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Stop Playing the Martyr

Stop Playing the Martyr

Husbands are not mind readers. If we want help, we should ask for it.


Why do we keep doing it? Why do we play the martyr and then get frustrated by it?

There was a pile of dishes in the sink. The table hadn’t been cleared, the floor hadn’t been swept, the bed hadn’t been made. It was a typical morning.

“Go ahead. Go running,” I said. “I know it’s good for you and I know how important it is to you.” (And I know it’s at the most inconvenient time and I’ll end up doing everything myself!) Is this scenario familiar? There are so many things we could substitute for exercise – it could be morning prayers, it could be work, it could be a pick-up basketball game, it could be…

It doesn’t really matter what it is. The important issue here is our response. Many of us have a hard time asking for help. We may even believe that we should do it ourselves but instead of shouldering the burden cheerfully we are eaten up with resentment and frustration.

And our unwitting husbands find themselves on the wrong-end of a blistering tirade detailing their obliviousness, their self-centeredness and subjecting them to the tired refrain, “Why do I have to do everything around here?”

Contrary to the widely-held opinion, it’s actually not their fault; it’s ours. If we want help, we should ask for it. We shouldn’t assume they will intuit it or notice it or figure it out on their own and we definitely shouldn’t say, “No problem; I’ll take care of it” and then attack them for not helping. In that situation, we both lose.

We rob them of the pleasure of whatever experience they had while we were slaving away (!), we rob ourselves of any credit we get for being a giving spouse, and we rob our marriage of the joy we would receive if we worked together instead of at cross purposes.

So I propose a new way of being. It’s radical: it’s called being honest. When our loving spouse asks if we mind if they go skiing, to the office, to shul, to the gym at a particularly inconvenient and difficult moment, we stop to think before we instinctively respond. We stop and evaluate – Can I cope? Do I want to cope? Is this something I think is worth coping for? Is today a particularly difficult day or easier one? You figure out the questions and you figure out the honest answer.

Your yes isn’t meaningful unless you’re also prepared to say no.

Maybe it’s: “Why don’t you go now and I’ll go out later?” Maybe it’s: “I don’t mind but I think I’ll leave the dishes for you to take care of when you get home.” Maybe it’s: “Go ahead and enjoy!” (We all want to be married to her!) And maybe it’s: “I know this is important to you but I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now. Is it possible for you to reschedule or find a time after the kids are in bed?”

The key is to be honest in acknowledging your needs and thoughtful and considerate in the expressing them. When we pretend we don’t have needs and end up frustrated, we also usually end up speaking in ways we are not proud of. We will speak more gently and more kindly if we have taken the time to really determine what works for us.

I don’t know how the idea of being a martyr entered the lexicon. I do know that, whatever the psychological pay-off, the ultimate result is destructive to us and to our relationships. And so we need to stop.

As my husband is frequently telling me in other contexts, your yes isn’t meaningful unless you’re also prepared to say no. It’s time to take that wisdom to heart and to apply where it really matters. We think that if we say “no” or “please not now” that it will harm our marriage; what a surprising pleasure it will be to discover how much it actually helps it.

January 20, 2018

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 8

(4) Rachel, March 6, 2018 8:47 AM

This applies to both spouses

I didn't see this as being directed only to women.
1. My husband is much neater than I am. He sees clutter where I just see ongoing projects, or the convenience of having an object near at hand rather than in its place. So we ask each other if what is out is bothering him, or if I have a particular need for something to not be put away.
2. Men sometimes do the martyr routine too. Mature adults don't engage in passive-aggressive behavior. As Emunah says, if you need something, ask for it. And if you're upset about something else, then address that issue-- don't say you're mad about the dishes, the laundry, the next meal when what you really want is more time or affection.
Mostly happily married for 35 years....

(3) Anonymous, January 25, 2018 3:37 AM

One more job

But if a husband lives in the house why does he need it pointed out that the dishes need washing, or that there is laundry to be done, or the garbage taken out? And why should it be pointed out more than once? And why is it called "helping the wife?" And why is it the wife's job to point it out?

Anonymous, January 25, 2018 4:38 PM

you are right, but will this reasoning change your spouse?

From the tone of your comments - indignant - it sounds like you are choosing righteousness over happiness. You may be (and probably are) absolutely right, but are all the "why" questions you asked going to help your relationship? At the end of the day, Ms. Braverman's point - that playing the martyr is not helpful or healthy for the individual or the relationship - still stands. You cannot change your spouse, but you can make your needs known to your spouse.

best to you.

Nancy, January 26, 2018 12:48 PM

To commenter #3 anonymous

I agree completely with you re: "helping the wife." IMO, the term "helping" should not even be used. You have 2 adults living in the household, and they each have a responsibility to keep things in reasonable order. Honest communication is key. This martyr attitude of "I shouldn't have to say anything" is not acceptable. Also, there is no one "right way" to keep house. If I dust the living room and miss one spot, it's not the end of the world.

(2) A Debonaire Lark, January 22, 2018 6:59 PM

Those are good suggestions and . . .

You're right, we women shouldn't expect men to be mind readers. But as people who eat, wear clothes, etc., men SHOULD be able to see when meals have to be prepared, dishes washed, clothes washed, etc. We shouldn't have to remind them. This is especially true for couples who both work outside the home. Study after study shows that women still do the lion's share of the work - even when both members of the couple work full-time outside the home. Why have we had to fight this battle for over 50 years?!?

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