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I am in the middle of a separation from my second husband. He has several addictions (including illegal drugs and pornography) and has also been caught cheating on me. He blames me for everything wrong in his life. We were sealed in the temple and he holds a prominent calling in our ward. I can’t stand how he fools everyone. I know it’s the right thing to be separated from him right now, but I go back and forth, unsure of how to handle the separation. I’ll spend time with him, miss him, want space from him, talk to him, ignore him, and so on. My daughter tells me I act like a “martyr” and that I need to quit protecting him and be done with this relationship. I don’t completely understand what she means by this. How can I handle this situation in the healthiest way possible?
I believe your daughter is describing what’s often known as a “martyr complex.”[i] This occurs when someone wants to be admired for the self-imposed suffering they’re experiencing. They take on too much, have poor boundaries, or allow themselves to stay in unhealthy relationships all in the name of being a good person. They want others to see their suffering as evidence that they’re noble.
True martyrs suffer and die for a cause bigger than them. They seek no recognition or sympathy from others, but, instead, sacrifice their own best interest to further a cause that benefits the wellbeing of others. On the other hand, someone with an unhealthy martyr complex wants others to see their suffering as evidence for how good they are. Their cause is no bigger than their own fragile ego.
Most people in abusive or addicted relationships feel trapped and don’t know how to set the necessary boundaries to protect themselves or those in their care. Living in a relationship like this doesn’t automatically mean you have a martyr complex. Being manipulated, abused, and gaslighted by another person is a terribly overwhelming experience. It’s completely natural to spin in circles and feel disoriented. Just because things are messy and confusing doesn’t mean you’re in the martyr complex. Just make sure you don’t let the complaining and powerlessness become your default response as a way to seek sympathy from others.
It’s possible your daughter is blaming you, but she’s probably more confused about your erratic behavior. It’s agonizing to see a loved one stuck in a toxic relationship. You are working to set some boundaries, but it’s likely you’re second-guessing your decisions and wondering what to do. Your daughter probably feels powerless to stop this roller coaster and wants to see you use your personal power to direct your own life. She doesn’t want to see you stuck in an abusive situation. Your husband’s behaviors aren’t your fault and your suffering is real, but it doesn’t mean you automatically have to endure them.
As you consider your own responses to your situation, you might see areas where you’re effectively setting boundaries (like your separation). You also might see areas where you’re complaining and wanting sympathy, but are too scared to do anything different. This is usually a sign that you need to seek strength and support to begin taking action.
As followers of Jesus Christ’s teachings, we believe it’s important to decrease the focus on ourselves for the benefit of others. If you read the scripture in Matthew 16:25 more carefully, however, it teaches us that we are to lose ourselves for “[his] sake.” This is different than losing ourselves at the hands of someone else. Submitting to what Christ would have us do is always a safe submission. If you have been directed by the Spirit to stay in a difficult situation, then you will have peace and confidence that you will be delivered. You won’t continue to complain or fret about your circumstances. You will have a quiet assurance that your course is leading you somewhere better, even if those around you don’t agree. You won’t have any need to recruit sympathy from others because you know “in whom [you] have trusted.”[ii]
Again, if you feel like you’re acting like a martyr, then complaining to others about your situation usually means that you need to begin setting boundaries. The complaints are a sign that you’re not okay with the conditions, but aren’t taking the necessary steps to ensure your safety. You don’t need to blame others in a spirit of self-righteousness for the suffering you’re experiencing. Instead, take ownership of your own agency and ability to direct your life.
This doesn’t mean you can’t talk with others about your struggle. It’s important to reach out for support and sort through the confusing details of your day-to-day interactions when you’re in a relationship with someone who is lying to you and manipulating you. You just want to make sure that these conversations move you toward self-protection.
Setting limits with your husband will leave you feeling misunderstood, lonely, and confused. It’s a messy process full of trial and error. However, you will also gain confidence and strength as you reclaim your personal dignity. You won’t feel the need to broadcast your powerlessness because you will be exercising the power to direct your own life. Even though it take several steps to set your life in order, each decision to honor the truth about your situation will decrease your feelings of helplessness.
It can be helpful to work closely with a therapist to fine tune your boundaries. There are also some great resources on identifying and setting boundaries, such as “The Assertiveness Guide for Women” by Dr. Julie Hanks. You can get answers from multiple sources on how to direct your life so you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by your circumstances.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] 2 Nephi 4:19