Tag Archives: revenge

Cake or Death? Forgiveness & Revenge as Evolutionary Bedfellows

Cake and forgiveness?


Death and revenge?

What will it be and how do I choose and, by the way, why are these two such intimate strangers?

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As someone dedicated to researching and studying what makes for great relationships, I’ve come up with a list of 12 skills that are key. The first ten I’ve already written about and while they may be tough to explain and tougher to embody – I’ve captured more or less what I wanted to say. However, I’m really struggling with Number 11.

So, here’s a summary of the twelve skills. I maintain that you’ll enjoy great relationships to the extent you  ~

    1. Recognize and get curious about the fact there’s not just one “you;”
    2. Get some self-mastery going so you can choose which “you” shows up; i.e, respond, don’t react;
    3. Appreciate your partner is on this same journey of self discovery and self mastery – in other words, you are both “works-in-progress” so lighten up already;
    4. Work on your conversational chops and speak from your heart when possible;
    5. Really listen and get curious about what your partner is trying to tell you;
    6. Show up with empathy;
    7. Practice kindness – a lot;
    8. Negotiate how to get your needs met without selling yourself or your partner short;
    9. Become trusting and trustworthy;
    10. Use times of friction between you to grow closer – not father apart;
    11. Transform forgiveness into gratitude;
    12. Know when and how to let go.

Maybe you’re already thinking “Duh – what does she mean by “transform forgiveness into gratitude… no wonder she’s stuck!” And you have a point. So – being honest here –  the three essays I’m posting on forgiveness will be very much works-in-progress.

Here’s the general flow:

  • November 4th – Cake or Death? Forgiveness & Revenge as Evolutionary Bedfellows
  • November 11th – Choosing Forgiveness Today.
  • November 18th – The forgiveness challenge.
  • November 25th – Something different for Thanksgiving.

So onward –

Cake or Death

If this is your first introduction to Eddie Izzard you may be scratching your head. Finding it works better for me to seek forgiveness than permission (to coin another phrase I love) I went with his metaphor for this article.

I’m indebted to Michael McCullough, Ph.D whose work informed this blog post. You’ll find more in his book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. Published in 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

OK – revenge!

Ever felt it? Not the noblest experience is it and it sure can consume one.

Fortunately for me I’m blessed by two things which make my experience of revenge rather lackluster.

First I’ve a dreadful memory and while I’m sure I’ve hatched all sorts of evil painful plans to take revenge on nasty people in my life, I can think of only one.

Second, this one person was neither my relative nor spouse. In fact he was very little in my life, so the impact of his unkindness didn’t touch me nearly as viscerally as the wounds I witness in my therapy office as warring divorced or divorcing partners wrestle with enormous feelings of revenge and rage at the injustices they’ve endured.

However, while this one person in my life was in the midst of being a total toad I found myself sinking into all sorts of vengeful fantasies having to do with hoping he’d choke on his food, crash his car, lose his fortune, and other ignoble nastinesses of which I’m not at all proud.

The redeeming news for me in the face of my base fantasies of “Death!” (and for anyone else who has felt that hot knife of vengeance) rests in the first of McCullough’s three truths.

Truth #1: The desire for revenge is a built-in feature of human nature

“ the desire for revenge is normal—normal in the sense that every neurologically intact human being on the planet has the biological hardware for it.

The evidence McCullough cites to support this claim is compelling.

When evolutionary biologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson looked at data on 60 different societies from around the world, they tried to determine how many of those societies showed evidence of blood feuds, capital punishment, or the desire for blood revenge. They found that 57 of the 60 societies they examined—95 percent—had “some reference to blood feud or capital punishment as an institutionalized practice, or specific accounts of particular cases or, at the least, some articulate expression of the desire for blood revenge.”

And he concludes, “When a behavior is this universal, that suggests it’s not just the product of particular cultures or social factors. Instead, it’s essential to what it means to be human.

So I’m a low life, but a very human low life.

Since Michael McCullough is Director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami, he asks himself why this particular trait has survived the evolutionary journey.

Three reasons:

  1. Revenge as deterrent. Remember, early humans were tribal so usually in the company of one another. If Og thwacked Zog and Zog took forceful revenge, folks might remember his fierce response and for sure Zog would not look like a coward. Even today studies have shown that “when two men have an argument on the street, the mere presence of a third person doubles the likelihood that the encounter will escalate from an exchange of words to an exchange of blows.”
  1. Revenge as punishment. If a member of the group behaved badly the worst thing would be to ostracize him or her. Just shy of that is to make bullying unprofitable so a good walloping back served to keep the member in the group but teach them – essentially – that crime does not pay.
  1. Revenge as “free-rider” prevention. Every group runs the risk of having free-loaders who want the benefits of the group without the effort. Knowing there would be dire consequences for non-cooperation may have served this purpose.

So, what about forgiveness?

Ever felt it? How did you feel?

Much better I expect. There’s a largess, a spaciousness and an inner freedom that flows when we forgive someone.

Often people who have been hurt by the person they love most in the world are anxious to move quickly to forgiveness. They hate sitting in judgment or revenge. It feels dreadful.

Nice of them?

Yes – but also hardwired into their biology as identified by the second of McCullough’s three truths.

Truth #2: The capacity for forgiveness is a built-in feature of human nature

According to McCullough, there is evidence that forgiveness is just as universal among humans as is revenge. His analysis of the same societies that reportedly had 95% blood revenge shows evidence of forgiveness and reconciliation 93 percent of the time. And that remaining 7%? I quote:

“Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has observed that “it is actually difficult to find descriptions of forgiveness in hunter-gatherer societies, not because forgiveness is absent but because it happens so naturally that it often goes unnoticed.” I think Wilson may be correct, and not just about hunter-gatherers but about all societies. Forgiveness and reconciliation may be so common and so taken for granted by anthropologists as to be regarded, quite literally, as nothing to write home about.”

Plus – animals forgive.

Researchers studying patterns of aggression and friendliness in chimps noted that of 350 aggressive encounters, only 14% were preceded by friendly contact, whereas 51% were followed by friendly contact.

The bonobo, mountain gorilla, goats, sheep, dolphins, hyenas and some non-mammalian species all have conciliatory behaviors.

Maybe the Ronettes were right and for all of us critters, “the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up.”

Screen shot 2015-11-02 at 5.15.48 PMWhat about my cat?” You wonder.

No deal.

I quote: “Of the half-dozen or so non-primates that have been studied, only domestic cats have failed to demonstrate a conciliatory tendency.”

So, cats aside, why do we creatures forgive if there’s a danger we’ll look weak or encourage crime or free-riders?

Why offer “Cake?” when some other part of you is (or recently was) thinking “Death!”

Having sifted through the theories of several evolutionary biologists McCullough puts his money on the “valuable relationship” hypothesis.

I quote again:

It goes like this: Animals reconcile because it repairs important relationships that have been damaged by aggression. By forgiving and repairing relationships, our ancestors were in a better position to glean the benefits of cooperation between group members—which, in turn, increased their evolutionary fitness.”

There’s more and I’d invite you to enjoy this longer article . But – this gives you the idea.

OK – it doesn’t take a professor to step back for a moment and observe something along the lines of; Well – if we’ve all got the genetic software for both revenge and forgiveness how come societies look so different? How come we have ardent fundamentalists lopping off hands and heads and people holding onto grudges and feuds for generations, while others of our human cousins seek to forgive extraordinary acts of cruelty like the Holocaust or Apartheid?

What are the social conditions that give rise to Cake thinking versus Death thinking?

Or, to bring it into the personal, how does this play out with Og and Zog’s descendants in the  intimate battle ground of the modern family? Is our rage against our partner, as well as our capacity to forgive, still about discouraging hostility, bad behavior and free-riding while encouraging the conditions for peaceful cooperation?

Come back next week!

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This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

 SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

  • Cake or Death? Forgiveness & Revenge as Evolutionary Bedfellows

The Art of Apologizing ~ in 5 Calming Breaths

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 2.35.49 PMWhen someone you love does something that hurts you, it’s quite common to find you are caught between two opposing desires:

  • Revenge – make ‘em pay for your hurt
  • Forgive – and forget as quickly as possible to remove the pain.



However, neither revenge nor forgiveness are the best idea on their own, since they can both block genuine reconciliation. This is the place where each of you gets to do some emotional homework .  Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 12.51.58 PM


If the hurt partner stays in revenge, it will eat away at their soul, heart and mind and destroy them from within like a worm in an apple.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 3.22.45 PM


If the hurt partner is too quick to jump to forgiveness, they run the risk of losing their voice, and becoming  dis-empowered, like it feels when someone offers you a limp-fish handshake.



This is where the Art of the Apology comes in.

A genuine, full heartfelt apology – coupled with the self-awareness this process fosters – can actually serve to bring two people closer.  While the person who has been accused of doing (or being) hurtful can do an awful lot of reparation using the Breaths I suggest below, if the two of you get fully engaged, you can use this episode to create a deep and genuine reconciliation.

I use the metaphor of the Breath (rather than the Step) for two reasons:

  1. When we are stressed it really helps to breathe: Keep breathing!
  2. There are in-breaths and out-breaths.  To stay alive, you need both.  This process works to bring two hurting people closer because it softens those edges between in and out, right and wrong, accused and accuser,  victim and culprit.

This is what makes apologizing an art form. With practice you can cultivate this ability to mastery. And as you do, you’ll be modeling the process for your partner and your children. And they, in turn, can model it for theirs. Lord knows, we need more reconciliation on the planet!

NOTE: Each of the Five Breaths has a role for both the Accuser and the Accused. Try on both roles from some past issue. Walk yourself through how the process might have gone had you tried it.  What do you notice?

Breath 1  ~  STORY

ACCUSER   Just let it out!  Tell your partner the story of why you are so upset  ~  Give as many details as you can to help the accused see things from your point of view.

“I’m never ever going to an office party with you again! You abandon me the moment we get there, you schmooze with everyone and don’t introduce me to half of them. And then, at dinner, you sit next to that new woman and spend the whole night in quiet conversation leaving me across from you between two crashing bores whom I didn’t even know!”

ACCUSED   Listen quietly to the accusation  ~  Face your accuser. Breathe deeply. Give this issue your full attention. Do not, under any circumstances, explain, justify, defend or deny. Zip it and listen. If your mind is busy doing anything other than listening, you’ll miss too much.

Breath 2  ~  FEELINGS

ACCUSED   Acknowledge the other person’s FEELINGS  ~  Put yourself in your accuser’s shoes and imagine how they felt, even if they have not expressed any feelings beyond anger. Until you have done this they have no interest in anything you have to say. Trust me! It will not help them one iota for you to tell them:

  • But I didn’t mean to . .
  • You have no idea the pressures I was under!
  • Hey, you could have  . . .
  • No, I did not do these things!
  • In fact, I did the opposite of this most of the time.

So, do not. Instead, try this ~

“Oh Fiona, you felt awful that night!  You felt abandoned by me when I did not introduce you to those folks we were talking to. And then at dinner, it sounds as though you felt jealous that I had someone to talk to – and it did not help that it was a woman – and you were stuck between two folks you did not enjoy.  And for sure you don’t want to get put in a situation like that again. Did I get this right, or am I missing some parts still?”

ACCUSER    Continue to clarify your  FEELINGS   ~  Did they express accurately how you were feeling? Do you need to have them understand any aspect of that painful event more fully?  Now is your chance to see if you feel genuinely and fully understood. It’s your job to help the accused understand you – there is only so much they can guess.

“Well, you’ve got most of it right. I did feel abandoned and jealous. I think what made it worse for me is that you know how vulnerable I feel amongst your super-smart financial market friends. Right in the midst of my six month parenting leave and all I can think to talk about is Sylvia sitting up and how cute she is. I ended up feeling boring, dumb and unattractive.”

ACCUSED   Repeat Breath 2  ~  Keep going around by inviting the accuser to say more about feelings while you continue to acknowledge what they are saying.

Again remind yourself – you are not pleading guilty. You are simply helping someone in pain name their symptoms.

Breath 3  ~  REPENTANCE 

ACCUSED   Say Sorry  ~  If you can hold-on to the idea that this person is simply telling you they are hurt; and if you can refrain from taking the focus back to you by explaining,  justifying, denying, or accusing*,  you may be able to offer a heartfelt. . .

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry you felt abandoned by me and jealous and boring and all those awful feelings you just shared with me.”

ACCUSER   Receive their sorrow  ~  Listen with your heart. If the accused has genuinely sought to understand how dreadful you felt, you can most likely be sure that they are genuinely sorry you felt that way.

Breath 4  ~  OWNERSHIP

ACCUSED   Accept responsibility for the parts you feel you can genuinely accept responsibility for. This empowers you to see how you could have done things differently  ~  Not everything is 100% within our control so the trick here is to take ownership of what is  Own up to the parts you can own up to.  You do not have to lie down and be a whipping boy. If there are things beyond your control, or actually more within your accuser’s control, don’t take those on.

“Fiona, I totally see how I blew it with the introductions. Truth was I blew it even more by not remember those guys names. I could have just spoken up and said ‘Hey – I’d like you to meet my wife” and hoped they’d have offered their names! And I did get way too interested in the things Betty had to say – that woman you spoke of. She’s from corporate so I was being a bit of a brown-nose I know. I can see how that must have looked to you.”

ACCUSER   Listen as your partner accepts responsibility  ~  You’ll know if this is genuine. You may find he or she is not taking responsibility for absolutely everything.  This is actually good. If you choose to notice what items were left on the table, you could – under calmer conditions – explore the extent to which you could have done something to help yourself under those circumstances. Own your own piece.

“Well thanks. I know I blame you for the two bores I sat between too – but I see I could have asked them about their kids and maybe sparked some sort of conversation I was interested in. Hey – I possibly could have asked to swap seats with someone after coffee too.”


ACCUSED   Seek forgiveness  ~  After you’ve heard the story and understood the feelings, after you’ve repented and taken ownership for what went down and how things could be different next time, you may want to ask for forgiveness.  I have noticed that when this process has moved successfully through these four stages, not everyone feels the need for this final step.  However, it can’t hurt!

“Fiona – I’m really glad we talked about this today. I want us to be close again. I’d love it if you could forgive me. Is there anything else  I need to do? Will you tell me?”

ACCUSER   Offer forgiveness when you are ready  ~  You may need some time;  you may not. Sometimes it helps to have a little ritual – like the confessional for Catholics when the priest dolls out “Five Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys”. 

“Yes. I’m glad I got this out. I felt so hurt I thought it was the beginning of the end for us. But I see things much more clearly now.  So – I’d say forgiveness will cost you dinner for two at that new wine-bar next week!”

That’s it. Give it a go. I’d love to know if you have anything to add.

*  So what to do with all your pent-up desire to explain, justify, deny or counter attack?  I’ve noticed one of two things might help.

  1. You may just be able to let them go. The whole point of all that was to try to make your accuser feel better and not think you were a jerk – right?  Well, now they feel better and probably feel great about you too. Can be best to just dump ’em.
  2. If you feel stuck, then one day – when the issue has cooled down a bit – you could bring these up more as a reporter of the event than protagonist.  “You know, I find I still hang on to wanting to let you know why I didn’t introduce you to those chaps at the office party. Funny really. I guess I wanted you to know I didn’t intend to hurt you. Can I tell you about things from my perspective, now that it’s all behind us?”