Why Martyrdom Is Nonsense

Taking on extra responsibility makes you no better than anyone else. Do it out of love or skip it.

Why Martyrdom is Nonsense

by Erik Newton

photo courtesy of kkgas

filed under Advice

A lovely idea in relationships is that we should take on some of our partner’s burdens, or that we should shoulder the weight of easing tension or making nice after fights, or whatever. It’s lovely because it’s an expression of willingness to face challenges for the sake of our relationship, and also because taking responsibility gives us personal power.

Something insidious tends to happen after a we take on this kind of responsibility over time, however: A subtle internal complaint starts up. It might begin as mild self-congratulation—you might pat yourself on the back for doing something nice for your partner. Perhaps your partner doesn’t notice what you did, though. The next time you do it, you might casually wonder if they’re going to notice the next time. Then several instances later, you might wonder if they ever notice anything nice you do. After several layers of that question, you might wonder why you ever do anything for them at all.  

At this point, people’s behavior tends to branch in several directions. One is to talk about it. Another is to pick a fight. Still another is to take on the role of the silent martyr.

The silent martyr is a role we’ve all played at one time or another. It’s a manifestation of the idea that you’re somehow virtuous because you bear more burden than others around you. You work harder, put up with more, take on greater challenges, suffer more, care more about important causes, and so forth.

Martyrdom isn’t flawed because it’s untrue that you take on more than everyone else—that might be true or untrue. It’s flawed because it’s rooted in flawed principles. You’re not better than anyone because you work harder than they do—you made up that standard all by yourself, and it exists exclusively in your own mind. “Betterness” itself is an abstraction that, again, you invented for this situation, and which has no objective substance. There is no “betterness authority” out there. Possibly that role could be ascribed to God, but even assuming God is watching, God almost certainly doesn’t care whether you do the dishes more often than your partner.

So what do you really want? You think you want “balance” or to “see some effort” from your partner, or you want them to “care more.”

These are distractions. What you actually want is safety.  

Look closely at the root of your complaints. You complain about some imbalance, and the reason it matters is that you perceive some kind of abstract harm that manifests from such an imbalance. That harm threatens your safety, or so your unconscious mind believes. And so you make up this complex edifice called “I’m better than others because I suffer more than they do, so they should recognize that fact and treat me well.”

That, my friends is a dead end. Nobody will ever notice. Nobody cares, and worse, you alienate those around you by taking the martyr role. This of course leads to more isolation and suffering and justification, and so the cycle continues.

You want safety, and safety does not exist. At least not on the martyr’s path.

The antidote to this cycle doesn’t involve contemplating whether other people should do something more, or whether you are doing more than them. The antidote lies exclusively in yourself. It is to be found in the seed of what caused you to do the thing way back at the beginning: your love of your partner.  

If you’re the one who always apologizes first, good for you. If you do more dishes than your partner, great. If you contribute more money to the household, kudos. Do so as an expression of love and commitment, and leave it at that.  

Erik Newton is the founder of Together.




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