Do you need to solve your partner’s problems? Or, do you need your partner to solve yours?
You may be stuck in a hero-victim relationship.
With great responsibility comes great power.
~ Mark Manson
Are you looking for a romantic partner who’s down on his luck? Someone who’s hit rock bottom? A little damaged? Someone who clearly needs help… your help? Someone only you could lift out of the hole in which he’s found himself?
Or, are you looking for someone to save you from your present circumstances? Someone who has all the answers? Someone who can pull you out of the gutter? Your very own version of a knight in shining armour?
If you are one of these two people, you may have found yourself in a hero-victim relationship at some point in your life.
The victim believes that others are to blame for his problems, and that if someone could only see how much he’s suffering and solve his problems for him, he would finally get the love he’s always wanted.
On the other hand, the hero believes that if she can solve the victim’s problems and relieve him of his suffering, she will finally get the love she’s always wanted.
Do you see how these two fit perfectly together? Like, in a twisted, fucked up sort of way?
These relationships fail because the hero and victim don’t take on the responsibility of solving their own problems and because they are wrong about what makes them deserving of love.
My own experience with a hero-victim relationship
I spent nearly 15 years in one of these relationships. I was the hero, always looking to save my partner from one catastrophe or another. And she was the victim, always looking to me for salvation.
Does it sound cocky that I call myself the “hero”? Trust me, it’s not meant to. Being the hero sucks.
While it might seem selfless and admirable that I would devote a vast amount of time and energy to my partner, it was neither healthy nor heroic.
In truth, I wasn’t trying to help her for her. No, I was trying to help her for me. It wasn’t empathy and compassion driving my actions, but pure selfishness — a desperate need to feel like I deserved her love.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I placed some of my self-worth on my ability to solve her problems. When I was unable to I felt worthless, which inevitably led me to feel angry and frustrated, and then lash out at her.
Even when I was able to help, the feeling of being worthy of her love quickly evaporated. But, instead of questioning this strategy, I doubled-down on it and chased after even more problems to solve.
On the other hand, does the idea of someone swooping in to solve your problems sound great? Does it seem like exactly what you need? I mean, what could be wrong with that?
Trust me, being the victim sucks, too.
A victim is someone who is waiting to be saved. They are the archetypal damsel in distress. They think it is someone else’s responsibility to solve their problems.
This is why they latch onto hero-types, who will seemingly give infinite amounts of time and energy toward solving their problems.
This was my partner. When confronted with problems in her life she felt anxious and helpless to solve them. She believed she needed me to solve her problems for her.
Like me, she also put some of her self-worth into my willingness to solve her problems. When I showed that willingness to help, she felt like she deserved to be loved.
But, also like me, those feelings never lasted. Because these feelings were dependent upon my willingness to solve her problems, she continually needed problems for me to solve to feel loved.
Was the relationship bad?
No, our relationship wasn’t bad. In fact, there were many amazing moments. There is no question that we loved each other and that we were a good match in many ways.
What happened though is that we exhausted ourselves running around in circles. She put the responsibility of solving her problems onto me, and I happily accepted. As a result, neither of us took on the responsibility of solving our own problems.
In fact, we both ended up feeling helpless to overcome the obstacles that life inevitably put in our way. And because we each obliviously reinforced the other’s perspective, we held each other back from growing as individuals.
In psychological terms, we probably both suffered from learned helplessness. When people are conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort they won’t act to avoid it. In other words, people can literally be taught that their actions won’t improve their circumstances.
Ultimately, depending on each other in this way this was a poor strategy for both our relationship and for our personal development. But, we couldn’t see this at the time. We were blind to the damage the hero and victim roles were causing on our lives. We just kept doing the same thing over and over, never getting anywhere.
The hero and victim are both avoiding the same thing — taking responsibility for their own problems.
Isn’t that interesting?
There are likely different aspects of your life where you play both these roles. As a parent, you might play the hero, moving every obstacle out of your child’s way. As an employee, you might play the victim, always blaming everyone else for the problems that arise.
As many of us know in principle but fail to realize in practice, no one can solve another person’s problems, no matter how hard they try.
In his book The subtle art of not giving a f*ck, Mark Manson turns the famous Spiderman quote on its head by simply shifting some of the words around: with great responsibility comes great power.
What does he mean by this?
He means that playing the hero and playing the victim are recipes for powerlessness. Without taking responsibility for the problems life throws in our way, we can’t grow. When we can’t grow, we feel helpless to improve our circumstances.
If you haven’t noticed by now, life never stops putting obstacles in your way.
The hero and victim mentalities are strategies for ignoring and avoiding responsibility for overcoming these obstacles, rather than figuring out how to solve them.
And yes, some of those obstacles are scary. And yes, some of them will push you to your limit. But they are there in front of you for a reason. They are in your way, blocking you, hemming you in, because you want something on the other side.
The trouble is, no one can get you to the other side except you.
Our problems in life aren’t like math equations. We can’t just write down the answer and submit it to Life for adjudication. The person seeking the answer has to believe the answer is true, understand the implications of the answer, and then act. No one can do this on behalf of anyone else.
When we expect to find solutions to our problems from outside ourselves, like in solving someone else’s problems or having someone else solve our problems, we never more forward. No matter how much we talk about it, no matter how hard we try, we won’t get where we want to go. Because this is not a strategy for fulfilment — it’s a strategy for stagnation.
For me, living in a state of stagnation was like living in a kind of hell — one that I didn’t even really know I was in. All I knew for sure was that something was wrong. But the only way I knew how to “fix” it was to keep trying to solve every problem that my partner told me about.
And so the cycle continued.
Breaking out of the cycle
If you’re a hero, stop! Focus on yourself. It’s not selfish. In fact, by focusing on yourself, you will gain the very wisdom that might help someone solve his own problems in the future.
If you’re a victim, stop! Focus on yourself. Tell yourself that no one else can solve your problems. Tell yourself that only you can truly make your life better.
When you start taking on the responsibility of solving your own problems, two things will happen.
First, you will see yourself steadily grow. By ceasing to ignore the elephants in the room, you will start to address the difficulties in your life head on, which opens up opportunities for you. Instead of avoiding your problems, you will use them to move forward. This is what Marcus Aurelius meant when he wrote, the impediment to action advances action; what stands in the way, becomes the way.
Once you’re moving forward, your life will gain a quality of beauty and fulfilment that it didn’t have before. And you will build confidence in your capabilities as a person.
Second, your relationships will improve. Once you start giving yourself the time to solve your own problems, you will see that you’re capable of doing so. Once you feel capable of doing so, you will prove to yourself that you are worthy of love, in particular self-love. Once you prove this to yourself, you stop relying so much on outside influences to tell you whether you’re worthy of love.
How does this change your relationships? It removes the desperation from the equation. You will no longer need to seek your self-worth from your partner or anyone else. You will know from experience that true and lasting self-worth can only be created by following your path in life and confronting each obstacle as it arises.
In other words, you will move from powerlessness to empowerment. As a result, you will find a maturing of the type of relationship you want to have. You will finally feel free to enjoy your time with your partner, rather than feel a desperate need to win their love.
So, ask yourself whether you sometimes play a hero or a victim role. If the answer is “yes”, be truthful with yourself about whether you are avoiding taking responsibility for the problems in your life.
Because it is only when we start to take responsibility for our own problems that we begin to construct the life and relationships we’ve always wanted.