Fearless You

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Are You A Relationship Martyr?

Discover 10 ways to tell, and 10 ways you can to try to save your relationship.

Shutterstock/Michael Jung
Is martyrdom keeping you from creating a happy relationship or marriage? Taking an honest look at your relationship will help you decide if you are behaving like a martyr—and how to break out of this habit.

Let's be honest: Martyrs may seem heroic on the surface, but what's the real reward for your martyrdom? If you're noticed, people may...call you a martyr. Is that worth the potential cost of destroying your relationship? More important, is behaving like a martyr worthy of you? 

If you adopt this style, you may not realize something crucial: You could inadvertently abdicate responsibility for your happiness. When you behave like a martyr, you give your power away, including the power to solve your own problems and to learn new ways of responding to your emotions of anger, depression, fear, shame, guilt, or embarrassment. This can make you feel helpless.

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10 Ways to Tell If You Are Being a Martyr 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 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.
  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. The problem is chronic problem—it has endured more than three months. In addition, you see yourself as chronically unhappy in the relationship, and its deeper problems remain unsolved.
  7. You begin to see yourself as a storyteller, moving from one negative story to the next. You may even find yourself rehearsing what you'll tell friends and family or a therapist, coach, or preacher, rather than rehearsing strategies to actually 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. You may appear very capable to others, but you really see yourself as dependent upon your spouse or partner. This leads you to avoid asking for what you want directly, being assertive, 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, 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.

Getting out involves 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.

 

10 Steps to Help You 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 his or her misdeeds, avoiding topics that you really want to discuss, being too busy to talk, being too tired/drunk/otherwise unavailable to talk, deliberately doing something distasteful to your partner, 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—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. Do this at least once daily as well.
  6. Improve and practice healthy communication habits. Healthy communication in a relationship 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 with their partners 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. 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 demands 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 about whether or not to anger yourself over his or her behavior, and whether or not to behave as a martyr. Instead of "shoulding," 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, getting 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:

    • In the first column, write your partner's offense.
    • In the second, write your understanding of 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, in the first column, you might write, "My partner said something rude to my friend." In the second, "My friend wasn't leaving our house after dinner." In the third, "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." And in the fourth, "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 the answer, realize that if this is a chronic problem, 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

As you move away from martyrdom, 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 becoming aware you are playing the blame game. As Dr. William Knaus writes 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 move between passive communication (meeting the desires of others but ignoring their own), aggressive communication (becoming bulldozers plowing over others' points of views in favor of their own demands), and passive-aggressive communication (utilizing 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."

Sometimes, your anger may get the better of your good intentions to communicate properly. If it does, you may want to consider training yourself to shift out of unhealthy negative emotions so you can be in the right headspace to behave assertively. 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, 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 a skilled professional on your side.

Pamela D. Garcy, Ph.D., serves on the faculty of the Texas School of Professional Psychology at AU-Dallas.

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