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.