by Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University

I have, for the past weeks, watched Dr Foster with varying emotional reactions ranging from disbelief and horror that so called ‘friends’ can betray someone without remorse (until they got found out) to screaming at the TV in anger and frustration that Dr Foster appears so weak, so gullible and unwilling to take control of a situation that is clearly causing her emotional grief. I am not alone in such responding, indeed, it is a common reaction to the need to exact ‘justice’ or ‘revenge’ for wrongdoing…particularly when the perpetrator is a romantic partner in whom trust is integral to the success of the relationship.

Revenge is seen as an emotional response to the negative effects of a partner’s betrayal or wrongdoing and involves an intense need for retribution. But does exacting revenge actually make you feel better?

Research shows that immediately after expressing revenge there is an increase in neural activity in the area of the brain associated with rewards….therefore, revenge is rewarding – initially. However, this is short lived and rather than make us feel better about the wrong that is done to us, revenge serves to make us dwell on it more…the pain of being wronged is prolonged and a cycle of retaliation occurs. Retaliation or thoughts of retaliation against the person who has wronged you, as well as retaliation toward yourself for failing to bring resolution to your problem and therefore healing cannot occur. Indeed, dwelling on the betrayal leads to reductions in self-confidence, self-esteem and may (if prolonged) lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

So what can you do? Do you have to ignore betrayal? Do you simply have to accept it?

No, you can respond to betrayal via positive revenge….this is when you take the negativity that you experience emotionally and use it to drive your own motivation to achieve personal goals, to make a disloyal partner irrelevant to your needs. Imagine their face and reaction when they realise that they have lost the power to cause you pain and anguish, or lost the power to control you…these imaginings will bring about a great sense of satisfaction that somehow they have got their ‘just desserts’ and activate the same areas of the brain as exacting revenge.

Take the anger and pain and turn it into success in things that your partner has inferred that you cannot do, things that you partner has implied you will never be able to do. For example, your partner may infer that you are not skilled enough to achieve promotion at work, that you are too lazy to lose weight, that you are not clever enough go back to school and achieve new qualifications whether this be in further or higher education or even a postgraduate qualification (if this is an important goal)… the list could go on and on… Take the pain and anguish that you experience to drive you to prove him (or her) wrong, to excel at something that he (or she) infers that you cannot.

By achieving goals, even small goals, you will empower yourself to manage perfectly well without a disloyal partner. You will become stronger and more able to reject his (or her) advances and pleas to “take them back” when they (a) realise that the grass is not greener and (b) that you are actually doing much better now that they have no relevant role to play in your life.

So before you think about exacting revenge on a cheating partner remember that the longevity of satisfaction is dependent on the valence of the revenge itself…be selfish, and let Karma take care of the rest!

The final episode of Doctor Foster airs tonight at 9pm on BBC1.

Interested in studying psychology? Take a look at our range of undergraduate and postgraduate psychology courses.

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