When I was growing up my teachers used to say: two wrongs don’t make a right.

Annoying and clichéd at the time, little did I know just how often I would need these very words in my work as a therapist.

In the couples I work with, one of the most common things I see is the feeling that one has to be (and has a right to be) vindictive or punitive towards one’s partner in response to any real or perceived humiliation, threat, or injury to the self. This can range from major betrayals such as having been cheated on to something as small as one’s partner having unintentionally forgotten a birthday present…to disappointed expectations such as when one’s partner doesn’t bring home a big enough paycheck. Sometimes spiteful things get said without one realizing just how wounding they are to the other…and sometimes people tell me “Well I don’t care how that makes him feel, he deserves it!” or “Good…I want to hurt her/him!”

Strangely enough, I find it more common for women to be spiteful or vindictive than men when hurt, in the sense of attacking a man’s masculinity or making comments that cut him down, whereas men seem to be more likely to engage in outwardly bullying or aggressive behaviors when they feel slighted or disrespected. Either way, bullying or intimidating someone with rageful behavior or going for low blows that cut a man down to size are both very toxic to both aggressor and victim (regardless of who is in which position in a given moment).

The wish to hurt another can best be called sadistic.

And taking pleasure or satisfaction in someone else’s pain is almost always, in my opinion, a defense.

After all, two wrongs don’t really make things right…even if revenge can sometimes feel like the only way to right a wrong. This is a dangerous fantasy at best and a reinforcement of a trauma script for relationships at worst.

Now, here’s the real secret: in all of my experience as a therapist, the most common thing I’ve seen is that the wish to hurt another person is most often an affect regulation strategy.

By this I mean that people usually engage in sadistic or vindictive behavior as a way of getting rid of negative feelings in themselves that feel intolerable. For example, seeing the other in a humiliated position may feel like it reverses feelings of powerlessness in oneself.

When a relationship is organized around power dynamics it can often feel as if one person is on top and the other is on bottom…and that the only way to reverse the roles is to put the other in the one down position that one feels oneself to be in. So, if you feel that your partner has humiliated, victimized, or disempowered you, it may feel like the only solution or way out is to put him in a victimized, one-down position. Seeing your partner in a position of weakness, submission, or pain can take away your own unbearable feelings of hurt, smallness, or humiliation. Unfortunately, this is not a healthy strategy, but can feel like your only choice if power struggles or bullying and intimidation are the only forms of self-protection that you know.

At other times, it can feel like the only way your partner will actually “get” the pain he’s caused you is to make him feel the same pain himself. This may be especially true if it feels like your partner is impervious to your pain unless you make him feel it…as if talking about how you feel won’t make a dent, while giving him a taste of his own medicine will. The satisfaction here is the feeling of being understood for once…and knowing that your partner now knows what it feels like to be in the position he put you in.

And then there is the way in which it can seductively feel like we rid ourselves of our feelings when we put them into someone else, like a hot potato that can be passed from one person to another…we hurt someone the way they’ve hurt us…and suddenly it feels like the pain is conveniently outside of ourselves and inside the other. Little do we know, doing to others what we feel they’ve done to us doesn’t really solve anything…it only leads to an addictive cycle of mutual provocations and a reinforcement of a script that involves communicating by making people feel things. (Want to learn more about projective processes in relationships? Read more here.) Much better would be to use language to express ourselves in ways that allow for each person to contain his own emotions inside of himself and to resolve injuries and conflicts in ways that preserve one’s own dignity…rather than stooping to the level of tit for tat, keeping score, or having to deal with the ebbs and flows of guilt, paranoia, and aggression that come with relationship dynamics that involve spitefulness or an eat or be eaten mentality. (Aside from the fact that often enough the issue at play was simply a misunderstanding!)

The other thing I should also mention is that people who have been bullied, betrayed, or victimized often hate the part of themselves that feels weak for having “allowed” the victimization to happen. The idea of not beating the other, reversing the roles, or of taking what feels like bullying “lying down” can lead to many situations in which a person chooses to up the ante on a power struggle rather than to walk away or to try to come to a meeting of the minds…simply because fighting back feels like the only option other than being a sitting duck…which is often viewed as the most pejorative position of all.

This need to prove one’s power to oneself is usually due to a deeply disavowed part of the personality that is ashamed of being fearful, desperate, or weak…and leads to a need to fight till the death…even if it’s not in one’s best interest to fight, or when the other is not actually engaging in a power play like it seems.

Working through one’s relationship to fear, victimization, and the multitude of reasons why people don’t always fight back in situations of trauma or intimidation can be absolutely crucial to extricating oneself from a default or compulsive need to be vindictive or vengeful when triggered.

In truth, processing one’s feelings with a trusted other, walking away from abusive situations, and accepting that one’s choice to stay in a difficult relationship despite having been hurt does not give him/her license to be cruel…are much better solutions to feelings of hurt or inner tension than the use of sadistic defenses. After all, learning to manage one’s emotions, including weak or vulnerable ones, is a much better solution than taking satisfaction in another person’s pain.

P.S. Think your relationship dynamics may be toxic? Sign up for my free on-demand webinar here.