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The Dark Psychology of ‘Revenge Gossip’

Yeah, yeah, he split up with me. But did you know he’s a REAL-LIFE NEVER NUDE?

Did you hear? Sam dumped Heather — and, get this, she told me he’s a real-life never nude. He refuses to remove his underwear during sex because of some weird hang-up.

Also! Rachel told me Dave cheated on her for, like, a year before he dumped her. Yeah, he seemed so nice and straight-laced, right?

These are real-life stories in my social circle (names and details scrambled), and the only reason I know about them is because, obviously, people told me when it was approximately zero of my business. That makes it gossip, but it’s a special brand: revenge gossip — a motivated smear campaign by a bitter ex to shame the person who hurt them by spilling all the tea they kept sealed in their relationship.

Call it truth shaming, receipt raging, tea spilling, verbal revenge porn — it’s when you break up with someone, then go and tell the world their dirt to get back at them.

While the smearing generally launches after the breakup, it can surface just before the breakup, too. Last week on Reddit, a 28-year-old woman said her boyfriend was threatening to tell her family and friends about her DUI from three years ago if she leaves him. Elsewhere on the net, there are stories of exes telling landlords about secret pets to get their exes kicked out. A woman writes in at Reddit that her ex-boyfriend instantly spilled to all their mutual friends about her past as a stripper and porn actor. Memorably, Ben Affleck once let the entire world know that being with J. Lo made him feel “suffocated, miserable and gross.”

It’s moved online, too. Recently, when Instagram models Alexis Ren and Jay Alvarrez broke up, she took the opportunity to let her 600,000 followers know that he wasn’t packing respectable heat in the dick department. Former daters Chris Brown and Karrueche Tran have double-slimed each other. According to her, he’s abusive; according to him, she’s a liar.

The question is, what sort of person goes napalm like this? And what is to be done?

Revenge Hacking GIF by vewn - Find & Share on GIPHY

Natalia Juarez, a breakup coach and dating strategist at Better Breakups, who counsels her clients on getting over people, winning them back, and just how to date in general, says anyone can feel the impulse to smear. It just takes a special sort of person to actually do it.

“It is so natural to be upset after a breakup, especially if the circumstances had anything to do with a betrayal of some sort,” Juarez tells MEL by phone. “Or someone feels blindsided.”

What’s more, getting revenge is a standard go-to plot in movies like The Other Woman, where two women team up to take a cheating man down and ruin his life. Or A Perfect Murder (a remake of Dial M for Murder), where a husband seeks revenge on his unfaithful wife.

“What’s the paradigm of being cheated on in our culture?” Juarez asks. “If you act out and do a smear campaign, it’s socially supported.”

But that doesn’t make it a classy move. “It’s never okay to get vindictive,” Juarez says. “That’s why we have revenge fantasies. You imagine doing the terrible things, but you don’t. To act on it, that’s a whole other matter. For people who are willing to follow through, I think it says a lot about their character and maturity.”

It also may have something to do with their attachment style, which Juarez relies on as methodology in her practice. It posits that most of us are either securely attached, avoidant, anxious or some combination thereof, and that this early wiring will impact our relationships for life.

“About 50 percent of the population has a secure attachment style,” Juarez says. “If you’re the avoidant type, you’re probably just going to move on. But the 20 to 25 percent who are anxiously attached take breakups the hardest. They become obsessed. That’s the type of person most likely to probably do this.”

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Notably, it’s not always the ex who does the smearing. The source may start there, and the aggrieved ex may confide in a friend. But sometimes they confide in someone else who takes it upon themselves to stoke the fire. Juarez recalls a female client who’d found herself in a bit of a love triangle. She’d ended up with one of the men, but the other guy wasn’t too happy about it. Although he didn’t carry out the hit on the woman’s reputation himself, he may as well have ordered it directly by confiding in some of their mutual female acquaintances that she was unfaithful.

The story spread, and her social circle was small enough that it impacted her ability to go out. “At a party a year later, one of these women was drunk and confronted her and threw food at her,” Juarez says. “She was so upset. She had never been so socially humiliated in her life.”

A male client of Juarez’s had come to her to win back his ex-girlfriend, another one of her services. But prior to that, he’d consulted with a pickup artist first. The PUA coach had advised him to hire a new woman to be seen out with to make the ex girlfriend jealous. But it had blown up in his face. In an unexpected twist, the hired woman was friends with the ex-girlfriend, and told her exactly what the guy had done.

But Juarez says that the temptation is totally understandable. She just has to convince the client to work through the emotions, and how it’s unhealthy to focus on them.

“Of course you can harm the other person, their reputation, their belongings,” she says. “But it’s never good for the person acting out. It’s not good emotionally. Also, it reflects poorly on you socially. It takes two people in a relationship. So energetically it just feels weird when someone is putting all the blame on the other person. Sometimes it’s the case, but that’s not a good look.”

Juarez encourages her clients to use her services, but also to confide in friends who will understand that you’re just venting, just getting it off your chest. Just be aware, she says, that friends sometimes can feed the impulse to smear. “You may get really bad advice from your friends who don’t have as much invested in your life and the consequences.”

You’re most at risk for spouting off to damage a reputation in the first part of the breakup, when the feelings are the rawest and impulsivity is high. Juarez calls this the survival stage, the one where you just have to get through the emotion.

“It’s deep sadness and anger and shock,” she says. “Your emotional body is trying to integrate this experience. But it’s the time when you can’t tolerate being with these feelings.”

If confiding in friends or speaking with a therapist isn’t stopping the urge to lash out, you should also consider, she says, that you’ll probably regret it eventually.

“It might be months or years later before you realize you acted that way,” she says. “Maybe you see a friend go through a similar experience and you say, ‘God, I’ve been that person.’ Or you eventually see that the breakup worked out in your favor. Maturity plays into it. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I simply mean in terms of life experience.”

But primarily, figuring out how you played a role in the breakup — such as by always being drawn to a certain type of person (a cheater, for instance) — will humanize the story and make the ex who hurt you far less of a villain you feel justified in punishing. “You have to look at the common denominator and ask, what is the lesson here?” she says.

If you smeared someone, try to course-correct, she says. Stop causing further damage. If there’s an opportunity to apologize, do so. If there’s a social media post, remove it.

If anyone reading this has never been smeared, and you’re wondering if the person next to you could ever pull that shit, Juarez says there are signs at the beginning of the relationship you can watch out for.

“See how people process challenges in their life,” she says. “At work, do they get upset [or are they] more solution-oriented? Are they always a victim, like, ‘Poor me, I did nothing’? Are they looking to take responsibility to do what’s in their control? How do they talk about their exes? If every ex they’ve ever had is ‘crazy,’ that’s a red flag.”

And finally, Juarez says, if you’re seeking relief from someone who has smeared you, taking the high road is really the only way to go. “Look at the monarchy in the Meghan Markle situation,” she says. “They don’t engage. And things pass.”