Carolyn Hax: Martyr syndrome makes family hard to trust

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 24, 2013

Hi, Carolyn:

My husband’s 49-year-old brother has advanced cirrhosis. The prognosis sounds pretty grim. My mother-in-law, who is taking care of him and trying to make his apartment habitable (apparently it is disgusting), is adamant that my husband not go help. She’s taking all the burden on herself and doesn’t even want her husband to know how much she is doing for her son.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

This is a normal dynamic for this family — nobody ever speaks the truth about what they need and want. Do we overrule her and tell her my husband is coming to help, which ultimately I think she would appreciate, or do we respect her repeatedly stated wishes?

For what it’s worth, I think he should just go; my husband is not certain. This martyr syndrome, “Oh no, we don’t want to be a burden” thing, drives me nuts. It’s part of Every. Single. Interaction. So that could be coloring my view of this.

Anonymous


How sad. It sounds as if these unspoken truths are claiming their victims.

And I can see why your husband has doubts. When you trust them, or lack sufficient knowledge to trust or not, then it’s important to take people at their word. It’s a combination of showing respect for others’ stated wishes and going with what you know.

But when “what you know” is that you can’t take certain people at their word, because their word is subject to any number of ulterior motives and years of lousy emotional patterns, then you’re in a bind. Taking Mom and brother — I’m lumping them on the Family Plan here — at their word when you’re confident they’re not being truthful can feel like enabling, and yet going against their word can feel like disrespect for competent, if unhealthy, adults.

If your husband felt strongly that one of these options was the right one, then he’d be right to make that choice, whichever it was.

Since he’s conflicted, he’ll need to find his answer somewhere other than his mother’s words, and where better to look than his own conscience?

If he feels he belongs at his brother’s side, then that’s where he needs to go, and he can place credit for his decision where it belongs. “Mom, I know you told me not to come help, but I’m not doing this for you — I’m doing it for myself.”

Not only would that be the truth, but it has the bonus of being a gift-wrapped delivery to his family’s sense of martyrdom. Manipulative, yes, but in a spoonful-of-sugar kind of way.

Carolyn:

Recently I was asked to be the maid of honor in a wedding. The bride sent me potential bridesmaid dresses on the day of my birthday and forgot about my birthday. In this day and age of social media, she would have seen other people wishing me happy birthday, and so totally forgot. Am I right to be a bit upset?

R.

Sure, if you’re 8. Otherwise you’d be right to recognize her as a friend who obviously thinks a lot of you and brush this off as her missing a beat, as I’m sure you do with her sometimes. There’s also: “Dresses?! On my birthday! You shouldn’t have.” State your needs, don’t test people on them.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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