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Two Sense: Dealing With the Martyr Meltdown

My girlfriend offers up the world to me—cleaning up, buying me things, doing me favors—and then withholds it all as soon as the slightest thing disappoints her, pulling the silent treatment. In our last fight, she hung up on me because she didn’t get her way about something I had no control over, and hasn’t spoken to me for several days. Usually at this point, I call her and apologize for being so selfish, and then the cycle starts again. But something is off here, because I actually don’t feel “selfish” for accepting her favors and I don’t think they mean I forfeit my right to my own boundaries. I feel like we need to change this unhealthy cycle once and for all.

He Said: I like the idea of a taking a timeout after a fight, especially since you aren’t living together. After what seems like an appropriate period though, don’t be afraid to be the first to get back in touch. But, while you should always be ready to help get your relationship back on track, save your apologies for those occasions where they are warranted. If you’re a normal guy, you’ll have ample opportunities to genuinely screw up, so don’t take credit for problems you didn’t create. In this instance, instead of an apology, sit down and get into the specifics of what went wrong and what you both should do in the future. If you hear from her, or find yourself using, phrases like “You never,” “You always,” or “You’re selfish,” or awarding each other any of a thousand other titles, you need to stop and return to the details of fight: What was the sequence and what could you do differently? If this exercise strikes both of you as tedious, then your fight wasn’t that serious and you should move on. If this strikes you as pointless, then your relationship isn’t that serious and should also move on, separately.

Once you get into the habit of working through the specifics of a fight after the fact, you can start doing it while the fight is going on without resorting to name calling or generalizations, both of which are big reasons why fights are painful.

She Said: That’s great advice for the aftermath of a fight with a girlfriend like yours—which is to say a codependent one—and for changing the course of future disagreements. But let’s dig a bit deeper. The basic pattern reveals an imbalance: It sounds like your girlfriend really does give you more than you give her on a regular basis. Some of her motivations, I’m sure, are loving and selfless, but she’s definitely giving more than she’s comfortable with, and your clue is that a small disappointment sends her reeling into resentment and withdrawal.

I feel pretty sure your girlfriend needs to give you less and take care of herself a little more. But who’s going to tell her this? Well, you, I guess. Say, “You don’t have to give me the world. Take care of yourself first, and say no whenever you need to. I will try to do the same.” It’s her responsibility to know her own boundaries and to stop giving when she feels uncomfortable or put upon. The only way a person can deal with another’s boundaries is by practicing healthy boundaries of their own. If she doesn’t, you’re not responsible for her martyrlike meltdowns.

But there’s another piece, because relationships are not only about saying no. They’re also about saying giving and helping. You say she cleans, buys you things, does you favors. Do you contribute as much to the relationship as she does? If not, why not? Search yourself and ask if you’re being lazy and letting her do the heavy lifting. If you are, she has a right to ask for more, but in a clear, honest, way, not a roundabout manipulative one (blow up over something small and withdraw). When she does ask, you might want to practice saying yes.

In a nutshell, either she has to pull back or you have to step up, or this imbalance will continue. Still, in the end, it’s all about clearly asking for what you need, accepting the answer like an adult (whether it’s yes or no), and taking care of yourself first and your partner second. It just doesn’t work the other way around, no matter how spiritually ideal it sounds.