Relationship Connection: My daughter tells me I’m acting like a martyr

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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. 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.” 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 well-being 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.

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 OK 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 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 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.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: [email protected]

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Scott April 18, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    Interesting how the letter writer places greater emphasis on pornography than actual, real-life cheating. Perhaps that offers insight into the nature of her relationships.

  • Striker4 April 19, 2018 at 10:21 am

    Yep !

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