A cheating wife or husband evokes a predictable sort of rage in the scorned spouse—including an intense urge to seek revenge. Whether they actually take revenge for the infidelity or not (and we certainly recommend they do not!) depends on a handful of outside factors. But experts agree that urge to throw a laptop out a window or slash some tires is deeply instinctual. Revenge is a primitive impulse, after all. A form of retaliatory aggression that is meant to protect us from getting cheated.
“Revenge exists for a reason to keep people from taking advantage of you. If someone punches you, you’re going to punch them back,” David Chester, a professor of psychology and Virginia Commonwealth University who studies revenge, told Fatherly. “So it’s protective and serves as a deterrent to keep other people from harming you. But it can go awry. “
When a person is scorned by his or her cheating spouse, more ancient parts of the brain like the amygdala and ventral striatum are the first to react. The amygdala notes the threat, while the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens note how good it would feel to react. From there it’s up to the prefrontal cortex, a more sophisticated region of the brain responsible for social behavior and self-control, to intervene. When the prefrontal cortex is impaired as a result of injury, lack of sleep, intoxication, or even hunger, people are generally less likely to resist these urges for vengeance. In some people the prefrontal cortex is also generally less communicative with the more primitive parts of the brain, and those people are far more likely to carry out revenge, research reveals.
Interestingly, the satisfaction inherent in revenge may be even stronger when it happens within the context of a romantic relationship. “What we are finding is that the part of the ventral striatum or the reward region of the brain was most active when people were seeking against their romantic partner,” Chester says. “It shows that revenge can be particularly sweet if it’s against a romantic partner. We’re still not sure why that would be but this data is very preliminary and unpublished.”
What experts do know is that women and men are likely to experience similar urges for revenge, but men are far more likely to actually carry it out—and inflict more harm when they do so. Indeed, a large proportion of partner violence is retaliatory in nature; men beating their wives in response to a perceived slight. For this reason, expanding the research on why our brains tell us to take revenge (and why they seem to push us even harder when we’re in a romantic relationship) is crucial.
Even under less dire circumstances, Chester says, revenge in a romantic relationship is not particularly healthy. If you leave your socks on the floor as an act of revenge every time your wife pisses you off, there’s something awry in that marriage. “You should probably stop doing it,” he says. “Revenge is not a good motivation in the context of a long-term romantic relationship.”