By Sarah Zutrauen, Department of Health Sciences

Revenge. It often seems to be the first thing to cross someone’s mind when they are wronged. It can seem satisfying in the moment. Even justified.  But is revenge actually sweet? Although vengeance may provide immediate satisfaction, it can also have unanticipated (and unwelcome) consequences for mental and physical health. On the flip side, the alternative response—forgiveness— may provide several benefits for health and well-being. But is this always the case?  Both vengeance and forgiveness are often considered to be coping strategies used to deal with a variety of stressful events, but they can result in different outcomes, depending on the circumstances.

One of the most challenging types of stressful events to cope with (and potentially to forgive) is abuse. Following an abusive event, common psychological responses include a desire for revenge or avoidance, or a reluctance to forgive. Notably, women who have suffered abuse are at greater risk for subsequent stressor-related depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other psychological symptoms. Abuse may also prompt the body to mount a short-term adaptive physiological response, by releasing stress hormones, such as cortisol, together with several brain neurotransmitters. However, sustained exposure to stressors, such as continued abuse, may lead to an overload of the stress response (allostatic overload), thereby diminishing cortisol levels, and decreasing the ability to deal with the stressor effectively.  

Although vengeance might be perceived as a fortifying option for women in abusive relationships and could feel good in the moment, it may be somewhat of a paradox in that it can also exact costs on psychological and physical health. But what about forgiveness?  Is forgiveness good for health in the context of an abusive relationship? It has been suggested that forgiving reactions predict better psychological and physical functioning, including less severe depressive symptomatology (compared to not forgiving). As well, forgiveness is associated with diminished stress-related biological responses, such as lower heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conduction levels. However, in the context of abuse, forgiveness may actually comprise a two-edged sword. On one hand, forgiveness might foster resilience by buffering the negative psychological effects of abuse. On the other hand, it could be detrimental if forgiving the abusive partner results in the continuation of the relationship, potentially putting the victim’s health at further risk. Thus, the positive health effects of forgiveness might depend on many factors, including the type or severity of the transgression (abusive or non-traumatic), as well as the type of well-being in question (physical or psychological).

Through two studies, researchers Renate Ysseldyk, Kimberly Matheson, and Hymie Anisman investigated the complex interactions among forgiveness, revenge, abuse, psychological health, and physiological stress responses among women who were currently involved in an abusive relationship, or had previously experienced intimate partner abuse (compared to women whose relationship conflicts were not abusive).

Psychological Health Implications

This research showed that women’s experiences of abuse, in general, were associated with greater depression and PTSD symptomatology. Women experiencing abuse were also more likely to desire revenge, and fewer engaged in forgiving behaviours. Interestingly, however, at low levels of psychological abuse (less than 3 events in the past month), revenge and depressive symptoms were unrelated, but at high levels of psychological abuse, a desire for revenge was related to higher depressive symptoms. Conversely, although forgiveness was associated with fewer depressive and PTSD symptoms in the absence of physical abuse, this association was even stronger in the presence of physical abuse.

Overall, unlike revenge and avoidance, forgiveness was associated with fewer psychological symptoms. It may be that unforgiving attitudes escalate negative emotions and rumination, leading to the development or maintenance of depressive or PTSD symptoms. In contrast, forgiveness may be key for the healing process through reducing feelings of hurt and resentment, thereby diminishing adverse psychological symptoms following abuse. Importantly, however, although the psychological health benefits of forgiveness were most pronounced in the aftermath of relatively severe offences, this was most evident for offences that were not ongoing. With women no longer in an abusive situation, forgiveness might be a strategy for letting go and moving on.

Physiological Stress Reactivity Implications

Alongside the psychological health responses that often accompany stressors, cortisol release is an adaptive short-term physiological response to help individuals cope. However, prolonged cortisol release, as might occur with ongoing abuse, is harmful to both physical and psychological health. In this study, although revenge was associated with increased cortisol reactivity following reminders of any relationship stressor, elevated cortisol reactivity was also evident among forgiving women in ongoing physically abusive relationships (following reminder cues of an abusive event). However, among women who reported no physical abuse, forgiveness and cortisol reactivity were unrelated.

In effect, a blunted cortisol response was seen among women in an abusive relationship when they were not forgiving of their partner, while cortisol reactivity was intensified when forgiveness was given. This finding suggests the possibility that forgiveness acted as an adaptive response to the stressor, kicking physiological systems into gear in an effort to cope with the abuse. However, it is equally possible that forgiving may have prolonged the abusive relationship, and that the increased cortisol reactivity observed was actually a marker of women’s ongoing distress.

The Big Picture

Based on this research, in the context of an abusive relationship, is forgiveness sweet and revenge sour for health and well-being?

For the most part, revenge was sour. The desire for vengeance was associated with increased cortisol reactivity, as well as more symptoms of depression and PTSD among women enduring physical, and especially psychological, abuse.

In contrast, for the most part, forgiveness was sweet, if the abuse occurred well in the past. Forgiveness was also associated with increased cortisol reactivity in response to continuing relationships involving physical abuse. Thus, the sweetness of forgiveness implies letting go of resentment; it does not mean tolerating more abuse.

Overall, in the context of abusive relationships, the dual nature of forgiveness, the paradox of revenge, and the severity, type, and timing of abuse all contribute to the complex relations between these factors and women’s health. So, what should we do the next time we are hurt or wronged?  Once we can be sure we are out of harm’s way, this research points to taking stock of the big picture, considering the potentially sour ramifications of continuing to seek revenge, and the comparative release that might be provided by forgiveness.

Based on:

Ysseldyk, R., Matheson, K. & Anisman, H. (2017). Revenge is sour, but is forgiveness sweet? Psychological health and cortisol reactivity among women with experiences of abuse. Journal of Health Psychology. doi: 10.1177/1359105317714319

If you are experiencing any form of abuse, many resources exist, and those listed below may provide help:

Ontario Assaulted Women’s Helpline………… 24 hour 1(866) 863-0511 TTY 1(866) 863-7868

Ottawa Distress Centre………………………….24 hour (613) 238-3311

Fem’aide Crisis Line……………………………………..24 hour 1(877) 336-2433 ATS 1(866) 860-7082