The Marriage Podcast for Smart People

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When Your Spouse is in Victim Mode

In today’s show, we’ll dive into the nitty gritty of victim mode: what’s really happening and why people even go there. If your spouse or if you yourself ever fall into victim mode you’ll also learn how to deal with it so that you can find healthier ways of relating to one another and overcoming the challenges that life brings. What is Victim Mode? Victim mode or victim mentality is where a person going through difficult situations views themselves as a helpless victim unable to do anything about their circumstances. People with victim mentality blame other people or outside forces for their suffering and believe they are helpless to prevent bad things happening[i]. Understanding Victim Mentality To understand the victim mentality you have to understand the concept called locus of control (LOC). Internal LOC means that you believe you have the power to affect situations and circumstances. When you have this internal LOC you know and understand that your actions determine how successful you are with regards to the life challenges that arise. An external LOC means that you tend to see other people or random chance as being the driving forces in your life and you likely believe you have little power over them. Victim mentality is linked to an external LOC: people with this mindset believe that bad things happen to them, and while they are not to blame, they are also powerless to do anything about it[ii]. If your spouse struggles with this, s/he also is likely to have very anxious and negative views about themselves and the world around them. Your spouse probably believes that bad things happen specifically to them, that their situation is uniquely bad, and that attempts to help them will fail[iii]. This can lead your spouse to be passive and apathetic about solving their problems and instead expecting other people to "rescue" them. Probably you. Victim Mode Becomes Self-Fulfilling This mentality can often create situations where the person in victim mode ends up becoming a victim. Think of it this way: if someone expects bad things to happen, and thinks there is nothing they can do about it, they will make no effort to prevent bad things from actually happening… since it is what they were expecting all along. Now you have a greater risk of victimization and the belief is reinforced because the greater probability of victimization means something bad is more likely to happen. Not only is it self-fulfilling, but when people in victim mode ask for help, they will often reject other people's attempts to help them. They see their situation as hopeless so dismiss any suggestions of how to solve the problem or even react with hostility[iv]. This causes the person who was attempting to help them to withdraw, leading the person with victim mentality to conclude that they were right all along and they cannot be helped. This is where you as a spouse may really find yourself running into a brick wall: you cannot even help your spouse help him/herself. Then There’s Secondary Gains This is level 2 kind of stuff, so we’re going deeper here. I often ask folks in counseling — when they’re doing something that appears to be unhelpful — “How is that actually helpful for you? if you set all judgment aside for a moment?" A couple researchers that studied this argued that people often unconsciously keep themselves in victim mode because there are some hidden benefits that come along with the unhappiness it brings. In other words, it kinda works or helps in a unique way. For example, acting like a disempowered victim may lead to a spouse showing more affection and attention as they try to comfort the victim. Or, believing yourself to be powerless may mean that you don't have to accept responsibility for the harm you are causing yourself/others. These are referred to as "secondary gains": the beneficial things that come as a result of bad things happening to you. Note that this is all subconscious: people with victim mentality aren't delibera...