Savior, Martyr, Enabler: The Good of the Many vs The Good of the Few…or The One

The Kirk/Spock Conundrum in Relationships, Families, and Life

“Don’t be a martyr,” I was recently told during an uncomfortable discussion about time and priorities. I choked back a quick denial. Was I being a martyr? I was trying to do what was best for everyone involved, but I knew it was not what I wanted. But being a martyr — no, that was not me. Of course not.

After years of uncomfortable self-examination, I understand that the “be a good helper” and “do unto others” training of my childhood contributed to my morphing into an enabler, at least for some people in some situations. My mother, a loving, giving woman, developed a tinge of bitterness in her old age about situations where she made unappreciated sacrifices. I had seen first-hand that enabling can grow into bitter martyrdom, and I did not want that to happen to me. I (try to) articulate my needs and make sure I have as much self-indulgence as I do sacrifice, which my mother still cannot do. Not being bitter about my choices has been a priority.

I was adamant. I was not a martyr. In my experience, garden variety martyrs hold their sacrifice over other people’s heads, expecting acknowledgement that they suffer, or at least take back seat, for the greater good. I did not have that attitude. If I was making a decision for the greater good — the good of the many — I was accepting it is logical and fair to do what benefits the most people. If it was a decision that I owned and choose, there was nothing to hold over anyone else. Or so I told myself.

Like many well-trained enablers, saviors, and martyrs, I knew the literature: my Sunday school teachers and grandmother often reminded me that the last would be first in Heaven (Matthew 19:30, Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:30 — when three of the Gospels say the same thing, it’s a home run homily). 1 Corinthians 13 taught that love does not keep score, that it goes to any length to serve the Beloved. Despite no longer being Christian, the early training remains.

In my mind, I was Spock choosing to die in The Wrath of Khan, confident that his choice would ensure a better life for many people. Without intending to be melodramatic, my working to accept boundaries and time limits that did not fulfill my needs would make schedules and emotions run more smoothly for other people — and since I do not like drama and I avoid conflict, I do get some pay off for that choice. Ensuring that my desires do not complicate anyone else’s lives or possibly even make anyone else aware that I might have needs that were not being acknowledged was an acceptable choice. Instead, focusing on being grateful for the time I have with my partner and considering the importance of our relationship instead of jockeying for more time and attention would be better for everyone. That’s logical.

That is, in fact, the Spock model of martyrdom. I just did not want to accept that label.

When I consider the conversation and the context, that was probably not how I sounded. As I rewatched The Wrath of Khan, I had a eureka moment: Spock does not experience human emotions. Being a truly selfless martyr is only possible in two situations: first, when you believe that you will be rewarded in the next life (like religious martyrs) or when you are completely emotionally detached from the situation, personalities and consequences of the situation. Because I was setting up a situation where I did not expect eventual rewards, and I am emotionally invested in this relationship and our discussion of time, priorities, and attention, I was on the edge of martyrdom when I offered to accept terms that do not meet my needs. Since I still did not want to accept that label, I looked for other options.

I started scouring journals, books, and websites. I learned about the Karpman triangle, victim, persecutor, and rescuer, and after playing through a variety of conversations and situations, I decided that I sometimes play rescuer — or savior — for some situations and people, but not to a dysfunctional level. I have victim moments, and the occasional time as a persecutor, but the Karpman triangle was not the paradigm I needed to consider how to stall any martyr impulses I feel. David Emerald’s Empowerment Triangle (creator instead of victim, challenger instead of persecutor, and coach instead of rescuer) offered possibly useful ideas about how to treat the Karpman triangle and other times I tend towards saving or enabling, but again, not quite what I needed in this situation where I was bordering on being a martyr. My communication within my relationship was not toxic. I was just having trouble trusting that meeting my needs was important enough to potentially disrupt other people’s lives.

For a bit, I considered whether I might be a savior. I tried on the idea that I was saving the peace and making my partner happy by finding solo, non-intrusive ways to deal with my needs. That sounded superior to being a martyr. Being a savior would have downsides, of course, but going above and beyond to help — that is like Jimmy Carter, building houses for poor people. Rosa Parks, taking a stand for civil rights. Maybe my willingness to put my personal needs aside was the act of a savior. Eduard Ezeanu’s piece on The Savior Complex assured me that no, I was not usually a savior. I do not feel that I am better than other people because I do unappreciated things for people, and I am quite good at making sure at letting people know when I have done something that I think is noteworthy. There are not many ways I hide my light under a basket. Like any recovering enabler, I have moments when I have to consciously remember “You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you.” But that is where enabler and savior intersect. Being a savior is not my home base even though there are times I choose to be helpful.

Here is the script from my childhood that still sometimes drives me: I should not cause problems by articulating needs and wishes; if I am possibly the source of an issue, I must immediately solve the problem (which includes my discounting my needs, wants, and emotions) or risk having the other person decide our relationship is not worth the hassle. For years, I saw myself as the cause of problems, in the way, and something of an afterthought or inconvenience. Being helpful was the way I tried to counteract those feelings. I sometimes assume blame that is not mine to shoulder, and work to solve problems that are not mine to solve. While in my professional life I am good at teamwork and I know my value in the workplace, in my personal life, negotiating and compromising sometimes confound me.

Thanks to years of hard work and patient people, as well as the influence of a couple important books (including Brene Brown’s and Harriet Lerner’s books), these childhood beliefs have lessened their impact greatly. My partner understands that old belief patterns surface sometimes and has been a vital part of my re-learning. However, new situations and insights mean sometimes revisiting previous emotional ground, and the suggestion that I was going Joan of Arc definitely called for some thought. Hearing the word “martyr” used in connection to what I thought was a good faith solution to an ongoing issue was one of those triggers for revisiting previous ground.

In the process of thinking all this through, I admitted to myself that sometimes I guilt people, which intersects with being a martyr. I want to claim that I never intentionally do it, and I try to be sensitive to times that I may be doing it, but I was raised by an award-winning, unabashed travel agent for guilt trips, and my ex-husband used guilt like a scalpel. It is a pattern I can fall into, so vigilant awareness is important.

Other times, a private pity party may seep out as martyrdom. Social media, email, or texting (sometimes when I’ve been under emotional or physical stress or had one too many shots of whiskey) turn what should have been a quiet dark night of the soul into a more public discussion. In those cases, I stand by saying I was not being a martyr; I was having what should have been an emo evening, which would have disappeared when the sun rose, but instead, I invited others to my pity party. That shows poor judgement — but there are times it has lead to discussions and healing that I had not realized I needed. As long as that is a once in a while rarity, I can live with it.

Then I found Oprah.com. In an article called “How To Stop Being a Martyr”(by Martha Beck, not Oprah), I found some ideas that hit hard. I tried to argue with the subtitle: If you’re chronically overextended, underappreciated, and very, very angry, there’s a simple solution: Stop playing the martyr. I was not chronically overextended (well, not since my kids grew up), I knew I am usually appreciated, and I did not feel angry at all. Anger is an incredibly rare way for me to feel. However, as I was arguing with the article, one example stopped me cold: “Over time, Sandy learns that it’s not safe to express her feelings, and that people value her only when she does things for them.” Bingo. Much of the other discussion in the article did not quite fit, but that one line echoed. It was uncomfortably close to the “Spock logic” that surfaces under duress.

The article offered a way to filter through martry-like reactions: “When you finally find someone who doesn’t say “What about me?” but “Tell me more,” you may flounder in the unfamiliar space of truth. You’ll be tempted to filter the other person’s response through your dysfunctional lens. She doesn’t mean that. I’m a disappointment. At this point — get ready, martyrs — you can cut right through this misery by saying exactly what you’re thinking. As in, “I’m afraid you don’t mean that, and that I’m a disappointment.” Then, really listen to the answer. If it seems kind and honest, with no hidden agenda, you may feel disoriented. That’s because you’re finally stepping offstage. Keep going. Keep speaking up. What are you feeling? What do you want?” To me, admitting that I feared I was a disappointment, feared that I was too much of an inconvenience, sounded as scary as anything Stephen King has ever written.

The conversation that started this introspection was weeks ago. The other person probably does not remember the brief comment that started my thinking and researching. Because of the nature of our relationship, I do not fear the hard conversations. Choosing a polyamorous lifestyle ensures that conversations about time, attention, and priorities will be a common topic, and sometimes that is a more emotionally fraught issue than is comfortable.

Now, though, I understand that unlike Spock, I am emotionally invested in the outcome of our conversations, so if I am not aware, I could perch on the ledge of martyrdom. What I intend as accommodating, supportive, and giving sometimes comes at an emotional cost. I can choose the emotional cost by ensuring that my needs are met in some way instead of discounting them. I can own my feelings and trust that I can have healthy, helpful conversations about them. Being grateful for the relationship or situation and all the people involved, focusing on the big picture instead of the specific issue helps too. I am emotionally invested in my family, my relationships, and my life. That means I cannot become Spock, doing what is good for the many or the one while dismissing its impact on me.

I Am Not “The Other Woman”

Long, long ago–during the 1970s–my church group enthusiastically sang a song called “Magic Penny.” The first verse went like this:

“Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away,

Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.”

The chorus affirms that love is like a magic penny, and the more you give, the more you get. As a virginal teenager steeped in “God is Love” quasi-hippie Jesus-joy, that made perfect sense.

Now most of the people who sang that song with me are grandparents, and based on their Facebook pages and whispered comments when I chance upon them at the grocery, they are appalled at all the love in the world. Gay love, trans love, polyamorous love–there is an exclusionary clause in the song that I apparently missed while strumming a D chord to start the chorus.

I’m a closeted poly woman. For professional reasons as well as because my metamour insists, almost none of my friends or family know I’m poly. They know my partner, know that he’s one of my closest friends, but that’s it. Because he’s married, because I’m older, our friendship is (apparently) accepted at face value.

However…there are exceptions, and that’s what prompted my current musings. One of my few friends who knows I’m poly told me recently that if he were to get a serious girlfriend, she would get to decide if he and I remained friends. His reason? The hypothetical girlfriend “would have the right to know that (I’m) a cheater and decide if she would be comfortable with me around knowing that.”

The man who said that, Jay, introduced me to kink. We’ve been friends for the better part of a decade, and sexually played a few times. The chemistry isn’t there for us to be a romantic relationship, and we’ve acknowledged that. I’ve known that Jay is hoping to find the whole idealized romantic relationship in one person, and I support that. As a man in his 60s, my experience suggests there are plenty of women in his acceptable age range available, and I wish him well in his search. I’ve even offered to be his wingman.

Jay is well aware of what poly is; he’s enthusiastic about his kinkiness and enjoys discussing sex and society at length. When he told me that his hypothetical girlfriend could veto our friendship because I’m a cheater, we talked about it. He had previously said that he does not believe poly is a sustainable lifestyle and that the frequent discussions and negotiations his poly friends go through to maintain healthy relationships is more work than he is interested in. I’d known that he would not consider being poly. I didn’t know that he was judging me for it.

“But hey, I haven’t found her yet, so we’re still good,” he assured me. No. No, we’re really not still good.

Because I am closeted, I haven’t previously dealt with feeling personally judged for loving a married man. His wife and I are friends, I have met his other partners. I give his kids rides home from school sometimes. This is not a clandestine, furtive affair. We have almost a decade of history, and all the ups and downs, joys and confusions that characterize a close relationship. But I’m still “a cheater,” someone who a girlfriend should be warned about.

I told Jay as clearly as I could that I don’t accept the idea that poly equals cheating. It’s a lifestyle that relies on honesty and communication. Consent and discussion are primary, and navigating each relationship so that all other relationships are honored is essential. Cheating involves lying and denial, sins of omission and commission in most cases.

Perhaps I was too impressionable when I sang “Magic Penny” as a teen. Silly me–I believed that love is something that you should give away, and you’ll end up having more. I’m a lover, not a cheater. I love my partner and his family. I choose to believe that all of our lives are richer because we share them. We do “end up having more.”

Translating “I don’t want to hurt you”

A short list of phrases people don’t want to hear: “We need to talk;” “You have the right to remain silent,” “There’s nothing we can do,” “I hate to be the one to tell you;” and “I don’t want to hurt you.” In each case, the phrase itself is innocuous. The fear of what follows it is the killer.

Several times recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of “I don’t want to hurt you.” At least once I’ve said it, and I’ve thought it other times in the midst of conversations. Each time, the nuance was different. Each time, understanding what was behind the formulaic “I don’t want to hurt you,” could have–or did–make a difference in how the conversation resolved.

Most of us don’t want to cause our loved ones pain. The caveat “I don’t want to hurt you” signals that they have already considered what they are doing or about to say, and decided that we will be hurt. They may be right. They might not be. At any rate, they hope to soften the perceived blow by saying they don’t want to hurt us. Regardless what comes next, we are braced for something bad. Depending on our personalities, we get in a mentally in a defensive position, pulling back emotionally to distance ourselves from the potential hurt and the person causing it, or perhaps we brace ourselves to argue back, maybe hoping to change the hurtful information or action.

Does the person saying it believe that I’m not strong enough to deal with whatever ill wind is being heralded? Is that phrase a signal that I’m too sensitive,  “I don’t want to hurt you, but…” can imply that there is a doubt about my emotional or spiritual strength. It’s a power phrase: someone in a weaker or less powerful position wouldn’t use it. The person who uses it is the person with the power, which can come with the implication that there is a concern that the person hearing it is too weak to deal. That subtext is not always there, but the person saying it is always the one who has the power–at least at that moment if not always.

Perhaps the subtext is that I am the source of the issue that is about to be revealed, whether that’s expressly pointed out or not. The older I get, the more aware of my foibles, downfalls, and mistakes I’ve become. I’ve recognized unnoticed strengths, too, and earned my scars–but I now see how even in situations where I wasn’t causing the issue, my choices compounded it. I’m not as innocent or as victimized as I’d like to believe or about my ability to recognize and accept my fallibility. “I don’t want to hurt you” can preface a statement explicitly or implicitly pointing out my role in creating a problem–and that’s often what I hear, even when it’s not intended.

Or it could mean that the person saying it questions whether the relationship is strong enough to have uncomfortable, hard conversations. “I don’t want to hurt you” can precede information or actions that end a relationship, or that at least throw the previous definition of it up for discussion. Generally, people don’t begin a relationship by saying “I don’t want to hurt you,” but how many breakups include those words? Of course that could be the opening to a productive, open, honest conversation full of a range of emotions–that’s best case, and I would burn candles and wave sage around if I could ensure that was what happened every time I was in a conversation with those words. But using that phrase instead of simply introducing the topic carries with it the idea that maybe–perhaps–the relationship isn’t strong enough in some way to overcome what comes after that phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you” is a sideways check point about the commitment both people–or all the people–have to the relationship or situation involved. What comes after that phrase may be less important that the fact that there’s doubt or fear about how the information will be dealt with.

There’s an assumed “but” after the phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you, but..” However, I’ve used it as a statement of stubbornness. I won’t do something–whether it needs done or not, whether it hurts me or not–because I don’t want to hurt you. When it’s used that way, the person saying it has already decided a course of action or silence, has determined to be a martyr in the name of not hurting someone else. It sounds noble, and it can feel noble, but it’s disempowering to the other party and kills a partnership or relationship in record time.

Of course, all those situations only occur if the phrase is spoken. Perhaps the worst, the hardest to understand or recover from, is the unspoken “I don’t want to hurt you.” Best case, that leads to conversations that begin “I didn’t want to hurt you,” and those come with their own baggage because of the timing, but the previous reasons the information wasn’t disclosed in a more timely manner still apply.

The introductory crutch of “I don’t want to hurt you” is a formula we know, a trope we fall into. I’m sure I’ll use it again, and I’m sure I’ll hear it again. Beware, though: if a conversation ends with that phrase, the relationship may be on life support. Being hurt is part of being alive and being connected with others. Continuing the conversation, more than once if needed, to understand the beliefs behind “I don’t want to hurt you” or “I didn’t want to hurt you” might lead to more understanding, honest, and open communication. Of course, your mileage may vary.