My friend Chris and I were finishing up a session of peer coaching (because even coaches need coaching from time to time) and he added this as a little aside at the end. We’d been talking about a friendship I had which had turned toxic and exhausting, but I had never for a moment thought that I was being a martyr in the relationship. I wanted to dismiss his comment, and was slightly offended. However, I decided that Chris— who had been both a Jesuit and an Anglican priest for years— probably knew a lot more than I did about martyrdom, and so I gave it more consideration.
That was several years ago now, and I’ve had many revelations thanks to that off-hand remark.
I grew up as emotional caretaker to a parent with a chronic illness. Self-sacrifice was how she expressed her love to me, and was how I learned to express my love back to her; it was the kind of codependency that leads to something known clinically as ‘the parentified child’. In adulthood, this patterning began to bleed into my intimate relationships and friendships— most especially with women, but with men and other genders too. I had a pattern of putting others’ needs before my own, to the detriment of my mental, emotional, and physical health— and thinking it demonstrated how deeply I loved them.
Just like the Little Mermaid in Hans Christian Anderson’s original fairytale, we learn early on (via media, peers, and general cultural conditioning) that being with someone we love will require sacrifice. For the Little Mermaid, it was her voice. For us, it can be any number of things that we sacrifice: our voice, our time, our dreams, our bodies, our resources, and more.
Languages of love are important, and I believe that they can be culturally subjective. Like many relationship nerds, I’m a fan of Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages (and I think there’s probably more than five, but for the purposes of this article I’ll stick with the five). However, we live in a global society that doesn’t always feed us the healthiest models for how to love or how to express our love, and there’s ways wherein self-sacrifice plays out hidden within these love languages..
This is one of the big pieces of the Monogamy Hangover: society tells us that we have to be able to be everything for our partner(s), and acts of martyrdom are how to demonstrate love and commitment for someone. When we buy into that, we begin to edge into that dark territory of harm, abuse, and toxicity. Often the harm is to ourselves, but it can also harm the other person, and our relationship with them.
We’ve learned that being a martyr in relationships is ‘noble’ and a symbol of our love. We’ve also come to expect it in others. This all feeds into codependency and other unhealthy dynamics; martyrdom goes beyond the gendered scripting of good girl/nice guy dynamics and tells us we are being more loving for tolerating and embracing something that drains us.
Being a martyr isn’t limited to our romantic relationships.
Martyrdom in The Workplace: You know that moment when your manager asks if you can work a few extra hours, or come in on your day off. You’re already exhausted this week. Or maybe you have a commitment to your family or friends but whatever— you can reschedule that, right? Work has to come first. And by sacrificing your personal time for work you’ll prove how devoted and indispensable you are, and get that 50 cent raise with your next review.
Martyrdom in Yoga Class: Western Yoga has evolved a culture of pushing the body to its limits— and sometimes beyond them. The “no pain no gain” mantra of 70s and 80s fitness movements shows up on the mat when we tune out of the clear voice of our body saying enough is enough, and overstretch our ligaments, push our body into alignments that feel unnatural, and feel self sanctimoniously more enlightened for this tapasya. Side note truth bomb here: this isn’t actually what yoga is about.
Martyrdom in Friendships: Your bestie has asked you to be part of their wedding party, or wants you to join them on a road trip, or to come for spontaneous drinks and a night out on the town. You feel so honored, excited to be included. You feel conflicted because of other responsibilities, but it’s okay you don’t really need all that sleep tonight, you can work your butt off to justify the time off for the trip, you can do self care some other time. Then they flail, they need more from you than they thought they would. You have to hold their hair out of their face at four in the morning again. You’re picking up the balls they dropped in planning their big day. Devoting hours of your personal time to your friend will show them just how deeply you truly care for them, and maybe just maybe they will reciprocate one day?
Martyrdom in Romance: Society tells us, “You need to be everything for your partner, in sickness and in health. If you fail in any way— if you aren’t fully aware of know everything going on for them, if you fail to read their mind, or your needs and desires are in conflict with your partner’s, then you are in imperfect partner, and possibly a sub-par human.” And so we put aside our own needs to prioritise the other person.
Martyrdom In Love Languages
The Saviour (Acts of Service)
Your partner didn’t ask for your help, or perhaps only asked for some specific thing for support. But you go beyond that. You jump in to rescue when they might not even need rescuing. You exhaust yourself and your health to play ‘rescuer’ and see any ensuing struggles as an indicator of how deep your love is.
The Smotherer (Touch)
Giving touch beyond your capacity to give, and receiving touch beyond your capacity to receive. This could look like being sexual with your partner because its what they want, even when you don’t have capacity for it, or even if it is painful for you. Or it could look like holding your partner too much (yes, this is actually a thing).
The Spendthrift (Gift Giving)
It doesn’t matter how little you have, you need to spend to prove your love, even if it means spending beyond your means to buy them dinner or take them on vacation- or even in travelling to see your partner (in long distance relationships). Your budget was $50 but you spent $150, and so what if you can’t afford your medication or new clothes this month? You’ve proven how deeply you love this person!
Self-Deprecating Talk (Words of Affirmation)
You lift your partner up by putting yourself down. You belittle yourself and minimize your own self expression to make more space for your partner’s expression. You might struggle to accept praise and deflect compliments.
The Exhausted Lover (Quality Time)
Similar to The Saviour, the Exhausted Lover is tapped out. Rather than wait to have actual quality time, you find yourself trying to squeeze in a half hour for tea with your partner. You ask your partner to get ‘warmed up’ before you come over so you can get straight to having sex. The experience of intimacy begins to feels rushed, and perhaps superficial. There isn’t time to truly sink into presence together, but you feel like it’s more important to have these small windows of time together than to wait for when you have the time and capacity to really be fully present.
Breaking Out Of Martyrdom
If any of this is resonating for you, then I want to remind you it’s really important to have compassion for yourself. Deeply ingrained, socially supported habits, take time and persistence to really and fully break free from. Once we begin to recognise where we are slipping into self-sacrifice mode, we can start to bring ourselves back.
Rather than being a martyr, practice being a Lover: someone who honors and recognises their own capacity first and foremost, whilst still engaging generously where they have the capacity to do so. This asks you to tune in to your own experience of relationship and ask, ‘Do I feel nourished, or do I feel drained?’. Sometimes this is more subtle, sometimes it is more obvious. And, as you become more aware of what drains, versus what nourishes, making choices to engage in the things that nourish you.
This is about centering your Self in your own relationship landscape, and doing so in a healthy way.
Sometimes, stepping out of martyrdom means we have to take distance from the dynamics that draw us back into that space. And, that’s okay. Doing so doesn’t need to be a dismissal of the other person, and can in fact be helpful in re-setting, to explore the dynamic afresh in the future. And, sometimes, the people in our life have become so accustomed to us being self-sacrificing for them, that new boundaries are interpreted as an affront. This is definitely challenging, and it is valuable to ask one’s self: do I want to be in relationship with someone who expects me to be self-sacrificing for them?
Being In Relationship With Recovering Love-Martyrs
Self-sacrificing has no interest in boundaries, and recovering martyrs will be on a long journey to learn about and discover their boundaries.
When we allow someone to be a martyr to us in relationships, we run the risk of unintentional harm when we take advantage of the other person’s willingness to put us above others. Whilst it is their work to do, we can be part of that work— and support it— by offering gentle mirrors and reminders. Questions like, “Are you doing this because it’s what you want, or what you think I want?” can be useful for shedding light and inviting insight.
When your partner recognises a boundary and expresses it, you can support them in celebrating it, and honor their boundary.
My bottom line?
Choose relationships that nourish you. Choose relationships where martyrdom is never an expectation. Choose relationships where Self-Honoring is the highest expression of love. Loving yourself enough to honor your own needs, capacity, and boundaries first and foremost, is the foundation for the healthiest relationships— both platonic, and romantic.