When You're In Relationship With a Martyr

Nancy Colier

We’ve all known a martyr. She’s the one who suffers more than anyone else, who complains about her burdens but refuses to accept the help that would lessen them.

Somewhere in your life, there's probably a martyr martyring themselves right now. They're that friend, parent, spouse, co-worker, roommate, etc. who makes sure you know they're sacrificing—for you, and for the good of everyone but them. Those with martyr syndrome suffer out loud, in full display. The martyr is committed to being the one who doesn’t get to be happy, who doesn’t get what everyone else gets.  

The martyr always has a reason why they can’t let you help them… you’ll do it wrong, and then they'll have to redo it; it’s just easier if they do it; they’ve already started; they don't really mind... But the point is, it’s not possible, now or really ever, to let you take the burden off of them. 

When in a relationship with a martyr, you may, at various times, just surrender to the martyrdom and allow the martyr to do all the work. They're already convinced it's what you want, it's certainly what they want, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any other option. Fine, if you want to do everything, I’ll just sit here and read the paper. I'll be the lazy slug you already think I am. But this path doesn’t usually work, as it doesn't lessen the martyr's resentment, and it forces you into a role (the lazy slug) that you don't want to be.     

One way to know you’re interacting with someone with a martyr complex is that the “help” they offer doesn’t feel good; it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of love. Their “doing for you” doesn’t leave you feeling cared about or taken care of. A martyr's "help" comes with an aroma of anger and resentment, like they don't want to help but must because they've been sentenced to a life of suffering. Their "help" often triggers guilt in you rather than gratitude or warmth, and then even more guilt because you don’t feel grateful. The martyr's "help" can even feel like a punishment for a crime you’re accused of but don’t quite understand.  

Being with a martyr is confusing, frustrating, and sometimes even saddening. You spend a lot of time and energy wondering why their generosity feels so yucky and trying to figure out what’s wrong with you that you don’t feel more thankful. At the same time, you’re left wondering what’s wrong with you that you aren’t more helpful...like the martyr. 

But here’s the thing: You’re not going crazy, and you’re not ungrateful or lazy. Your confusing and contradictory feelings are showing up for a reason; your intuition is onto something. You don’t feel like you’re receiving something kind because, often, you’re not. The reason you feel trapped is that you are trapped, in a narrative of the martyr's making. You feel punished and blamed rather than warm and loving because you are being punished and blamed.    

So, why is the martyr doing everyone’s work and refusing to let you share the burden? What does the martyr get out of all of her out-loud suffering? Like everything to do with humans, it’s complicated. 

Why someone becomes a martyr is often related to how they were raised, perhaps watching a parent model this kind of behavior. It may be the only way they know how to get the attention they want. So, too, those who suffer from martyr syndrome often struggle with self-esteem. Their work-horse status, their martyrdom, is a way to feel valuable, to give themselves a place at the table. And, for those whose suffering was never recognized by their early caretakers, martyrdom can be an ongoing attempt to have their pain finally seen and heard. The truth is, there are as many reasons for martyrdom as there are martyrs.  

If we look at the narrative that the person with martyr syndrome is operating with, it goes something like this: I do everything, no one helps me, I don’t get what others get, no one appreciates me, and, of course, no one can help me. What makes interacting with a martyr so frustrating and crazy-making is that this story just doesn’t budge. No matter what you offer, she is committed to her suffering, which according to her, she is doing for you... despite the fact that you don't want her to suffer.

Furthermore, by holding onto his narrative of suffering, the martyr refuses to allow your help or love and, in so doing, refuses to relate to you as someone who is helpful and loving. When dealing with a martyr, it is difficult to experience yourself as good, because they won’t let you be good. The martyr keeps themselves locked in a victim identity, but also keeps you locked in victimizer identity, as the one who won’t and can’t help, which feels painful and unfair. 

What I often suggest when in a relationship with a martyr is, first and foremost, to recognize that you’re not crazy. Someone with a martyr complex is committed to their narrative of being a victim, working harder than anyone else, and not getting what everyone else gets. Sadly, they're often more committed to this storyline than they're interested in doing less of the work. A tried-and-true martyr would rather suffer than give up their identity as the one who suffers. 

Know this: If you don’t feel good when someone is “doing for you,” rather than endlessly searching for what’s wrong with you and why you’re so ungrateful, you might just trust your gut. There’s a good chance that you’re picking up on some conflicted feelings on the part of the “giver.” Start with the premise that your uncomfortable feelings could be reflecting something true and important. 

In terms of communication with a martyr, it can be helpful to just name what you see happening. As in, I hear you: You feel like the only one who does any of the work, and I know that's frustrating for you. I want you to know that I don’t want you to be the only one doing the work. I also want you to know that when I offer to help, you reject my help. So this leaves me confused, frustrated, and even a bit sad. Perhaps we can find a way to move out of this repetitive cycle, which, in fact, neither of us wants. 

Remember though, what you are suggesting in this conversation is dangerous for the martyr. You're asking them, in essence, to loosen their grip on who they believes they are, and what they believe about their life. You’re suggesting that they lay down their suffering sword, which is the very thing they believe makes them valuable and, paradoxically, the only way they can be seen for their own suffering. 

You may laugh, but for a martyr to let you load the dishwasher is a monumental ask; it is to risk everything on which they've built their identity. Letting you help, and letting themselves be helped, would mean they're not alone in the world, that they don’t have to suffer for everyone else, that you care about them, and, scariest of all, that they could be happy...if they could let themselves. Letting go of the martyr narrative involves a paradigm shift of unthinkable proportions. Know this as you set out to create something new. 

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Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, author, and interfaith minister. She is a regular blogger for Psychology Today and the author of "Can’t Stop Thinking," "The Power of Off," "The Emotionally Exhausted Woman" (2022), and other books.

New York, NY
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