Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Relationship Corner: Don't be a Martyr

The great thing about being in a relationship is that you have an extra set of hands. While it would be really cool if those hands were attached to you Doctor Octopus style, allowing you to both drive and eat your sandwich at the same time, you have to settle for the second-best option: hands attached to someone you love. These aren't just any hands, they are helping hands, and when you need a favor, big or small, they are the hands you call first.

This perk isn't just one-way, though. Your partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, Imzadi, might also need a favor, and you will be the first responder. It will be your job to help reach things on a shelf, pick up something while you are out, help clean a mess, bring them something they forgot, or one of a thousand other small favors. While you won't be able to fulfill every one of these requests, because no one is that good, you'll do your share. And when you do, I have one suggestion to ensure a healthy relationship: don't whine about it.

If you want to kill your relationship, turn yourself into a martyr every time you are asked for a favor. Act like every effort on your part is the biggest struggle anyone has ever endured on the planet. Make sure she knows that she's damn lucky that you mustered the will to walk those twenty steps to fetch her something. Emphasize that those extra five minutes you spent helping him out will probably leave you utterly exhausted. If you have a wooden cross, now's the time to climb upon it, and a crown of thorns will be a nice touch.

If you think I'm exaggerating, I have some sad news for you. This kind of relationship martyrdom is all too common, and it often stems from the same source: a belief that this relationship is all about you. People love being in relationships when they reap the benefits. It's great to be the object of affection, to receive gifts and favors. However, a truly healthy relationship benefits the both of you, and that means that there are times you'll have to do the heavy lifting, be the one who does the favors, and you'll be (gasp!) inconvenienced. I know, your life is a sad, sad story because she asked you to do the dishes and take out the trash. If only there was something you could do about it.

Actually, there is. You can grow up and do it.

Children whine and complain about the simplest chores. They do it because they're children, and by nature a child is a self-centered creature who can't appreciate anything you do for them. A child will whine about having to take three minutes to make her bed while you spend an hour cooking dinner. That's the natural order of things. You did it, your parents did it, but eventually you grew out of it. You became an adult and you figured out that the chores don't do themselves, that sometimes life gets messy and you're the one who has to clean it up.

At least, I hope you became an adult. Otherwise, you're simply a child in an adult's body who still thinks the world revolves around you. That might suit you when you're single, but it's death to a relationship. Maintaining a healthy union is hard work, and not a lot of people are willing to put in the effort. It takes both of you, and that means you have to put yourself aside for the benefit of your partner/spouse. It means that the health and well-being of the relationship is more important than your comfort.

That's what it means to be an adult. You do what needs to be done, you take care of who needs caring for. You make choices based on whether the outcome will help or hurt the other person, and you give willingly without keeping track of what you are owed for your trouble. You don't keep score about how many favors the other person owes you, because that's a child's perspective.

To be fair, this doesn't mean that you need to be a doormat in a relationship, either. There's a difference between doing your fair share and being a servant. There's a line, and you need to know where it is, but that's a topic for another column. For the purposes of this article, we'll assume that all you're asked to do is appropriate.

What is appropriate, then? First, there's the chores. Every day something needs to be cleaned. It could be the clothes, the dishes, the bathroom, the sheets, or anything else you own. If you have plants, someone needs to water them. If you have a yard, it needs to be cut and trimmed.You need to walk and feed the pets, then cook dinner for yourself. (Because eating out each day will kill your waistline and your budget.) One person should not be responsible for all of these tasks, and thus it falls on you to ease the burden. That's what you signed on for.

Whining about chores is pointless and unproductive. I admit I'm not without sin on this issue. Even now and then I wonder how just two people can use so many plates in a single day, and so I put off cleaning the kitchen until it's a huge mess. If I just act like a grown-up and not let them pile up, it would be an easy chore. Instead, I put them off until they began to attract wildlife. But it's my job, and if I want to eat on clean plates, I need to do it and not be a martyr about it. Chores make your life possible, and it's up to the both of you to get them done without complaint.

There's more than just chores, though. You'll also be tasked with special favors. It might be to kill a bug in the middle of the night. Perhaps you need to fetch a ladder to reach the high shelf. Perhaps your wife forgot something when she left for work and you take time out of your day to bring the forgotten item to her workplace. Again, it's about putting aside yourself and helping out your partner, the person you promised to love, honor, and cherish.

There is an upside to not being a martyr: appreciation. I've made the trip to my wife's workplace more than a few times, and each time she spends the rest of her day talking me up to her coworkers and then coming home in a great mood. Trust me, you can't go wrong when you sow the seeds of gratitude in your relationship, because it makes your relationship stronger.

Gratitude goes both ways as well. When my wife does something for me, even if it's just her usual chore, I do my best to thank her and show appreciation. An attitude of gratitude does two things: it keeps me from feeling like I'm owed these services, and it helps the relationship because she feels appreciated. She is more willing to go out of her way when she knows I am grateful for her efforts.

Being a martyr and whining about every little thing will never bear good fruit, only rotten. It's a fast way to derail, if not destroy, your relationship entirely. It's so damaging that, quite frankly, if you see it in your partner, I recommend thinking seriously about ending the relationship. It reflects an immature attitude, one that isn't ready for the adult world. It's a red flag that warns of trouble ahead.

If you are thinking about getting married, you need to figure out if your partner is ready to commit. It's not enough that they make vast declarations of love. Will he get off his butt and help you when you need it? Is she going to whine about it the whole time? If so, then you've got a problem, because there's a lot to do in a marriage, and you need to know that your spouse is happy to roll up his/her sleeves and dive right in. And if you aren't willing to roll up your sleeves, then you aren't marriage material either. It takes both of you committing and not whining.

Many weddings include 1 Corinthians 13 in the ceremony, a reminder of what love looks like. I'd like to suggest an addendum, a paraphrase from JFK's Inaugural address: Ask not what your marriage can do for you, ask what you can do for your marriage.

What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.

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