The Victim-Hero Dynamic in Intimate Relationships.

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25, October, 2016Posted by :Wioleta Koziol(0)Comments

“I do not wish to be saved. I wish – for someone to love me for the chaos I’ve become, after the tragedy has already passed.” – Dru.Anthony

how to save my relationship

NOTE #1: This article focuses on people’s emotional experiences. When referring to a “victim” or a “hero,” I refer to a person’s mindset or worldview. I fully recognize and acknowledge that people, of all genders and orientations, can be and are victimized by others and are subjected to, in some cases, horrendous external circumstances and experiences at the hands of other people.

NOTE #2: Certain sections in the article utilize gender-neutral language, i.e. “they” and “them” when referring to a single individual.


Intimate relationships are fascinating – the attraction, the emotions, the dynamics, the communication, the issues, the vulnerability, the connection, the decision to let another person into your world completely, the mutual decision to build a life together. Depending on your frame of reference, you might find these things very desirable or very scary. Vulnerability is an essential component of a healthy and connected relationship. Vulnerability can also makes you feel like all your bearings have been rocked from underneath you. Vulnerability encourages authenticity and depending on how you frame the argument or what emotional traumas you’ve endured in your past, this can seem inviting or threatening.

If you find or have found someone who challenges you, makes you grow, makes you look at things differently than you’re used to, consider yourself blessed. Although your automatic reaction might be to start questioning the relationship due to the disagreements, tension, and emotional discomfort you might be experiencing, look at it as an  invitation to begin reframing your relationship’s issues and struggles.

Depending on your current level of awareness or trajectory of your spiritual path, it can be difficult to conceptualize, let alone understand why you shouldn’t automatically discount a relationship with someone who activates uncomfortable emotions within you. So, let’s start with the infinite. You are always connected to a Higher Being, i.e. God, the Universe, Higher Self, the Source, etc. – whichever resonates with you. The universe is always responding to your vibrations and your level of readiness, so if you find yourself in the midst of a newfound or long-term relationship that is challenging you and activating areas within you that you’ve been avoiding, take it as a sign to move closer and explore areas deep within you instead of pulling away.

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Choosing to enter and being in a relationship with a person who activates areas inside you that you have been avoiding, blocking, or hiding is a courageous move. Reframe this by keeping in mind that on a vibrational level, you have attracted this person into your life. Meetings aren’t random. Everything you see in your world right now – the good, bad, ugly, challenging, beautiful, calm, confusing, etc. you have created and attracted into your life. This is where you call on your self-awareness and self-reflection. When you engage in self-examination and reflection, the goal is to connect or reconnect with yourself and see what is happening beyond the surface. Depth is key, but again, depending on your current level of self-awareness, figuring out why you have attracted this person into your life might prove to be easy or a bit more difficult. You start this process by slowing down and paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, triggers, and resistance. As you begin to notice patterns, you begin to reflect and process, thus becoming more open to identifying specific characteristics in the other person that perpetuate your schemas, fears, core beliefs, and mindset.

The Victim-Hero Dynamic

The core beliefs your hold about yourself give off a vibrational energy that in turn attract people and circumstances into your life that perpetuate these beliefs, thus preserving your worldview. This makes perfect sense when you remind yourself that your nervous system’s goal is to keep you calm and balanced. Stepping completely outside of what you have known and believed all your life would be quite distressing and would cause you a lot of emotional chaos and discomfort. While this is sometimes quite necessary and valuable and where some of the best growth happens, the fact remains that your physiological, mental, and emotional parts are going to do everything they can to prevent you from having your whole world turned upside down. This is part of the reason why change is so hard. Imagine one day realizing that everything you thought was true about yourself and how you view the world is simply not the case. You would definitely experience distress and have some default mental and emotional reactions to this.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s delve into a common theme that shows up in intimate relationships:

The victim-hero dynamic.  

Let’s imagine for a minute that the world is split into two types of mindsets, the “victims” (see note #1 above) and the “heroes.” The victims’ main growth points include learning and believing that their needs matter, communicating them assertively and confidently, and being responsible and accountable for their actions without feeling like they are “bad,” wrong, or defective. The heroes’ main growth points include learning to let go, increasing self-worth and comfort with emotions by turning inward instead of outward, and reconnecting with the self.

While the growth points might initially appear distinct, for both the victim and the hero, the healing lies in increasing self-worth, which is always an inside job.

Both “victims” and “heroes” can gain incredible insight into their core wounds by staying with the evoked emotions and going through the process of healing past traumas and emotional wounds. A “victim” and a “hero” can enjoy a healthy and fulfilling relationship, but being informed and self-aware is key here. Remember that you will likely fluctuate from victim to hero in the relationship based on the dynamics and circumstances, but people usually have a role that they tend to settle in more frequently and feel more comfortable in. The potential for personal growth and healing are vast for both people. Through self-awareness and communication, both partners engage in a way that cultivates an environment of growth, development, processing, exchange of ideas, and healing. Both people walk in this dance of growth together when they are intentional about change, as well as open, ready, and willing to do the work. Willingness, readiness, and intentionality are necessary because the road of growth and healing does at times become difficult and painful. Healing doesn’t happen spontaneously because your internal defense system is attuned to you and quickly takes over to spare you emotional pain. But the feeling of the pain is key in healing because the only way out is through.

Initially, victims attract heroes and vice versa because the other person fits in with one’s core beliefs which are usually rooted in the subconscious as a result of childhood programming. One of the victim’s main struggles is taking full accountability for his or her thoughts, feelings, and actions. Someone is always to blame, justifications run rampant in a victim’s articulations of a problem, and there’s an overall aura of helplessness, albeit the helplessness is self-created and self-perpetuated. The hero’s main struggle is focusing on himself/herself and simply allowing things to transpire as they do. At a deeper level, the hero feels a sense of responsibility when things go wrong which perpetuates their maladaptive core belief of not being good enough. The hero’s tendency towards control is to minimize any possibility of things going south in order to avoid tension that the hero perceives as their fault.

When in relationship, both the victim and the hero will operate from their default core beliefs and an unhealthy cycle will ensue because it will seem like one can’t do anything right and the other can’t do anything wrong. If this unhealthy pattern is not addressed, it can cause much emotional pain for both partners.

Self-awareness and communication are your two antidotes.

Talking about problems, difficulties, hurt feelings, and unhealthy patterns is a healthy and necessary thing in every relationship and does not mean that the relationships is doomed. It actually means that both people are growing and uncovering things that will only make them and the relationship stronger and healthier. The guidance of a therapist to shed some light on these concepts can be quite helpful at this juncture.

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The Origins of Your Current Behavior

There are reasons for everything and we are the way we are due to our past experiences, especially the ones we had as children. If you’ve never examined the internal processes that were created in your childhood, you are likely operating from a default program that you’ve had since you were a little kid. Whatever that programming currently is, know that you can change it and heal from emotional wounds.

Growing up in an invalidating environment where your sense of self-worth was frequently questioned and attacked based on the reactions and messages you received from the people around you can leave a nasty mark which will most likely evoke the “hero” part in you as an adult. If you grew up needing to take care of other people’s feelings while ignoring your own in order to preserve cohesiveness and calmness, you likely grew up with a fragmented emotional self. Connecting with your own emotions and feelings probably feels highly uncomfortable and you avoid talking about emotions as much as you can. As an adult, you have a subconscious need to “save” people because in “saving” them, you receive external validation and your sense of worth is renewed and again reinstated. Due to your sense of self-worth being in a fragile state, external validation is likely the number one thing you seek in order to feel any sort of emotional balance. It is difficult for you to self-soothe in order to maintain an internal state of calm because you were likely never encouraged to pay attention to your own emotions, never taught to name your emotions, never taught how to express emotions appropriately, never had your emotions validated by the adults around you, or conversations about emotions were simply avoided altogether in your household. If you observed any emotional expression, it was likely in the form of exaggerated or unhealthy displays that were never talked about. This likely left you, as the child, feeling scared and uneasy. When we don’t learn about emotions as children, we learn to mistrust our internal emotional compass and inaccurately link emotions to external circumstances. Therefore, chaos might feel “normal” to you, while calmness unfamiliar.

The victim tends to grow up in an environment where blaming and discounting personal responsibility is repeatedly demonstrated and no one confronts the people who do this. The child observing this receives implicit and explicit messages that being a “victim” holds many perks, e.g.

– not having to take personal responsibility and feel uncomfortable emotions,

– not having to apologize,

– always having someone to blame,

– always having an excuse,

– rarely having to make any tough decisions without someone’s help,

– always having someone to lash out against when things don’t work out as anticipated;

– never being held accountable.

In addition, adults in this child’s life usually take care of everything for the child and rarely allow the child to practice self-determination. These adults try to shield the child from feeling any emotional discomfort due to natural life experiences, therefore the child never learns how to deal with their emotions. The child might be put on a pedestal that is not realistic to sustain when the child become an adult and a mutual, mature, and reciprocal adult relationship is expected. The victim’s childhood environment is also invalidating. As a child, you probably learned that expressing emotions is “wrong” and that there’s some price to pay for doing so, such as not being taken seriously; having your emotions dismissed or ignored; having to deal with others projecting their emotions onto you; and others invalidating your emotional experience. As a subconscious protective tactic, you sever your relationship with your own emotions in order to “not be a burden” and to keep peace or status within the family. During the times that you allowed yourself to feel, you didn’t know what to do with the emotions, so you projected them on someone else or just ignored them. The childhood trauma lies in never learning to feel and be at the same time. As an adult, you struggle with taking accountability for your behavior and blame your feelings and emotions on other people. “Victims” struggle with solving daily problems or annoyances on their own or exercising good judgment when it comes to making decisions. They feel uncomfortable when emotions arise and don’t know how to sit with them.

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Pain in the Relationship

In an intimate relationship, the victim-hero dynamic manifests itself through miscommunication, misunderstandings, disconnection, and arguments. If both partners are unaware of their triggers and projections, interactions can lead to further hurt and pain. So how can both of you prevent or minimize the pain?

Let’s look at one example that centers around making decisions and how it’s likely to show up emotionally for both the “victim” and the “hero.”

As a “victim,” you struggle with making decisions without your partner. Your work lies in making and articulating decisions clearly, while maintaining your own emotional balance. While plenty of situations in a relationship call for both partners’ input and feedback in order to make a decision, this example refers to a decision that the “victim” needs to make by his/herself and inform the partner about. Making decisions activates your value system, your emotional compass, and your sense of self. If your sense of self is fragmented or unclear, you will struggle with making decisions on your own. You will struggle with navigating through your own emotions to express what you really want, but also get angry with your partner for disagreeing with you or making a decision that is contrary to what you really want. This can be very confusing for your partner and cause unnecessary tension and arguments. This process also escalates rather quickly and has the potential to activate the victim – hero/oppressor cycle. As a “victim,” your struggle with sorting through your feelings and being honest with your partner opens the door for manipulation as you hijack the conversation without allowing your partner to be a willing participant.

If you’re only hoping (without clearly articulating your stance) that your partner will see things your way and thus make the decision that you want, this inability to communicate your true feelings and wants opens the door for a disagreement. Standing in your truth and articulating your desires and wants should be independent of your partner’s reaction. Know where your feelings end and your partner’s begin. If your partner disagrees with you and views some things differently, that’s okay. Allowing your partner to experience his/her feelings and emotions is necessary and healthy. Pay attention to what you feel and do when your partner expresses a difference in perspective, when they challenge you, or when they express emotional pain and discomfort. Your work lies in allowing them to feel their own emotions without you getting overwhelmed to the point that decreasing their pain actually becomes about decreasing your own discomfort that you feel due to their pain.

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Being able to understand your own emotions decreases the chance that you will view your partner (the “hero”) as an “oppressor.” In our example – if you come to your partner without expressing your true feelings or your decision, and if your partner responds in an opposite way that you feel – do you have the tendency to turn against your partner for not acting in a way that you wished they would? If this is the case, know that this is unhealthy behavior. When you don’t express your true emotions, feelings, and desires and then get upset when your partner doesn’t know what you want and doesn’t give you that, you are acting in an emotionally manipulative way. Expecting your partner to read your mind without you having to do the work of clearly communicating your needs and wants never ends well and borders on emotional abuse. When partners are able to meet each other’s needs, it is because there is open and healthy communication within the relationship and things are addressed, mended, and forgiven whenever a disconnect occurs. It is unrealistic and damaging for you to expect your partner to know what your needs are without you clearly articulating them first. And sometimes more than once.

If your partner does what you were unable or unwilling to do, i.e. express feelings, and you feel yourself becoming upset at them, you need to slow it down and practice self-awareness in order not to view your partner as an “oppressor.” Remind yourself that it was your own inability or unwillingness to communicate your true feelings and desires that are causing you to feel what you feel. And that you can change this and work on it. Be compassionate with yourself. It is not your partner’s fault that you feel what you feel. Remember, if you feel something within you, it’s you, not your partner. Viewing your partner as an “oppressor” will only perpetuate your upset feelings, increase the disconnection between you two, and cause further pain for both of you. Work on staying in the moment, managing your emotions, and connecting back with your partner. The “victim’s” growth point lies in challenging the mindset of viewing his/her partner as an “oppressor” in order to avoid unnecessary resentment and to avoid placing the responsibility for his/her emotions onto the partner. Because that load is too heavy to carry for anyone. The healthiest thing either partner can do is to express what they feel and allow their partner to have their own emotional response.

It’s okay not to have all the answers. If you are having difficulty making a decision, the healthy way to approach your partner is to communicate with him/her that you’re unsure about what to do and would like their input and feedback. This is fertile ground for healthy and honest communication as each partner is allowed to respond and voice their feelings and needs. True conversation only starts when both partners are able to be honest and vulnerable. This is where your connection deepens and your relationship grows. You can’t have a real conversation if you’re not completely honest and genuine about your feelings and perspective. Nothing gets resolved and the same conflict will continue to present itself until the issue is openly addressed and resolved. Both partners play a role in perpetuating the issue and the unhealthy exchange.

As the “hero,” your work is to let your partner speak, not jump to conclusions and not interrupt, and not to take over the conversation or automatically make the decision for your partner. Allow your partner to articulate their decision. The tendency for the hero is to fix and bring closure and certainty to all situations. So, if you usually take the role of the “hero,” when you sense your partner’s hesitancy to make a decision or to communicate it, you grow inpatient and interrupt, demand answers or even placate your partner, thus excusing them for whatever it is that they need to do. The hero can have a tendency to let the “victim” off the hook or escalate the talk into an argument by jumping to conclusions. The hero does this to protect him/herself but at the same time, you open the door for your partner to have yet another escape or to blame and shift the focus of the conversation on your impatience or demands or lack of listening. And the problem still isn’t resolved. And the initial point of the conversation is forgotten or discarded or placed aside. Do you see the big problem here?

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Healing in the Relationship 

The hero heals by first reconnecting with the self to increase trust in his/her emotions, to uncover effective self-soothing techniques, and to regain emotional balance while learning to be comfortable with peace and calmness. The hero heals by working to fulfill the emotional void inside him or her which is perpetuated by the maladaptive core belief of being not good enough. The hero reconnects with him/herself and honors his/her emotions by paying attention to them, expressing them, and internally validating his/her own emotional experience. Learning to live with uncertainty and letting go of the need to control everything, especially another person’s emotional experience, are two important points of healing for the hero.

The victim heals by also reconnecting with the self in order to increase self-love and self-compassion, which in turn increases self-determination. The victim’s healing journey involves reconnecting with the self in order to also believe that he or she is good enough. The victim’s journey encompasses honoring all emotions by allowing them to be felt and expressed appropriately, without lashing out. The victim heals as he/she learns to problem solve without another person’s constant help. This helps the victim to shed the mindset of helplessness and increases confidence to handle issues and problems without becoming paralyzed with anxiety and overwhelm.  

Given that victim and hero refers to mindsets and behavior, we can all be a “hero” or a “victim” at any given point in our life, depending on the situation, circumstance, relationship, or dynamics. Learning how to trust and navigate your own feelings and emotions is the number one step in increasing self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-growth. It is okay to experience a variety of emotions. It is okay to be responsible, composed, and strong while at the same time being honest, vulnerable, and authentic. Both partners need to be careful not to place themselves or their partner in rigid roles.

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Your Growth and Healing

Not everything flows when we find “the one.” If you haven’t worked through your past emotional traumas, being completely vulnerable and open with another human being will activate and trigger parts inside you that are not yet healed. This doesn’t mean that your partner is not the right one for you; it just means that you have work to do on yourself. This also doesn’t mean that your partner has caused these things in you; it just means that you have been doing a good job of blocking and ignoring parts of yourself. When you open the door to feelings of love, joy, and connection, the other doors, the less pretty ones, tend to open too. When you allow yourself to feel all emotions, you live authentically and fully. Remember that your internal pain was always there, prior to you ever meeting your partner and your interactions with your partner now are bringing this stuff to the surface.

Your automatic response is to place fault on the person that you feel these emotions around, but that’s just too simple. It is not your partner’s fault if something he or she does or says triggers you on a deeper level. If you stop and really reflect on your life and all your previous relationships (romantic, family, and platonic) you will realize that the stuff that is trying to make itself known, you have felt before. Your partner might have triggered something in you that you had hoped to store away and never bring to the surface. This is your stuff. These are your past emotional traumas. Placing blame on your partner perpetuates denial and avoidance because you are trying to rid yourself of the responsibility of working on your past emotional traumas, internal struggles, and current mental blocks.

Stay aware that this is actually what is happening and do something different. It takes courage to work on your internal demons. Take a deep and honest look within yourself and start exploring and processing. Again, this is where the insight and experience of a therapist helps immensely.

Next time there is a disagreement between you and your partner, ask yourself,

“What was my role in this argument?”

“How did I contribute or perpetuate our pattern?

“What did I say or do that hindered communication and made it difficult for my partner to be heard?

“Did I allow my partner to have their experience? Did I validate?”

“What made it hard for me to stay connected or to solve the issue calmly and productively?”

“How was I triggered?”

“What was activated within me?”

“When have I felt like this before?”

Instead of automatically shifting blame onto your partner, look within yourself. Because at the root of it all, we’re all healing from something. We can all connect and share in that journey.

Come back often and make it a thoughtful day.

If you’re struggling in your intimate relationship and are seeking guidance as an individual or a couple, call me today at (773) 906-4186 to schedule your first session. If you are currently in an abusive relationship and are in need of specific resources apart from counseling, you can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit www.thehotline.org.

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