couples: she rebuffed Ron’s attempt to make up.  When a spouse tries to re-connect after a period of hurt or pain, his attempt should be accepted and greeted with another positive act.  It is vitally important to allow for good momentum to build.  It does not make a difference if there was an apology or the problem was solved. Just go with the positive act and allow the small spark of love to kindle and reignite.  

We are not suggesting that you forget all the pain or forgive when the person has not taken adequate steps to correct the problem and soothe the hurt.  All those issues must be dealt with eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later. But immediately after a fight, spouses are too hurt and fragile to handle these difficult feelings. Strategically it is important to first allow for good feelings to build.  

Matty herself knew this. Though Ron was pig-headed and cruel during yesterday’s fight, he really was trying to be nice this morning. She asked, “Why was I overcome with such a crazy desire to start fighting again?”  

It was a strategic mistake, and Matty deprived herself of an opportunity for healing. Yet there are powerful, unconscious motivators that induce many people, both men and women, to behave as Matty did. 

During the hours after the fight, each person is left with painful feelings of loneliness and bitterness.  When the other person finally connects in an effort to make things a bit better, it is like opening up the dam just a crack. A torrent of overwhelming feelings suddenly rush out. It is at the moment when closeness begins to creep back that there is the strongest urge to begin to rage again, because it feels safe to express these feelings. 

It is at this moment that one must use rational thinking to quell this instinct. The feelings are important, but first allow for positive feelings and connections to rebuild and heal.  After taking a pleasant walk together, Matty could bring up her concerns and her feelings, and give Ron a chance to talk about his.    

If you follow this loving, non-vengeful pattern, the cycle of control, resentment and negative payback will be corrected.  Your spouse will surprise you by behaving more kindly to you as well. Good feelings usually generate more good feelings – at least most of the time.  

In general, your forgiving and kind attitude will bring more compassion your way. But be careful not to expect or demand reciprocal kindness.  If you do, your attitude will trip you up and you will fall back into the cycle of control and revenge.  Remember, love and kindness are freely given without the expectation of compensation.  The moment you presume some type of compensation, you become a bean-counter and a controller instead of a generous-hearted person.

The disciple asked his Rebbe how to obtain fame and honor. The Hassidic Master informed him, “Our sages have taught us that whoever runs away from Honor and Fame will eventually find Honor and Fame chasing after him.” 

Taking to heart the words of his mentor, the disciple assiduously avoided all honor and recognition.  After many months, much to his dismay, Fame and Honor were nowhere to be seen on the horizon. 

The disciple returned to his Rebbe and complained, “O teacher, I have scrupulously followed your advice.  I have made every effort to conceal my scholarship and good deeds.  I have taken no credit for any of my actions and have been exceedingly humble.  Yet no matter what, I have received not one drop of fame or glory.  You told me that if I run away from them, Fame and Honor will chased me down!”  

The Rebbe responded, “When I said to run away, I meant without looking back.  You keep looking over your shoulder to see if Fame or Honor are chasing after you, and every time they see you, they run away!”

This wonderful little story is also true in regard to reciprocity in relationships. If you are loving and kind, your partner will often respond in a likewise manner.  However, if you keep checking to see if he or she is being just as nice as you think you are, it will never seem to come your way.  

Grudges are Destructive

The Gemara (ibid) also describes a destructive behavior that is a first cousin to revenge: bearing a grudge. The person who bears the grudge is willing to do the kindness; however, he or she is unable to let go of the resentment. While receiving the favor, the recipient must, so to speak, pay the entrance fee: namely, to hear condemnation and bear the guilt.  

“I am doing you the favor.  But yesterday, you could not be nice to me when I asked you.  I am better than you.”

What could be so wrong with carrying a little resentment?  What is so bad about doing a favor and just expressing disappointment about not having been treated well in the past?  After all, I am acting kind and loving and I am not depriving the other person. 

Aside from this, is it realistic to expect people to let go of their resentments and never bring them up?  Is it really helpful to avoid telling another person about problems in the relationship that should be fixed?  Keeping feelings bottled up never works.  Eventually, people lose their tempers and blow up.  There must be a process to work through to discuss hurts and frustrations.

Of course, these are all valid points.  Indeed, there is another set of verses that instruct people to discuss their problems with each other and clear the air:

Do not hate your brother in your heart.  You should surely rebuke your friend and not bear his sin. (Vayikra 19:17)

The Rambam elaborates on this approach:

When one person wrongs another, he should not silently seethe. That is the way of the wicked… Instead it is a morally correct act to let the person know what he did wrong.  He should say to him, “Why have you done such and such to me?”… He should however speak to him privately, in a gentle tone and gentle language. (Mishne Torah, Hilchos Deos Ch. 6.)

It is absolutely psychologically healthful and morally constructive to address grievances.  The Gemara could not have been suggesting that this is wrong.  If so, we must understand the context and intent of our chachamim.  

In the Gemara’s scenario, grudge-bearing was an act of cowardice and avoidance.  The person did not have a constructive desire to clear the air and heal the relationship.  How do we know this?  Because of the timing.  When you are hurt, it is a challenge to find the right way and the right time to discuss it. In the scenario described, this was not done.  Instead, he ambushed the other fellow, waiting to pounce on him until he needed a favor.  

Waiting to bring up your grievance only when the other person needs you is a destructive cheap shot. Therefore, according to the Talmud, bearing a grudge is problematic if you hold onto it and wait to broadside the person the next time he or she asks for a favor.  

The most important and powerful change you can bring into your relationships is to let go of your resentment, and in its place offer love and kindness without concern for payback or fairness. This includes resisting the urge to stick it to the other person by saying, “See, I am kind and generous – unlike the way you were to me.”

But it is appropriate and healthy to discuss resentments when it is done in the spirit of cooperation and love, and not as part of bearing a grudge.  The next chapter will show us how.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman.LCSW and Chaya Feuerman,LCSW-R maintain a psychotherapy practice in Brooklyn and in Queens.They can be reached at, or

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