Playing the Victim in My Marriage

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Roger playing the victim

In my last blog post, I talked about how we are responsible for our own happiness in marriage. This is not something we can sluff off on our spouses. That doesn’t mean I always walk my talk. In this article, I want to share a story about playing the victim in my marriage. Hopefully, it has some good lessons for you as well as me.

This story begins during a scout backpacking trip many years ago. Four adults and about 15 boys met at a park at 4:30 a.m. Before long we were on the road towards the flat top mountains in Western Colorado. It was a long drive and we didn’t arrive at our trailhead until around 11:30 a.m. After a quick lunch we started up the trail towards a mountain lake, some 7 miles away. It was a long and pretty hard climb. We finally arrived at the lake around 4:30 p.m. and began to set up camp.

A Smokey Intrusion

I looked around and noticed smoke moving into the little valley from over a ridge some miles to the south. Colorado had been through a lot of forest fires that summer and so I wasn’t surprised.

My son and I finished setting up our tent and then moved our equipment inside to get organized. When I came out of the tent, the smoke was heavier and it was actually raining ash. Now I was concerned, unable to judge the distance of the fire. One thing was sure, the wind was blowing our direction.

It wasn’t much later when I was kneeling at a stream refilling my water bottles when I could hear the boys shouting to me. I looked in the direction they were pointing. The fire had exploded. Although I couldn’t see flames, I could see the glow of the flames off of a big plume of smoke.

I hustled back to camp and we gathered as leaders to talk. Do we stay and see what happens by morning? Do we hike out another trail going a different direction from the winds? Or, do we hike the seven miles back out to our cars? After a robust discussion, we decided to opt for safety and hike out the way we’d come.

A Quick Hike Out

The problem was that it was getting late, nearly 6:00 p.m. by this time. We knew we couldn’t make it out before dark. And besides, a number of the boys and men were already sore from the strain of carrying heavy backpacks the seven miles up to the lake. Some had blisters on their feet and didn’t look forward to another long hike. But we had decided we needed to go. Given the lateness of the day and tiredness of our crew, we decided not to gather our big gear. We’d take day packs, water, snacks and jackets so we could get out as quickly as possible.

At first the boys were excited but after an hour or so things got quiet and I knew it would take all our emotional reserves to make it back.  Our hope was to get as far as possible before it was totally dark. We made pretty good time, much better than on the way in and finally arrived back at our cars around 9:30 p.m., well after dark.

Now we faced another decision. Do we stay the night at the trailhead, without sleeping bags, drive to a hotel, or head for home? We ended up driving the many miles back home, arriving at 2:30 a.m. One of the men stopped by a ranch house to call his wife to inform her of our plan and ask her to call the families of all the boys and adult leaders to let them know we’d be home that night. (This was the days before regular cell-phone use.)

The Anticipated Greeting from My Wife

The closer we got to home the more I thought about my wife, Judy. She was now aware of our ordeal and must have been concerned about us driving home so late. I was sure she’d be awake to greet me as soon as I pulled into the garage.

But no, the house was dark. My son jumped out and ran into the house while I arranged some of our gear on a shelf. Then I headed towards the door, sure Judy would have heard our son and come to welcome me with a big hug and tell me she was so glad we’d made it safely.

I opened the door and was surprised by the darkness. I made my way up the stairs to our bedroom and peered in. Although dark, I could see Judy in bed. I limped into the room with blistered feet, exhausted, and sat down on the couch. She didn’t stir so I turned on the lamp.

Brimming with feelings and hoping to be able to share some of my experience, I said, “Judy we’re home.” “I know,” she answered. “Jon let me know, but I’m really tired. Can we talk tomorrow?”

I’d hoped for connection and to share a bit about the events of an exhausting day. Instead, I turned off the lamp and sat in the dark for a few minutes, brooding about Judy’s indifference. I finally roused myself to take a quick shower, and as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t disturb Judy, climbed into bed staying close to my edge of the bed, feeling unimportant and resentful that my wife couldn’t be a bit more supportive.

Early the next morning, I could hear Judy outside talking to a friend, remarking that we’d come home early and left all our gear on the mountain. “What? Those wimpy men,” her friend said. “Yeah, can you believe those men,” was my wife’s reply.

Playing the Victim

Let me talk about the difference between two ways of being in our relationships. One is owning my responsibility. The other is disowning or in other words, playing the victim. Here’s a chart that illustrates what I’m talking about.

I’ll admit it, my initial reaction to Judy upon coming home from our failed backpacking trip was to disown responsibility. I focused on her lack of support and acted out my emotions by withdrawing and brooding and giving her the silent treatment the following day. You can be sure that I wasn’t about to open up and talk about our trip. I wanted her to know that she had mistreated me.

So I built my case that she cared only about herself and lacked concern for my feelings. I was defensive and protective. And in the final analysis, I felt like a victim. This is something she did to me. It wasn’t my fault. Here was evidence that she needed to change and become more loving and supportive if we were to have a good relationship.

I did this until I recognized what was going on and really stopped to think about it. Of course, as you probably know, it isn’t easy to give up blame, building a case, and acting like a victim. We get payoffs out of playing the victim, acting out emotionally, and making it someone else’s fault. It takes humility and even courage to admit that we own our needs, moods and feelings; to admit that we are responsible for what we’re feeling in our relationships.

Giving up the Blame

As I stopped blaming and building my case, my attitude and feelings began to shift. I began to see what was happening from a much broader view. I didn’t know that Judy had been up until 12:30 that night doing the company books.  Much of the previous evening had been devoted to helping me, supporting me, even though I wasn’t there to see it.

In addition, she and our daughter had committed to doing our son’s paper route the next morning. She had to be up by 5:00 a.m. The two of them had also planned some fun events with friends while we were out of town. By coming home unexpectedly, we disrupted their fun. Plus, Judy’s not a worrier. She knew we’d make it home safely. She was tired and needed her own rest.

Seeing My Choices

Seeing my choices, rather than focusing on someone else, is how I own responsibility. I chose to put a negative spin on her behavior the preceding night. I saw her motives as negative and selfish. I chose to ignore her needs, ironically, even as I complained that she ignored mine. I chose to withdraw and withhold my love. I chose to feel sorry for myself. I made lots of choices that night that resulted in how I felt and how I interpreted what was happening. And recognizing this allowed me to make some different choices.

The two of us talked the following day. Rather than blame and attack, I made myself vulnerable by disclosing my initial hurt that she didn’t want to wake up and welcome me home. She listened and then talked about how independent she’s been over the years. I traveled a lot in my career, leaving her home to manage the household and take care of the kids. For example, I wasn’t there when a wildfire swept through our neighborhood and the family had to evacuate. Nor was I available when she had a serious car accident, or when she took most of the responsibility for packing the house for a move, or when one of the kids was having a crisis. Judy learned to be independent.

The previous night wasn’t about not caring about me but rather about taking care of her own needs. In truth, I had to ask myself, who has not been there for whom?

Self-Responsibility vs. Playing the Victim

I hope you’re understanding the meaning of self-responsibility. Certainly, we influence and even depend on one another. And yet the only foundation on which to build a happy and healthy relationship is when I am willing to be responsible for my needs, my feelings, thoughts, moods, etc. The more I try to put my feelings, needs and well-being on my spouse (or anyone for that matter), the more I feel like a victim and the more I try to control and manipulate her through overt or covert means to give me what I want, a sure recipe for ongoing drama and unhappiness.

This doesn’t mean we don’t talk and connect about what’s happening. Part of taking my responsibility is communicating my needs and feelings (even if I get they’re not her fault) so we can understand and better support each other.

How about you? Do you ever play the victim? What would it take to own up to your responsibility? How would you give it up? What might you gain?

Don’t be hard on yourself. We’re far from perfect. But hopefully, we can recognize when we’re playing the victim and learn to make better choices.

(As an aside, people want to know what happened to the gear we left on the mountain. A nearby rancher was kind enough to take some pack horses up the trail to gather and bring out gear down. One of our leaders drove to his house and brought it home.)

New Course on Marriage

I’ve been writing a lot about marriage lately. I’m about to launch a new online video course on the topic. It should be available in the next several weeks. I talk about the five stages of marital satisfaction, toxic patterns that kill love, self-responsibility, how to honor your partner, building fun, friendship and unity, how to communicate in an open and vulnerable way, resolving conflict, and creating a shared vision of the future.

Stay tuned for more information. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to launch and hope to offer a good discount to my subscribers and followers.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

42 responses to “Playing the Victim in My Marriage”

  1. David Melvin says:

    Great article Roger! I like to play the victim sometimes when Meyssi doesn’t agree with point of view when I get mad at a friend. I know I am responsible for my reactions.

    I will watch your new program and leave a review. Thank you! David

  2. Jon Steele says:

    Roger – I’d like a chance to review the marriage course. I have gained a lot from the Hero’s Choice book, your writing and lessons seem to resonate well with my learning style.

    Thank you, Jon Steele

    • Thanks, Jon. I’m pleased my writing resonates with you and delighted you want to be a reviewer of my new marriage program. It’s with my final production editor and may be up to a month of so before everything is completed. In the meantime, I’ll keep you informed.

  3. Sandra Rush says:

    Hi Roger, I’m very interested in your course on marriage. Even though Jay and I have survived and (mostly) thrived in our 56 years of marriage, we both came to the relationship with our own sets of unhealthy ways of dealing with issues. We would like improve and deal with our marriage in more ‘grown up’ ways. 😉
    Sandra Rush

  4. william Offen says:

    Hi Roger. Isn’t it amazing how our self interest overides our abilities to think of other’s situation, ironically, making the our position worse!

    I would be privileged to review your course.

  5. Monica McNulty says:

    Hi, Roger
    I would be happy to review your course. Your work is so valuable!
    Monica McNulty

  6. Rachelle Martin says:

    Thank you for sharing this message! I have been through some definite ups and downs in my 23 year marriage. We seem to be in a good place now, but I would appreciate the chance to make it stronger through piloting your new marriage course. Thank you!

  7. Arianne says:

    Great article. Definitely resonates. I am currently working on overcoming my victim mentality. My husband and I would definitely be interested in reviewing your course!

  8. Derek & Linda Shubin says:

    Hi, Roger, Linda and I took a marriage r elations full-day course that I “estimate” to be around 2007. We learned a lot which we have continued through the years to apply. It was time most excellently spent. Having read your recent article, “Playing the Victim in Marriage”, we are interested in your new marriage online video course.
    Thanks, Derek and Linda Shubin

    • Hi Derek. I remember. That was a long time ago. I’d love to include you as reviewers. I love my old course but believe this new one is even better. Thanks for reaching out.

  9. Uriah says:

    How have I never heard this story before? I’d love to look at your new course if you want me to.

  10. Jim Arbuckle says:

    I would be interested in reviewing your course. We all need help overcoming the temptation of being selfish as you mentioned. After my debilitating accident requiring 4 months of constant care by my wife I was able to rethink my attitude about some differences we have. Those differences are now okay with me; now that know how much she cares for me. We had some of the best times of our marriage during those times that I was so laid up.

    • Hi Jim. Your accident was so devastating but it is good to hear about how much love you felt from your wife and the difference it has made in your attitude towards her. I’m very happy to have you review the course.

  11. Madhavi Mahavadi says:

    Hello Roger,
    Thank you for the article! I can very much relate to this article as I went through similar scenario last year when I took my son on a Boy Scout outing (ski trip) and ~1130pm we found out that the hotel we booked was not worth staying. So, we decided to drive back home in that night and got home around 3am expecting my husband to be concerned. Instead, it was the same as you described. I went through similar feelings you mentioned and later realized several things. It is very easy to feel as a victim but takes quite a lot of introspective thinking. This is very much needed periodically to have a healthy relationship.

    I would be privileged to review your course as well.
    Thank you
    Madhavi

  12. Mario says:

    Hi Roger, I always enjoy your articles and the recent ones on marriage are especially timely for me. I would very much appreciate the opportunity to review your upcoming marriage program.

  13. Jay Rush says:

    Hi,Roger:I am interested, as is Sandra, in reviewing your Marriage course. Can I assume that Udemy turned out to be less helpful as a marketer of your classes?

  14. Kendra Haws says:

    Hello Roger!
    You are a key source of wisdom and inspiration in my life. I would LOVE to go through your marriage course. Very much looking forward to it and growing in wonderful ways!!!

  15. Charli O'Neill says:

    Hi Roger,

    That story rings true for me. I too often put myself in that role. Even as I tell my self time and again I am responsible for thoughts and actions, my self-talk says “I only did that in response….

    I am open to reviewing your new course. And hope my feedback will be of value. No doubt that I will benefit.

    Thanks,
    Charli

  16. Sherry Iftikhar says:

    Dear Roger,

    Thank you for this eye-opening article. You’ve managed to touch so gently but perfectly on issues that I have struggled with my whole life. I have some thinking to do, and some decisions to make about where I want to go from here!

    I would be honored to read and offer my review about your upcoming video course.

    Thanks Roger and good luck!

  17. Enrique luis Diez Crespo says:

    Roger

    I have to admit that was an unforgettable experience. My pleasure to share it with you guys. My deepest sorrow for the 13 firemen who lost their lives to extinguish that fire

    Take care and be safe, my friend,

    Enrique

    • Enrique, my good friend. You were there. What a day and summer. I agree it was so sad for the firemen who lost their lives fighting that blaze. Tragic. I hope you are well.

  18. John Ward says:

    You always find a way to bring a complex relationship situation into an easily understandable, relatable and actionable concept. I miss the days of working together.

    • Thank you John. I was not aware you were following me but pleased you are. Likewise, I miss our professional association and am happy for your consulting success. We’ll stay in touch.

  19. Jeff Grebe says:

    Thanks for some good perspective and things to think about. What a challenge to have that experience with the scouts.

  20. Diana Buckwalter says:

    Hi Roger, I relate to this story as my husband has been in the mountains with boy scouts frequently. I agree with your premise about victim hood but as I get older I also see a place for grace and love. People may feel like victims for a reason. Maybe you needed some extra love for whatever reason. I believe in owning your own stuff but sometimes my stuff needs some love and attention from someone who cares about me. Maybe you would rather have been home cuddled up with your wife instead of with boys that rarely give any gratitude for your sacrifice. Just some random thoughts. We miss you guys!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Diana. I have to agree that we do feel like victims for a reason and, although the details may vary, that reason has so much to do with feeling unloved in some way. At these moments we need love, grace and connection. Yet our behavior in these moments seems to push our partners away. Can we learn to recognize what is going on and be there for our spouses in these moments? And if my spouse is not there for me, can I learn to recognize and ask for what I need in a more vulnerable way?

  21. Nanette says:

    Dear Roger,
    We are interested in reviewing your course. Our marriage is good, yet we hope for better. You seem to know some of the real issues which marriages might experience.
    We’d be grateful to be a part of any program you produce. We miss seeing you and Judy. Give her our best,.

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