The Doormat Effect

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Relationships aren’t always easy; things aren’t always perfect and at some point you are going to have to forgive the actions of your significant other just like he/she will have to do the same for you. Understandably then, forgiveness is an important aspect of any relationship and research has even linked forgiveness with mental health, physical health, and relational benefits. While we know that forgiveness is beneficial, what if it makes you a doormat?

In 2008, McCullough argued that individuals who forgive all the time will “quickly become everybody’s doormat” (pg. 87). The doormat effect comes from the idea that those who are constantly forgiving can easily be taken advantage of and may repeatedly find themselves in the role of the victim. Luchies, Finkel, McNulty, & Kumashiro (2010) researched the doormat effect and examined whether forgiving erodes self-respect and self-concept clarity. They found if the perpetrator acts in a way that signals that the victim will be safe and valued in a continued relationship with the perpetrator, then one’s self-respect and self-concept clarity are not negatively impacted. However, if the perpetrator does not behave in such a way, one’s self-respect and self-concept may be greatly diminished. Interestingly, just as the actions of the perpetrator influence one’s self-respect and self-concept clearly, so does the decision one makes to forgive or not forgive. For instance, in order to save or keep the relationship, one may hastily make the decision to forgive before being ready or may forgive even without truly feeling that the other person deserves it. When this happens, people may feel like they did not stand up for themselves and/or their beliefs and this may result in diminished self-respect.

Let’s think about this in terms of real life examples… Have you ever been in a relationship where you find yourself listening to the same apology over and over again, but nothing ever truly changes? Or maybe after awhile your diminished self-respect turns into uncertainty and you begin to apologize for things without even knowing why? Have you made excuses for your partner’s behavior or lied to your friends and family about the way he/she is really treating you because you believe/hope that things will get better? You aren’t alone. From personal experience and being witness to my friends’ experiences I know it happens far too often. Being the doormat in a relationship doesn’t make you feel good and it probably isn’t resulting in the happiest relationship either. So STOP. I know, I know… it isn’t that simple. But standing up for yourself is the first step. As mentioned in the Luchies et al. (2010) article, forgiveness bolsters self-respect and self-concept clarity when the victim is happy with the decision to forgive AND when the perpetrator acts in a way that lets the victim know that he/she will be SAFE and VALUED in a continued relationship with the perpetrator. This means that saying sorry isn’t necessarily good enough. If your partner truly values you and wants to maintain a healthy relationship, then he/she will make an effort to change future behavior. In a book called, The Doormat Syndrome, Lynn Namka suggests the following ways to pull yourself out of the doormat position:

  • Think of a situation in which you might not normally allow yourself to express your opinions. Write your opinions down on a piece of paper. What would happen if you expressed those opinions to someone else?
  • Adopt an “I love you, and I love me too” approach. Think of yourself and don’t allow your own needs to be overrun by someone else’s.
  • Behave in a manner that says, “I am responsible for my own actions and needs, and I’ll let him or her be in charge of meeting his/her own needs.”
  • Instead of focusing on negative things about yourself, focus on the positive. It may be helpful to write a list of positive things about yourself and keep it with you or somewhere you will see it often.
  • Ask yourself whether what you’re getting is worth the cost.  Do you get equal value for your effort, time and money? What benefits do you gain by being a victim or a martyr?  Think about how has this role been harmful to you?

References:

Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., McNulty, J. K., & Kumashiro, M. (2010). The Doormat Effect:

When Forgiving Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 98(5), 734-749.

McNulty, J. K. (2008). Forgiveness in marriage: Putting the benefits into context. Journal of

Family Psychology, 22, 171–175.

Namka, L. (2000). The doormat syndrome. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

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