How do you react when offended?
“‘If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over’” (Matthew 18:15, NIV).
Angela Brown struggles to get out of bed. Her whole body is sore, and her face is covered with bruises. Last night her husband, Corey, beat her again in a fit of rage. Looking at herself in the mirror, she puts heavy make-up over the bruises and swollen places. She parts her hair to the side to cover a black eye, trying to look presentable at her job.
Joe is furious. Richard, his co-worker, presented a proposal to the directive council of the company where they both work, and received important recognition and a pay raise. Joe is angry because the idea of that proposal originated with him, and he shared it with Richard in the course of a friendly conversation. Joe passes the day planning how he can get revenge on his co-worker to pay him back for his betrayal.
Gladys receives an anonymous phone call. Her husband, Randy, is cheating on her with his secretary. When Randy arrives home from work, she confronts him with his infidelity. It is a traumatic experience for their marriage. After many weeks of therapy, and a lot of talking, they are able to overcome the crisis. Although it was very painful, both admit that the experience helped to strengthen their marriage.
Consider these reactions to situations of offense. Angela submits to violence, covering it up with the cosmetics of silence and concealment, which feeds and perpetuates the situation. Joe acts aggressively in the face of injury, following the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Gladys courageously confronts her painful crisis in order to save her marriage. These are three typical responses to hurt: the passive attitude, the aggressive reaction, and the pro-social conduct of negotiation and reconciliation.
Since 1992, a group of colleagues at Universidad Adventista del Plata (UAP), Argentina, and I have been investigating how people react when they are offended, the disorders that friction causes, and the ways to overcome disputes (Moreno and Delfino, 1993; Pereyra, 1996; 2003; Moreno and Pereyra, 1999; 2000; 2001). Our investigations have revealed eight characteristic attitudes. Attitudes are distinct forms of behavior that reflect states of emotion, thought, and will. These eight attitudes can be defined as follows:
1. Submission: Passive acceptance of insult, subordinating oneself to the criticism or reproving attitude of the offender, inventing humbling or self-disqualifying justifications—for example, “I deserve it” or “It’s my fault.”
2. Denial: Conscious exclusion from memory of ideas or feelings associated with the wrong suffered; making an effort to “forget the matter.”
3. Hostile reaction: Predisposition to react immediately with violence, attacking the aggressor with the same act as the offense; a primary attitude that may not leave resentment with the subject but will probably aggravate the conflict with the person who suffers from the emotional outburst.
4. Revenge: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Intentionally searching and planning for vengeance, trying to deal out to the offender a similar or greater punishment than that suffered. It is also different from the former attitude in that the reaction is not immediate—much time can pass before retaliation takes place.
5. Resentment: Tendency to retain feelings of anger and hate, remembering often the wrong suffered, maintaining behaviors of animosity and rancor toward the guilty party without actually taking direct acts of revenge as in the revenge reaction mentioned above.
6. Explanation: Confronting the perpetrator for an explanation, justification, or motive for the action in order to overcome the discord through dialogue; to “clear things up.”
7. Forgiveness: This attitude also centers on communication but reaches understanding to clear up the causes of the controversy satisfactorily; the subject closes the doors to hostile actions, vengeance, or rancor.
8. Reconciliation: Overcoming discord through dialogue and with a forgiving disposition, just like the two previous attitudes, but with the intention of reviving the bond of affection with the offender, in order to reestablish a good relationship.
When we statistically analyzed hundreds of studies done with a test made to measure these attitudes (The Attitudes in Situations of Offense Questionnaire, the ASOQ [Moreno and Pereyra, 2000]), with people of different ages, sex, marital status, beliefs, and origins, we discovered that these specific forms of reaction corresponded to three basic models.
Three general behavior responses
In other words, when we are victim to an affront, we respond with three general behavior patterns, as happened with Angela, Joe, and Gladys. The first includes attitudes of submission and denial, which can be interpreted as the tendency to internalize hostile impulses, repressing or denying them. It is the case of one who “swallows” or guards his or her emotions, showing on the exterior a calm appearance, “putting on a brave face.”
The second response corresponds to behaviors of hostility, revenge, and resentment. Unlike submissive behaviors, this tendency involves aggression, making sure to hurt those who hurt you. It involves “outbursts” and upsets that feed anger until it can be discharged.
The third form of response channels the emotions through dialogue and negotiation. This covers the last three attitudes—explanation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It consists of seeking to overcome conflicts, preserving good interpersonal relationships, and managing the problem through communication, as Gladys did.
The findings of the investigation
Multiple scientific investigations report that both the repression or denial of aggression (the first response pattern), and the violent externalization of hostile emotion (the second response pattern), can be associated with grave physical and mental health disorders. Therefore, it can be inferred that the dialogue behaviors, forgiveness, and reconciliation would be related to good health. In an investigation performed with a sample of normal young adults (n=126), it was found that those who claimed to have more psychosomatic symptoms showed higher scores on the scales of Revenge and Rancor; in contrast, those with responses of Forgiveness or Reconciliation were negatively correlated with “neurotic” symptoms (Pereyra and Kerbs, 1998).
Another investigation by A. Barchi (1999) compared patients who attempted suicide with a control sample. Barchi discovered that the suicidal group scored significantly higher points on the three aggressive scales. The same result was found in a study of patients on dialysis for chronic renal failure (Pereyra, Bernhardt, and Fontana, 1999).
Literature on the issue reveals that those who never express their emotions but bottle them up deep inside are most susceptible to cancer. Likewise, the release of anger in an explosive way, with violent emotion, can also cause illnesses such as heart attacks or other cardiovascular symptoms.
Literature has defined the “Type A Personality” as individuals who are reactive, emphatic, and erupt easily when provoked. Among these people, heart attacks, cerebral strokes, or other types of cardiac disturbances are frequent. This information does not necessarily predict what will happen to a person; it only shows a correlation between tendencies in dealing with aggressiveness and tendencies toward these illnesses.
Investigating that correlation, we administrated the ASOQ to more than 50 patients who suffered from different types of cancer and 50 patients who suffered from diverse cardiovascular illnesses, of both sexes. The results were compatible with what is found in literature; the differences were meaningful in the three factors, especially in the “Passive Responses,” where the submissive attitudes were highly significant in patients with cancer. Also, while the first group was often in denial, the cardiac patients were more hostile and rancorous, on an even higher level in the area of their relationship with God, as if they blamed Him for their suffering and illness (Moreno and Pereyra, 2000).
Lastly, another very interesting study (ibid.) of a sample of 863 people from five countries from the American continents and from different religious orientations found that those who admitted to having active religious beliefs and customs, in contrast with those who did not, showed very different scores in all types of attitudes in the face of offense. The differences were most marked in the aggressive responses. Those who were not religious had higher scores in revenge, rancor, and hostility, while believers showed a higher disposition for submission and denial, as well as those behaviors that tended toward dialogue and the search for forgiveness and reconciliation.
The biblical perspective
The Bible always surprises us with its amazing and illuminating concepts. The research findings that we presented thus far support what God’s Word says about human relations. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus censured severely the exercise of insult and aggression, considering it as an object of judgment and one deserving condemnation. He who offends a “brother” must appear not just before a simple judge but before Someone greater, and the sentence is greater as well: he “‘will be in danger of the fire of hell’” (Matthew 5:22, NIV).
Because aggression consumes its owner, it is imperative to resolve it quickly, proceeding to reconcile oneself with the victim. To emphasize the urgency and obligation to repair a damaged relationship, the Bible declares that one must prioritize that duty over the fulfillment of religious obligations, such as taking an offering to the altar (verses 23, 24). The law suggests that if one does not have success with reconciliation, one must try to achieve an agreement with the adversary, thus preventing the situation from going before a judge (verses 26, 27). This conflict resolution formula is “reconciliation;” or, if a third party intervenes, “mediation.”
Despite all these, if the aggressor does not fulfill his or her duty of taking the initiative to resolve the discord or perhaps is not conscious of it, what can be done? That situation is also foreseen in the Word. In Matthew 18, Jesus takes up the subject again, directing the victim: “‘If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault’” (Matthew 18:15). The responsibility of resolving the dispute now is transferred to the wronged. By reading the texts of Matthew 5 and 18 together, we can interpret that first the aggressor is in charge of resolving the problem; but if after a reasonable amount of time he or she does not act, then the victim must be the one who must take the initiative to reach an agreement. For that to happen, a series of steps are recommended (verses 16, 17).
Our research shows that those who have a religious conviction tend to resolve personal disputes through private dialogue, just as Christ advised. Nevertheless, a high percentage of people prefer to forget what happened, pushing differences to one side and moving on as if nothing had ever happened, thinking that that is the best solution.
But silence, at times, can deepen hurt and thicken the walls of separation. In contrast, dialogue helps us to calm turbulent emotions, achieve harmony, and save relationships from dissolution. To achieve these objectives, dialogue should take place under appropriate conditions, when anger has abated and reconciliation is able to overcome misunderstanding to save the friendship. Maintaining an open network of friendly, satisfying relationships with one’s neighbors promotes good mental health. It helps maintain a sense of well being and preserve the joy of living.
For this reason, it is good to remember Paul’s exhortation: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18, NIV).
Mario Pereyra (Ph.D. Universidad de Cordoba) chairs the department of clinical psychology at Universidad de Montemorelos, Mexico. He may be reached at www.mariorpereyra.com.
A. Barchi (1999), “Organización familiar, agresividad y esperanza en intentos de suicidio.” Thesis, Universidad Adventista del Plata, Libertador San Martín, Argentina.
E. Moreno and C. Delfino (1993), “Estudio sobre el significado referencial de la noción de perdón,” Enfoques, 5:12, pp. 54-65.
E. Moreno and M. Pereyra (1999), “Aplicaciones clínicas del CASA. Estudio comparativo con pacientes cardiológicos, oncológicos, renales crónicos y psiquiátricos con intento suicida.” Paper presented during the XXVII Congreso Interamericano de Psicología, Caracas, Venezuela.
E. Moreno and M. Pereyra (2000), Cuestionario de actitudes frente a situaciones de agravio: Fundamentación teórica. validación y administración. Universidad Adventista del Plata, Argentina.
Moreno, E. and Pereyra, M. (2001). “Attitude toward offenders scale: Assessment, validation and research,” in Manuela Martínez, ed., Prevention and Control of Aggression and the Impact on its Victims (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers), pp. 377-384.
M. Pereyra (1996), Estrategias y técnicas de reconciliación. Psicoteca Editorial, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
M. Pereyra and M. Agüero de Kerbs (1998), “Personalidad, esperanza-desesperanza, control de la agresividad y salud mental en adventistas y no adventistas,” Theologika, 12:2, pp. 330-355.
M. Pereyra, E. Bernhardt and A. Fontana (1999), “Esperanza-desesperanza y manejo de la agresividad en pacientes renales crónicos en hemodiálisis,” Psicología y Salud, 113, pp. 63-71.
M. Pereyra (2003), Reconciliación: Cómo reparar los vínculos dañados. Publicaciones Universidad de Montemorelos, Montemorelos, México.