The Martyr Syndrome in Marriages with Mental Illness

In the Catholic tradition, a martyr is someone who dies for his faith. In the first and second centuries, many Christians were put to death by the Romans, who had outlawed the Christian religion. England’s Henry VIII created a number of martyrs when he ordered the execution of priests, monks, and powerful men such as Sir Thomas More when they refused to renounce the Pope’s authority during the separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church.

Today, people still martyr themselves for their faith, most notably Islamic terrorists. (It’s debatable, though, whether terrorists are really sacrificing their lives for their religion, or whether they’re simply doing it to inflict suffering on those they fear and/or hate.) However, this is not the most common type of martyr you’ll run into nowadays.

Today, you’ll find a lot of “everyday martyrs,” people who willingly—and unhappily, often vocally—sacrifice their own needs and desires for the sake of someone else.

Notice the words “unhappily, often vocally” in the sentence above. I’m not talking about a parent who gladly puts her child’s needs before her own. I’m talking about someone in a codependent relationship who suffers because of another person’s behavior, complains about it, seeks sympathy and support from others, but refuses to do anything to change the situation.

*****

This is a raw subject for me. My father-in-law played the martyr to my alcoholic mother-in-law until the day she died (of liver failure), creating a lot of stress and worry for my husband. In fact, the stress of his mother’s deteriorating health and his father’s chronic unhappiness was one of the factors that led to John’s psychotic break.

Honestly, I’m still angry with my father-in-law for enabling his wife to stay sick, and for putting his children in the unenviable position of having to listen to their father complain about his circumstances for years, but choosing, day after day, year after year, to remain in a bitter, loveless, and emotionally unsatisfying marriage.

My husband rationalizes his father’s behavior. He claims his dad was like a frog in a pot. The temperature rose so slowly that he didn’t notice he was being boiled until it was too late.

I don’t buy it. Yes, her alcoholism came on gradually, but at a certain point, it was impossible to deny. John and his father emptied out her liquor bottles when John was still in high school. At a certain point, my father-in-law knew what was going on.

To be fair, he did try to address it. As I mentioned, he emptied out her liquor bottles, and I believe he even attempted an intervention at one point in time. But when she laughed off the problem and refused to do anything about it, he gave up. He stopped trying. He willingly—and unhappily, often vocally—sacrificed his own needs for the sake of keeping the peace with his alcoholic wife.

Of course, this only made things worse. And not just for him. For my mother-in-law, too.

*****

Those of us with mentally ill spouses can fall into the martyrdom trap as well. A certain level of ambivalence is normal when you’re dealing with the symptoms of severe mental illness in a spouse. I think we all wonder, if only fleetingly, “Should I stay or should I go?”

I remember talking to the one other wife in my NAMI Family-to-Family class about her husband’s latest episode, which had culminated in him waving a sword at the police officers who’d been dispatched to their house to talk him out of committing suicide.

She looked at me and said, “Part of me actually hoped he’d hurt a cop. Then they’d take him away and I wouldn’t have to deal with any of it anymore.”

Fortunately for this woman’s husband, he didn’t injure any of the police, which meant his wife had to make up her mind for herself. She chose to stay, but only after making it very clear to her partner that if he didn’t see a psychiatrist, take the recommended medications and get into therapy, she’d be out the door.

The martyr doesn’t believe she has a choice. She squashes down the question of whether to stay or go and stays, no matter what. Treatment or no treatment, she made a vow, and she’s obligated to stay. She feels she deserves better, and she lets her husband know it, but often in passive aggressive ways. She wants him to feel guilty for subjecting her to his symptoms, and when he’s not sufficiently servile and scraping, she feels angry and underappreciated. She either withdraws from her husband, or she nags and criticizes him (or both). Either way, their relationship suffers even more.

At the same time, the worse things get, the more virtuous and superior the martyr feels. She expects others to recognize her virtuosity, and she seeks sympathy for her plight. She solicits advice, but she doesn’t take it. She refuses to accept that her behavior is contributing to her unhappiness, and she clings to the idea that she is a good wife just because she stays.

(For more on the martyr syndrome, as well as steps you can take to get yourself out of this trap, the Livestrong Foundation has some excellent information available.)

*****

One thing I’ve learned as a result of my participation in a Twelve Step program is that boundaries are a good thing. People oftentimes aren’t motivated to change their behavior until they risk losing something that’s important to them.

When you’re married to someone with a serious mental illness, the idea of unconditional love is nice, but the reality is that you have to draw boundaries in order to stay sane yourself, and hopefully to help your loved one get well.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to tell John, when he was in the midst of a psychotic episode, that I would change the locks and call the police if he tried to come home without checking himself into the hospital.

I didn’t want to do those things, but I couldn’t willingly let him allow the paranoia and delusions rip his mind apart. He saw that I meant it, and he checked himself in. If he hadn’t, I would have left him. I did and do and always will have that choice.

16 Responses to The Martyr Syndrome in Marriages with Mental Illness

  1. Chris Wells says:

    Wow. Your previous post and this one are both so significant to me. This one is especially poignant now because on Sunday it will be a year since my father died. My mom was the martyr. My father was an alcoholic who died from liver failure/organ failure – and died with a drink next to his head with a straw in it. My whole life – until I moved out for good – was surrounded by such insanity from my parents. It would take forever to describe in a comment. But suffice it to say that this has struck a serious chord with me today. I never understood why my mom stayed with such an abusive, screwed up man, until I was an adult and understood the martyr syndrome. That she was actually getting something out of it, no matter how sick it was.

    Your blog is awesome! I’m going to link to it if that’s okay.

    Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      I’m sorry for your loss, and for the fact that you had to grow up in that environment. One weird thing with me and my in-laws is that I’m angrier with my father-in-law for being a martyr than I am with my mother-in-law for her alcoholism. Maybe because everyone in that family blames her and lets Dave off the hook. I don’t know. I guess I still have some work to do around the whole thing.

      Best,

      Heather

      P.S. I love your blog, too!

      • Chris Wells says:

        Hi Heather,

        I hated my father for most of my life, and there was no point in my life when I didn’t wonder why my mom wouldn’t leave him. Why would she stay with such an awful man? Who only loved alcohol? I was angry at her so many times for blowing chances to be free from him. Now she looks back and thinks she made the right decision. I disagree. Staying with someone to the bitter end doesn’t make you some kind of hero.

        I guess I still have some work to do with this, as well. I don’t miss him, and I don’t feel bad that he’s dead. And I’m not angry with him. It’s just over.

        Wow, this is pretty deep stuff for right before bed! :)

        Take care,
        Chris

  2. Heather – not to excuse her, but it is entirely possible that your mother-in-law was in fact mentally ill, and that her alcoholism came about in an attempt to self-medicate her symptoms. My b-f has (undiagnosed but oh-boy-is-it-present!) OCPD, and is also an alcoholic. When something happens he is not expecting or that he perceives it as stressful, causing the internal OCPD fears and anxieties to ramp up – *that’s* when he will have a particularly ugly drinking binge. And he was going through a very hard time (death of both his parents, and more.)

    Plus, I had bought into the fantasy, that if you truly love someone, you accept that s/he has flaws (as do you), and you forgive and accept them. And if s/he is insecure, you shower her/him with enough love and attention that eventually s/he will appreciate it and feel secure – because YOU would certainly appreciate it if someone was so loving and understanding and supportive of YOU.

    Doesn’t work that way when somebody is mentally ill.

    I’ve stopped enabling and am learning to set increasingly better boundaries, but at first, *I* too was that frog slowly boiled in water. Until you’ve been in that situation (there can also be Stockholm Syndrome going on, as well) it seems impossible to you that somebody could/would ever put up with such behavior.

    Then it does happen to you.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I know these situations are complex and challenging. It’s wonderful that you’re learning how to set appropriate boundaries — they’re so very important for your health and happiness. We can’t help other people unless we’re first taking care of ourselves!

      I have no doubt, now, that my mother-in-law had undiagnosed bipolar. It never would have occurred to me prior to my husband’s breakdown, though. I actually feel really grateful that John’s breakdown was as dramatic and undeniable as it was, because it allowed me to quickly see that he was ill and get him help. I know that it certainly wasn’t that clear for my father-in-law when my mother-in-law started drinking.

      I think I get so charged about my in-laws because it hurt my husband so much to see his dad stuck in that martyr role while his mom’s health deteriorated. Thank you for reminding me that—in a way—it wasn’t just my mother-in-law who was ill; my father-in-law was sick, too.

      • Growing up in that situation was very, very hurtful to your husband, who you love dearly, and who was a small, helpless child at the time. Of *course* it’s upsetting to think of all the awful things he experienced!

        I’ve always found that it’s much easier for me to defend and get angry on behalf of somebody I love that I can see getting hurt, than on behalf of myself.

        Yet in terms of mental illness and/or alcoholism – although there’s more help today than there was 30-40 years ago, most people are still vastly undereducated about it, and how frequently it occurs (and in the “best” families, too!) And back then, NOBODY talked about it or asked for help.

        Spreading the word on mental illness and disorders is why blogs like yours are so important. :-)

  3. David says:

    My Dad amazingly stuck with my bipolar Mom and DID NOT play the martyr role. Did he confront her and really draw a line the way I would’ve liked? No. He was codependent, yes, but out of a sense of duty and self-sacrifice, not a martyr complex.

    • A sense of duty and a willingness to sacrifice for your spouse are great qualities to bring to a marriage, but as I’m sure you’re well aware, you definitely need to make sure to take care of yourself when there’s mental illness involved. I hope your parents are doing well today!

  4. Kay says:

    This blog has helped me enormously. I struggle every day dealing with this similar situation, and for years I was always taught that my father was the “terrible” person because he was an alcoholic and my mother was the “angel” because she wasn’t. She complains for hours every day and never stops and it rips me to pieces hearing nothing else but how awful my father is and how I’m not living my life right and I’m doing everything wrong. Hers is religious because she believes she’s not supposed to get divorced because it’s considered a sin. But now I realize it’s because she’s literally feeding off an abusive cycle that she’s created in her own home. She’s verbally abusive and my father does nothing but take his bi-polar pills and sleeps for over 12 hours during the day. I never see him and if I do it’s not pleasant. They fight every day. My father was diagnosed with bi-polar, mental illness, and he is very abusive. You can’t even tell him to move his car a little to the left so you can fit yours in the driveway. He just doesn’t do anything for anybody. My brother now lives with us and he’s an alcoholic as well. I pray every day and Gods always with me, but the most important thing I wanted to say is thank you. Thank you for writing this because it definitely changed my life for the better. I never knew that I could even leave because this horrible lifestyle had become so much a part of my life. I’m going to get an apartment though as soon as possible. Thanks again and God Bless!

  5. vkennedyart says:

    I guess this describes me… I recently looked for a support group to learn coping skills so that I would not be an enabler. I have been working on my emotional health myself over the past 3 yrs. I have created some really good notes to remind me daily not to fall back into some of my old ways. My husband and most of his family have addiction problems. I have always hated alchol and drugs because of what I’ve seen it do to them. I use to be a people pleaser just struggling to make everyone happy and neglecting myself. It would devestate me if someone was mad at me. Especially if they woulnn’t tell me why. I have grown from that. I know that as long as I am doing what is right that the only one I have to answer to is God. I am alot happier in that area of my life now. There are still issues surrounding my husbands mental illness and the stress and anxiety it has put on me. I feel like living all the time lately, but I feel that I am the only one who can help him. It doesn’t make me feel good though. There has been some violent outburst only in these later years and we have been married for 33 yrs. There are family members who put blaim on me for his condition yet they don’t do anything to help him either. Then there are those who say I should leave and let what ever happens to him happen. I really just want to see him getting help. He has a good heart with good morals and is a loving grandfather. Our children love him, but these past 2 yrs have been a roller coaster ride. They ask me not to let him come to publix events now, because of his out burst with mostly his mouth. He can’t seem to stip himself once he gets started on a subject. He believes he is right always, and almost has a god complex at times. I know if these doctors do not get him into to see a phychiatrist I will have to do the very hard thing and Baker Act him. Otherwise I see him living in the streets because he just can’t function on his own. What is strange to me is that he is very inteligent. At times I can still learn from him, but it just doesn’t last.

    • I’m glad you’ve been getting help and support for yourself — that’s very important when you’re caring for a sick spouse. I pray that your husband will get the help he needs, and that you’ll continue to be given the strength to deal with your situation.

  6. vkennedyart says:

    Prodon my spelling errors. most of the time this log in square is covering my typing and I can’t see to even correct anything :(

  7. Revenwyn says:

    How do you know when to stay and when to go? My husband has Borderline Personality Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Generalized Anxiety, Major Depressive Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder (Formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder.) He is unable to work, I have no income either. We live on his SSI check. He has never been physically abusive but he alternates between rage and despair and expects me to fix all his boo-boos. He has tried the gamut of medications and counseling, eventually the counselors even gave up on him. He’s been involuntarily committed on three different occasions in the last three years.

    In January I felt like I was drowning, that the only way to escape would be to kill myself, because I had no money saved up because I’ve been unable to work because when I tried to he ended up having some minor problem that he thought was major (he burned a piece of toast) and tried killing himself. He has gotten better from this point but I still feel as if I’m just hiding in the trench waiting on the edge of my breath for the next onslaught, all the while trying to catch what little breath I can.

    We’ve only been married 3 and a half years (fortunately, we have no children) and I’m afraid to leave: afraid of what he’d do if I did. He’s threatened to kill himself but somehow I can see him as the crazy stalker ex. I know I won’t have the help of family, they’d just mock me and say “We told you so.” Also, my family does not believe in divorce for any reason, including adultery.

    Then, when he’s sane I really do enjoy his company. But he was about 80% insane this past January, in March he was about 75% functional. Then in April we learned we needed to move and his functionality dropped to about 35% (I had to do all the packing.) Currently he’s about 50/50.

    • I’m really sorry that you are in such a difficult situation. Have you sought help for yourself from a therapist or support group (for codependency, perhaps)? Doing so would probably help you figure things out. And since your family is not supportive, I’m sure it would help you to have a compassionate listener. Please take care of yourself and know that you are in my thoughts and prayers.

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