Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Martyr Complex: The Poison That Kills Relationships

In the post from a few days ago, I discussed an idea that will acquire and maintain your significant other's attention. In short, it was a very basic seduction technique. Yesterday I wrote about the difference between "good" and "bad" ways people influence their significant others. Today's topic explores another element of relationship dynamics- taking care of your own needs before you take care of others' needs versus playing the martyr role.

In the original post, an anonymous commenter objected to the idea by citing a situation where the concept seemingly wouldn't apply- the death of a child. I disagreed on the basis that it's necessary to take care of your own needs in order to put yourself in a position to be able to take care of others' needs, including a situation involving extreme emotions like grief. After all, this is the most fundamental advice given to people involved in any sort of crisis situation- make sure you take care of yourself first... you need the energy to take care of others.

One of the biggest problems in relationships is what psychologists call the "martyr complex." In short, it's a tendency to seek out suffering in the name of love or duty. People suffering from the martyr complex make unnecessary sacrifices at the expense of their own needs. Over the short term, this behavior appears to be helpful. In fact, our society rewards this behavior.

Over the long term, martyrs typically experience negative symptoms including psychological and physiological stress, resentment that others aren't making the sacrifices they're making, and displaced anger at the object they're focusing on. If they're in a relationship, it's not uncommon to ignore the partner and/or play the role of a victim.

Here are a few situations where the martyr complex rears its ugly head:
  • New parents that take on most or all of the parenting duties.
  • Long-term caretakers of the gravely ill.
  • "Momma's boys."
  • Employees that throw themselves into their job.
This is a very partial list; martyr behaviors are extremely common.

The problem with martyrs is they intentionally induce self-suffering by ignoring their own needs to meet the needs of others. Just like breathing or eating, we have a finite amount of time we can go without addressing our own needs. To make matters worse, the martyr will induce guilt with anyone that isn't willing to make their irrational masochistic sacrifices. They demand recognition for their martyr role and hold everyone else to the same unrealistic standard.

Normal, healthy people address their needs first, then address the needs of those around them. This is the only way you can maintain mental and physical longevity. Furthermore, it assures you don't pollute the relationships with those around you.

Shelly and I have a simple method to combat the martyr tendency. Since we're both prone to postpone our own needs to "power through" and get stuff done (usually related to caring for our kids), we call each other out. If the kids are especially annoying and I'm stressed, I need to get away from them. As soon as Shelly sees this, she tells me "Don't be a martyr. Go take a break."

It's a brilliant system. It keeps us personally sharp because we never experience the burnout and other negative emotions associated with the martyr complex. Resentment is rarely an issue because we communicate with each other. We keep each other from becoming martyrs.

We also extend this idea to our relationship. Many people put their kids first. We don't. We put our relationship first. Kids come next. First, we're FAR better parents when we can be a cohesive team which is built from the intimacy we develop when spending time together as a romantic couple.  Second, it assures we'll always be good role models for our kids by demonstrating good relationship behavior. 

If we're planning a date night, we go even if our kids cry and beg us to stay. We need our alone time and we're not about to fall into the martyr trap by putting our kids' "needs" before our own. 

The lesson- always be on the lookout for martyr behavior. If your significant other is playing the martyr role, talk to them. If you're doing it, change. You'll appreciate the results.



  1. Another winner post my friend :-)
    My wife and I operate under the same principles and guidelines.

  2. So what do you do when your spouse is being a martyr but is not aware of it? whenever I try to bridge that conversation I am told I am ungrateful and my spouse becomes defensive.

  3. I've been in a relationship with someone for several months and noticed this person always saying "I'm always trying to please everybody". This individual is extremely close to her mother and brother who by the way has had mental problems since he was a young boy. Both live with their mother and are basically dependent upon her. The more the relationship continued the more I knew there was something wrong and the words "Trying to please everybody" came up often.

  4. I, after researching such a topic, find myself to be a martyr both in and out of my relationship. I find myself getting up out of my seat at school to go a few yards away to pick something up for someone who hasn't gotten up yet/can't reach it. Meanwhile I'm happy and I love being able to cater to my s/o and make them happy; but because of stuff from a past relationship I am always unconciously avoiding complaining and being what I find to be annoying - as well as asking for things. Even in my own home I don't eat very much, and unless a container is nearly full I feel bad draining it and don't eat very much. My money is managed by my partner. I'm underage but am a high school student who wishes to fix and stay in this relationship. My partner cares a lot about me and is very patient with me, and awknowledges that I don't eat very much and thus makes sure I eat whenever there is something available for me to. I don't know how to bring up my concerns about my behavior, because since I only realized myself I don't know that they realize themselves. How could I bring it up and fix such behavior?