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 was writing 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. Here’s a brief thought about what we call The Martyr Complex.

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 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.

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 in 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 healthy way you can maintain mental and physical longevity. Furthermore, it assures you don’t pollute the relationships with those around you.

My wife 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 my wife 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 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 is to 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.

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Henry Moore

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By Henry Moore

Henry Moore

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