Your partner’s family came to stay with you Monday... it’s now Thursday. So far, not a single person, including your partner, has offered to lift a finger to help you prepare, serve, or clean up after a meal. You’re at your breaking point. What do you do?
A) Ask nicely for some help, either privately from your partner or publicly to all the guests.
B) Say nothing the entire week, but simmer and text your friends about how much of a jerk your partner and your partner’s kin are.
C) Burn the house down with everybody inside it and go start a new life in Mexico.
If you answered “B,” congratulations, you may be a martyr! (If you answered “A” or “C,” sorry, this piece is not about you.)
What is it about women in relationships that makes us willing to suffer in pseudo-silence? Typically what happens is that when one of our loved ones is too clueless to pitch in or ask how we’re feeling, instead of speaking up, we toil and simultaneously seethe. Then, inevitably, the partner does or says something that finally sets us off, and we explode with a reaction that is way out of proportion to the actual crime. Not surprisingly, the partner reacts angrily, as we ourselves would if somebody tore our head off for a minor infraction like not clearing out the sink trap or failing to refresh the toilet paper. But then we read that hurt as a general insensitivity to all the work we’ve been doing.
Why is this a system that so many women (particularly hard-working moms) perpetuate?
I have a few theories. One is that we get this from watching our mothers. I did, anyway. Now, to be fair, my wonderful father has many great qualities, but being a good listener or picking up on emotional nuance is not one of them, so I understand why my mom doesn’t bother telling him often how it makes her feel when he “offers” her food that she cooked that he doesn’t like (my husband does this too sometimes and it drives me crazy. If you don’t want to eat what I cooked, that’s fine, but don’t try and lob it to me like you’re doing me a favor.)
It does nobody any favors to hold back from saying why you’re upset, unless you can just admit that sometimes you’re in a crap mood and it feels better to drag someone down with you
But on the other hand, for years she hosted Thanksgiving for 15+ people without asking or letting my father help, getting herself worked up every year. I used to ask her, “Why don’t you let Dad at least polish the silverware?” and she’d reply, “He probably wouldn’t do it right.” I know lots of other daughters whose mothers simply decided it would be easier to do things themselves (and get mad in the process) than to ask for help and have since picked up that this is just our plight—to do it ourselves because it’s easier that way. But the trap is that becomes the status quo.
Then there is the “S/he should know how I feel” philosophy that affects some women. Sure, we want to be treated with respect and kindness, but our partners aren’t mind readers. Just as we go about our days with our own concerns and can’t always control other people’s feelings, our partners are also doing the best they can. Very few of them can look at their partners who are in a passive-aggressive funk and discern why they are upset just by thinking or feeling hard enough. It does nobody any favors to hold back from saying why you’re upset, unless you can just admit that sometimes you’re in a crap mood and it feels better to drag someone down with you (but normally when we’re that pissed, we’re not that self-aware.)
I think the final, most real reason many of us struggle with the martyr complex is that it can be sincerely difficult to figure out how to ask for help. I know that after my son was born I struggled with the habit of just doing things myself, because some tasks seemed too small and stupid to ask someone to do (bring over some toilet paper), others too tedious (help with the laundry), others too large (watch my child while I went to the doctor’s.) I didn’t want to put people out or owe them. That's why this past Thanksgiving one of my proudest achievements was farming out small tasks to everybody in my family: my brother poured the drinks, my mother-in-law answered the door and took coats, and my father-in-law carved the turkey. I couldn’t have done it without them, but I also couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been able to delegate and just surrender some control.
Suffering in silence is not something people tend to admire in anyone except maybe saints, and they’re all dead. Being a woman, a mom, a wife is difficult work on its own: we don’t need to contribute to our own hardships by thinking it’s somehow nobler to do so without speaking up. So if you think you’re a mommy martyr, not only are you not helping yourself by refusing to ask for help or speak up--you’re also setting a bad example for your kids if you choose to demonstrate that moms just do everyone’s work and slowly get mad. Speaking up for yourself is not only good for yourself, but good for everyone around you, too.