I remember a day (I wish there was just one but unfortunately there were many) when the pain, uncertainty, and stress of dealing with my sexually addicted spouse boiled up, over, and out of me. I yelled, I swore like a sailor on shore leave, and I behaved in scathing, mean, and hateful ways. Above all I was self-righteous. He deserved it. Hadn’t he betrayed me? Hadn’t he hurt me more than I ever could have imagined? Hadn’t he traumatized me? I had PTSD, dammit! So he deserved my wrath, and I felt justified in unleashing my frustration.
Pia Mellody, a groundbreaking author who writes about healing developmental and other forms of trauma has coined a term for this behavior. She calls it “offending from the victim position.” Offending from the victim position occurs when we decide that our status as the offended party gives us the right to become offenders ourselves. Because we have been hurt, we feel we are justified in hurting back. So we take our pain, turn it into a cloak of self-righteousness, wrap ourselves in it, and let loose with all the anger and rage inside us. We believe we have immunity because we have been betrayed, that betrayal gives us the right to strike back.
Three things drive betrayed partners into offending from the victim position. The first involves our shadow self, the part of us that can wholeheartedly engage in unhealthy behavior. The second involves our wounded self, the part of us that feels shamed. The third involves our dignity and what we most deeply long for in the aftermath of betrayal. We are going to look at each of these over the next three weeks, starting today with an honest look at our shadow side.
All of us have this dark side. It is the part of us that can make bad choices, hurt those we love, and cause damage to ourselves. After experiencing betrayal, our shadow self often tries to take over and steer us toward safety (or at least control) by using anger, self-righteousness, blame, and other defensive strategies, all of which can be a part of offending from the victim position.
For the shadow self, offending from the victim position is primarily about revenge. When we offend from the victim position, we are trying to inflict the same level of pain and damage on our spouse that he inflicted on us through his cheating. We want to see our spouse writhe in pain the same way we did. We want him to feel his heart break in two, just like ours did. We want him to experience the horror of betrayal, as we have. So our dark side demands an eye for an eye, and tries to create justice by taking revenge.
In my counseling practice, I have sat with women who have hit their spouse, destroyed his possessions, publicly shamed him by telling as many people as possible about his behaviors, had revenge affairs, verbally abused him, withheld sex for literally years on end, flirted with other men in front of him, and poisoned their children against him.
We are all capable of committing such acts of destruction, of causing profound harm to a person we love. The sad thing is that our desire for revenge can take a relationship that has the potential to not only survive, but thrive, and destroy it. So there may be far reaching consequences to our revenge. In the moment, however, we can only think about inflicting the same pain that we’ve experienced onto our spouse.
The terrible truth is that when we let our shadow self pilot the plane it inevitably creates more pain, damage, and destruction – not only for our partner and our relationship, but for us. We often end up feeling shame about our harmful behaviors, and we find ourselves dealing with unforeseen consequences resulting from our revenge. At a bare minimum we create more hurt and mistrust in our relationship.
When we are hurting the way betrayed partners tend to hurt, it can feel like lashing out is the only option. And being told that our behaviors are hurting our spouse and our relationship makes a lot of us want stare straight back and say, “Good, then it’s working!” Unfortunately, when the shadow self is driving, it is always and inevitably steering us toward self-destruction. We are hurting ourselves when we offend from the victim position. We are robbing ourselves of our dignity, our true power, and our true voice.
Next week we will look at the way the part of us that feels shamed can cause us to offend from the victim position.