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 deliberately being manipulative or consciously trying to hold on to this mindset.
As the spouse of someone struggling with victim mentality, you will definitely find it easier to show compassion if you can identify these secondary benefits. You may have to figure it out on your own or, if possible, have a gentle and curious discussion with your spouse to try to figure out how responding the way they do is helpful to them.
Getting Yourself Unstuck
Now if you’re reading this today and eye-rolling at yourself because you know you get bit by this victim mentality bug fairly frequently then today’s bonus guide will definitely help you find new ways of dealing with this challenge. In it, we help you understand the locus of control issue in more detail and how to move from an external LOC to and internal LOC. It may not sound sexy but making this shift will change your life. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Where It Comes From
How do people fall into victim mode?
Victim mentality is often learned from going through unpleasant situations and being unable to prevent them (severe or chronic health problems, injuries and accidents, abuse etc).
Adverse experiences in childhood in your family of origin can play a big part in developing this mindset, but it also depends on how other people react to your behavior. If your parents only showed you affection when you were hurt or upset, this may teach a child that playing the victim is the only way to receive attention and love[v].
I think it’s good to understand the source of these kinds of issues because it is easy to become frustrated when your spouse appears to be stuck in this mentality. Hopefully by understanding the background it will make some room for compassion — not that we need to enable the mentality.
How Victim Mentality Impacts Marriage
A spouse with a victim mindset can be challenging to live with since they are constantly wanting help from their spouse, but at the same time rejecting any attempts made to help[vi]. A study from 1999[vii] found that victim mentality/external LOC in either or both spouses was linked to lower marital satisfaction for both. Specific effects of this mindset include:
- More use of bad conflict resolution strategies such as avoiding confrontation or being passive aggressive
- Blaming your spouse for problems rather than accepting responsibility
- Less likelihood of being assertive and directly stating what you want and need
- Less likelihood of using good problem-solving skills to deal with marital problems
- Higher rates of physical and verbal aggression
- Less willingness to cooperate and compromise on conflict issues
As you can see it puts some real strain on marriage and creates a platform for behaviors that you wouldn’t normally want to engage with but find yourself doing anyway. So the question becomes: how can a couple break out of this?
How To Deal With Victim Mentality
Our thoughts here are primarily directed towards the spouse who finds themselves resorting to the victim mentality more than they want to.
Break the Cycle
This is challenging but not impossible: people with victim mentality do not believe that they can be helped. This leads them to reject attempts to help from their spouse, leading to rejection from their spouse.
So as the spouse who experiences the victim mentality, it’s important to find ways to open yourself up to your spouse’s attempts to help. Learning to react more positively when your spouse offers help will make them more willing and able to actually help you, eventually destroying the idea that your problems are unsolvable[viii].
A study in 2015[ix] found that people can develop a more external LOC and less of a victim mindset by finding areas of life they excel in. Doing well at work, in hobbies or even in niche areas of life, and learning new skills that allow you to do so, develops your sense of autonomy, your self-esteem, and your belief that you can positively impact your circumstances. Find small successes and build on them.
As well, learning good conflict resolution and problem-solving skills can also help your marriage. For example, learning to be assertive helps you have more control over what happens to you and allows your spouse to more effectively meet your needs.
Recognize the Secondary Gains
Recognizing that you are unconsciously holding on to your victim mindset because of the positives it brings (the secondary gains) and then finding healthier ways to meet those needs helps you resolve the issue. Those secondary needs are often valid: it’s not wrong to want attention from your spouse or to long to feel like your spouse has affection for you. But how you go about getting those needs met has to come from assertiveness rather than passivity.
Helping vs Rescuing
If you are married to someone with victim mindset, it’s tempting to want to try and “rescue” them by solving all their problems for them. But this keeps them in a place of powerlessness, and they come to rely on you rather than seeing themselves as capable by themselves[x]. Assisting your spouse and helping them figure out how to solve issues is, therefore, more helpful than simply fixing everything for them.
In other words, you want to make sure that your part in the dynamic is contributing to empowerment rather than enabling, and (related to breaking the cycle) communicating acceptance and accountability rather than rejection.
[i] Kets de Vries and Manfred F.r, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?,” SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, July 24, 2012), https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2116238.
[ii] Scott M. Myers and Alan Booth, “Marital Strains and Marital Quality: The Role of High and Low Locus of Control,” Journal of Marriage and Family 61, no. 2 (1999): 423–36, https://doi.org/10.2307/353759.
[iii] Vries and F.r, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
[iv] Vries and F.r.
[v] Vries and F.r.
[vi] Vries and F.r.
[vii] Myers and Booth, “Marital Strains and Marital Quality.”
[viii] Vries and F.r, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
[ix] Chia-Huei Wu, Mark A. Griffin, and Sharon K. Parker, “Developing Agency through Good Work: Longitudinal Effects of Job Autonomy and Skill Utilization on Locus of Control,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 89 (August 1, 2015): 102–8, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2015.05.004.
[x] Vries and F.r, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”