How to tell if you are adopting a martyr style in your relationship:
1. You are angry and resentful because your relationship is disappointing to you. Often, you think that the main problem rests in your spouse's behavior. In your opinion, your spouse or mate should be doing things differently, and this would solve everything.
2. You usually communicate with people who cannot make any changes. You may talk to friends, for example, rather than communicating directly with your spouse or mate.
3. You whine, scapegoat, complain, and may even describe yourself or see yourself as a victim. Although you may have endured some bad experiences in your relationship, you fail to own how you create, promote, or allow these outcomes in your relationship.
4. You have a hard time owning your role in the problems that you discuss. Rather than saying, "Next time, I'm going to ___," you stay stuck in what your partner should have done differently.
5. If someone who you complain to offers a suggestion, your first reaction is to reject it. Following this, you might find that you rationalize or justify why you must continue to behave as you are.
6. This is a chronic problem (it has endured beyond 3 months). In addition, you see yourself as chronically unhappy in the relationship. Deeper problems in the relationship remain unsolved.
7. You begin to see yourself as a story teller, moving from one negative story to the next. You may even find yourself rehearsing what you'll tell your friends, family, therapist, coach, preacher, or others, rather than rehearsing how to correct the problems.
8. Underneath your anger and resentment, there may be depression and fear. These feelings tend to surface after the storm of your anger.
9. Although you may appear very capable to others, you may see yourself as dependent upon your spouse or partner. This leads you to avoid asking for what you want directly, being assertive, and getting help or leaving the relationship.
10. You may behave as though you are trapped, even when some of your problems may have ready solutions. Trapped people often fluctuate between acting helpless and lashing out.
If you engage in any of the above behaviors, you may be partaking in martyr behavior that can insidiously destroy trust, intimacy, and eventually the very fabric of your relationship, in addition to your own sense of integrity. Repeating behaviors often means repeating results, leading you to feel beaten. As George Matthew Adamas says,"Beaten people take beaten paths."
If you want to feel less helpless, then stop spinning and circling. Take a deep breath, relax, and realize that digging deeper into a hole is only going to take you deeper into the hole. The sooner you stop digging, the less climbing you'll have to do to get out of the hole.
Changing involves a combination of changing your mindset to become more aware of your personal power and changing your skill set (usually in the area of communication and relationship enhancement).
Here are ten steps to help you to break the martyrdom habit:
1. Give up communication escape mechanisms. These include but are not limited to: sulking, whining, leaving, blaming, speaking to everyone except your partner about your partner's misdeeds, avoiding topics that you want to discuss, being too busy to talk, being too tired/drunk/high/otherwise unavailable to talk, deliberately doing something distasteful to your partner (such as smoking when your partner hates smoking), having an adult temper tantrum, and more.
2. When something is wrong, think about what you want to request or what action you want to take. If you are engaging in martyr behavior, you won't think about what you can ask for or do. Instead you'll be thinking about the story you'll tell later or what to complain about.
3. Take one action every day to begin to correct your problems. Is it time for couple's therapy or coaching? Speak to your partner and schedule an appointment. Plan on attending sessions for at least three months so that real change can be established (unless otherwise indicated by your therapist).
4. Find one thing you'd miss about your partner. Then, express appreciation to your partner about this. Do this at least once daily.
5. When possible, increase relationship mending behaviors. Give your partner a hug, hold hands, help out, or say something kind to your partner. Do this at least once daily.
6. Improve and practice healthy communciation habits. Healthy communication in relationships includes owning your reactions using "I" statements about specific behaviors, such as, "I feel lonely when we don't go out at least once a week." Relationship martyrs sometimes use unhealthy communication (if they communicate at all). Unhealthy communication often includes "You" statements, labeling, and overgeneralizations, such as, "You are a jerk and you never give me the time of day."
7. Create a quality time together weekly. For example, go out for coffee, schedule a date night, or join each other for lunch mid-week.
8. When you're angry, identify how you are "shoulding" on your partner. "Shoulds" often represent demands that you are placing on another person, and demandingness frequently leads to anger. Instead, work to realize that your partner can do whatever he or she wants to do, whether or not you/others agree with it. Accepting your partner doesn't mean that you agree with his or her behavior, or that you resign yourself to being on the receiving end of it. It does mean that you realize that you cannot control your partner. You have a choice as to whether or not to anger yourself over your partner's behavior, and whether or not to behave as a martyr. Instead of "shoulding", you can move into strongly preferring that he or she do things differently, strongly requesting what you want directly or taking actions to solve problems, persisting in your strong preference and strong requests, geting help, and/or leaving the relationship.
9. Keep a 4 column control-restoration log. This will help you to start to identify and reclaim your power. Refrain from taking a bath in your anger during this exercise, because you will be tempted to step into "shoulding" on your partner. Whether or not the world would rate your partner's behavior as unacceptable, your goal is to move out of martyrdom, so stick with the exercise as it is written. To do the exercise: In the first column, write your partner's offense. In the second, write the real or underlying problem. In the third, write what you did to contribute to your partner ultimately behaving as he or she did. In the fourth, write what you could do to solve the problem. For example, your first column might say, "My partner said something rude to my friend." The second column might say, "My friend wasn't leaving our house after dinner." The third column entry might say, "I failed to set an ending time and didn't speak up to my friend when I saw that it was getting late for us." The fourth column might say, "I can ask my partner to approach me to talk to my friend, rather than saying rude things to my friend. I can also make sure to put an end time on any socializing we arrange."
10. Answer this question: How long have your problems with your partner been going on? Whatever your answer, realize that if this is a chronic problem, then solving it may take an equal or greater dose of chronic persistence. Keep working at it, and push yourself in order to break the martyrdom style.
Moving away from martyrdom once and for all
As you move away from martyrdom, I would recommend that you begin to study communication, learn how to stop blaming, and practice properly asserting yourself. Learning to ask for what you want, and accepting that you cannot always get it, will help you to release martyrdom once and for all.
Sometimes, the first step is awareness that you are playing the blame game. As PT Blogger Dr. William Knaus says in his book, Take Charge Now, "Blame is such a consistent presence in our everyday life that we take it for granted."
Generally, those who move into the blame game and martyrdom do so because they lack adequate communication skills.
They may be move between passive communication (they meet the desires of others but ignore their own), aggressive communication (they become bulldozers, plowing over others' points of views in favor of their own demands), and passive-aggressive communication (they utilize subtle behaviors to annoy, inconvenience, and anger others with whom they feel angry).
As Robert E. Alberti teaches in his book, Your Perfect Right, assertive communication is "an approach which honors everyone."
Shift Out of Anger Before Important Conversations
Sometimes, your anger may get the better of your good intentions to communicate properly. If this is the case, then you may want to consider training yourself to shift out of unhealthy negative emotion, so that you will be in the right headspace to behave assertively. This author's book, The REBT-Super Activity Guide (CreateSpace Publishing, 2009) contains chapters which discuss how to shift yourself both emotionally and behaviorally, and offers you steps for assertive communication. In addition, there is an excellent REBT self-help form available at the REBTNetwork's site, developed by Will Ross in consultation with the founder of REBT, Dr. Albert Ellis.
When to Seek Relationship Help
When your car needs a tune-up, you simply get it done. Sometimes, relationships simply need a tune-up. If you find that you are not able to get the results you want on your own, then it might be time to contact a therapist who works with couples. You don't have to do everything by yourself, and you may make faster progress with the education and training of a skilled professional on your side.