Why Playing the Martyr Repels Those We Love

We have talked about trying to control others the past 2 posts and using guilt is one form of manipulation designed to MAKE others do what we want them to do.  But there are more forms of emotional manipulation yet to explore!

Let’s focus on the MARTYR today.  There are two kinds of martyrs.

1. The first kind of martyr  honors God by being willing to suffer and even die in the Name of Christ.  He/she won’t renounce his/her faith and clings to Christ even if they must pay the ultimate price.  That kind of martyr is one that brings great honor and glory to God.  All of the apostles, except for John, died as martyrs.  John would have died as a martyr, but he survived being boiled in oil.

2. The second kind of martyr involves emotional manipulation of other people.

Here is Wikipedia’s definition

In psychology, a person who has a martyr complex, sometimes associated with the term victim complex, desires the feeling of being a martyr for his/her own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need.

In some cases, this results from the belief that the martyr has been singled out for persecution because of exceptional ability or integrity.[1] Theologian Paul Johnson considers such beliefs a topic of concern for the mental health of clergy.[2] Other martyr complexes involve willful suffering in the name of love or duty. This has been observed in women, especially in poor families, as well as in codependent or abusive relationships.[3][4] It has also been described as a facet of Jewish-American folklore.[5]

The desire for martyrdom is sometimes considered a form of masochism.[6] Allan Berger, however, described it as one of several patterns of “pain/suffering seeking behavior”, including asceticism and penance.[7]


A martyr is controlling and believes that she  has the right and duty to control other people and to force them to do things her way – this is one facet of idolatry of self, elevating self and one’s own will above God in one’s life.  (I am just choosing the female gender since I am addressing women – and for the sake of simplicity, but men can act like martyrs, too).

A martyr attempts to control by guilt and emotional manipulation – but there is an added twist.  The martyr tries to control people by garnering empathy for her own suffering.  She acts like a victim.

Here is a great definition from www.reference.com

Martyr syndrome describes a person who uses their self-sacrifice or suffering to manipulate people around them.This person generally expects a reward for their suffering as they are stuck in the “”I am a victim”” mentality. This person also uses passive-aggressivness as another manipulation tool. An example would be you asked your spouse to take out the trash but they did not so you had to do it  yourself and once you did you complained about it for a significant amount of time for no reason. Here is a link for a more in-depth explanation:www.wikihow.com
Martyrs have discovered a payoff when they suffer or when they act like they are having to suffer.  Usually the payoff is the sympathy of others.  It’s hard to force other people to love her, but if she can get them to pity her – she can get a lot of attention and it might make her feel more important and like she is almost loved.  Or she might think she can win love this way.
Sometimes a martyr believes that she must suffer before she can be rewarded.  Or sometimes she is a perfectionist and is very hard on herself and critical and blaming of herself (and we treat others the way we treat ourselves, usually).  She may hold herself to a standard of perfection that she can never possibly meet.
Sometimes a martyr believes she is being loving by not saying no when she really doesn’t want to do something.  (Because she believes that to say no to someone is unloving – which is why you are not supposed to say no to her.  There is a definite people-pleasing element often, too.)
Sometimes a martyr believes her worth is only in her service – and if she is not doing chores and slaving and killing herself with work that she has no value in life.
I think it is extremely important to note that the intensity of martyrdom often goes WAY UP when people are sleep-deprived, exhausted, sick, hormonal, pregnant or in pain.  So if you are living with a martyr, it can help to keep track of if they need sleep, food, medicine, rest ,etc.  That will often help things A LOT!  This is especially important, in my opinion, for husbands to keep in mind.  At our house, if I start acting like a martyr (or my children do) – whatever adult is still sane sends the martyr to bed or to get something to eat!
Confession time – YES, I have acted like a martyr!  The year and a half when I was nursing our daughter every 3-4 hours around the clock and she was sick 2/3 of the time and I was only sleeping 2-4 hours per night in 30 minute increments and I was working 20 hours/week in the pharmacy  – I was DEFINITELY a grumpy, irritable, angry, resentful martyr.  It was awful for me and my husband, and probably anyone else who was around me.  And during that same time my husband was working on renovating our 1965 house  5-6 days per week until close to midnight every night (in addition to his full time job).  He did a really amazing job.  But that situation was not a recipe for marital bliss!  It was during that time I said one of the things that hurt my husband most deeply, “I feel like a single mom!  You’re NEVER around to help me with the children!”  And I would say, “I don’t care about the stupid house!”  He was working on the house for me and our children.  But I couldn’t handle him not having any time for us.  I would have rather had some time with him than my dream house.  He never said anything about it until about 2 years later when I had been working on respect and submission for a year and a half.  I was begging him for help and telling him I was not ok.  But my words cut him deeply.
The hallmark that is most destructive, in my view, of the martyr syndrome – is that a martyr BLAMES others, justifies herself and complains NON-STOP – it is a total VICTIM mentality.  These actions repel people.  Other people will want to run for the hills around this kind of behavior.  A martyr creates a lonely life for herself – and then she has even more suffering to complain about and to use as leverage against other people. (More info here at http://www.wikihow.com/Overcome-Martyr-Syndrome)
The thing about being the victim all the time is that it leaves the martyr powerless to change herself and leaves her totally at the mercy of other people’s behavior.  She takes NO responsibility for her own health, happiness, joy and spiritual growth.  She expects others to make her be happy.   So when others don’t do what she wants, she will up the guilt and pressure more and more until the other people eventually abandon her or rebel against her.  Yes, people will do what she wants at first out of guilt and pity.  But those motivations don’t create strong, healthy, loving family relationships or even friendships.
This is a destructive mentality that is ungodly, evil and sinful.  It has to go!  The usual premise of acting like a martyr is the idolatry of self and having control of one’s own life and over other people’s lives.  It can also involve idolizing other people because the martyr is expecting them to meet her needs in the place of Christ many times.  It is another form of living as if one is sovereign instead of God.  It usually involves a very critical and judgmental spirit towards other people.  This does NOT glorify God whatsoever.
They ACT like they want to serve, and they act as if they are serving out of love.  But then they quickly add a barb with a complaint about how much they are suffering by having to serve.  They really DON’T want to do whatever it is.  And they seem to enjoy resenting having to do what they agree to do.  And when you try to help, they often refuse help – and then continue complaining about their horrible suffering.  It is infuriating!  If you actually force your help upon a martyr, they will complain EVEN MORE and you will not do things “right” and the grumbling will reach new heights.  This is NOT how to endear yourself to people!  This is a recipe for being a very lonely, grumpy, hopeless, depressed person.
Here are the kinds of things martyrs tend to say:
  • No!  I’LL do the dishes…  I ALWAYS have to do them anyway.  Why should tonight be any different.  You never help me.  I have to do all the work around here.  (And if you try to do the dishes, she will argue and fight you about it!)
  • Sure, I’ll make the bread from scratch the way you like it.  Of course, it’s such a hassle to have to go through all that work.  I won’t have time to do the things I really needed to do today.  My back just aches from having to stand there and kneed the dough.
  • I’ll go get the baby.  You just go back to sleep.  I’m sure you’re tired, aren’t you?  Of course, I have been getting up every 3 hours around the clock for 3 months and I NEVER get a good night’s sleep – but don’t mind about me!  Your sleep is much more important than mine!  (And then MORE complaining the next day about what a horrible father the husband is for not getting up with the baby – often the complaining is heard by every other person the martyr comes in contact with.)
  • Here is an example a wife sent me: it wasn’t a spouse, but I used to volunteer for an animal rescue group, and one of the main directors did this. She would go on and on and on about how much she had to do, and how she worked on the animal stuff an additional 40 hours plus her job plus her family each week, and she gave up this and that, and there was no gratitude and no help, etc etc. So I tried to help and suggest solutions and offered to take on some of her tasks. but she would never accept ANY help, and just kept complaining and “Oh, woe is me,” and eventually I just stopped offering. Apparently she did that with everyone who came along and ran everyone off. in this way, she made sure she was still always in charge of everything, but the organization (and the animals) really lost a lot – new people, new volunteers, new ideas – because these were perceived as a threat by this lady.
  • Go on and fish with your buddies.  Have a great time!  I’ll just be here taking care of the children AGAIN like I always do and scrubbing the floors with a toothbrush.  I’ll probably rub my knuckles raw again.  But SOMEONE has to do the work around here.

A martyr often WILL NOT directly ask for what she wants.  She expects people to read her mind.  She will not ask for help.  She vehemently refuses assistance and complains about how no one will help the whole time.  She will NOT say how she feels or what she needs.  Then she resents other people for “making” her do all the work.

A martyr is in a self-made prison.  She is held captive by her idols and resentment.  She desperately needs delivery from the enemy.

DEALING WITH A MARTYR IN A GODLY WAY (These are my ideas and suggestions – they may or may not work for you!)

The key here, in my view, is not to get sucked into the guilt.  If this is someone who you have known has been a martyr for a long time, and they have used this strategy on you many times… they will continue to do so because they think it works.  It gives them a payoff of feeling good for suffering and being a victim.  And she thinks he will be able to control you by her suffering.  If you have offered to help and she continues to refuse – you really can’t force help on her.  In my experience, if you do force help on a martyr, she may get REALLY, REALLY, REALLY upset.  BUT if she is not well physically/emotionally – you may need to direct her to bed, to eat, to rest, to take her medicine, etc.

It is possible that just ignoring the emotional manipulation and guilt messages and victim messages might be effective – at least for you to maintain your sanity.  But I think it can be helpful to put the martyr on the spot and ask her to clearly state her needs in order to get what she wants/needs.  And I think you can clearly state what you need and want kindly, gently and respectfully.

It is VERY difficult, in human terms, to love a martyr.  They tend to swat down any expressions of love, or any acts of service, and sometimes even gifts.  They tend to be argumentative, contentious, grumpy, irritable, self-righteous, critical, judgmental and prideful.  I can’t change that.  I can pray for the martyr.  I can pray for God to use me to share something healing.  I can try to counter the lies the person believes with the truth of God’s Word.  I can respond with love, patience, kindness and gentleness.  But I believe I have to be careful not to allow the guilt and manipulation to control me.

So, I do what I believe is right before God and do what I can to show love and then don’t worry about the martyr’s feelings.  I treat him/her with love and respect, but allow the martyr to handle his/her own feelings and emotions.  I am not responsible for another person’s emotions.  I am responsible for my behavior and my obedience to Christ.  I am responsible to listen to the Holy Spirit and honor God in my behavior.  I am not responsible FOR the martyr.  It is not my job to rescue him/her.  It is not my job to make him/her understand grace.  I can show grace.  I can demonstrate respect.  I can demonstrate a healthy way to ask for what I need and want.  I can tell him/her that God loves him/her no matter how much he/she works or does chores.

And then I trust God to be sovereign over this martyr’s life and to open his/her spiritual eyes.  I do not allow myself to become emotionally entangled in that web.  I keep a healthy distance so that I am not trying to take on the responsibility of making him/her be happy.  I can’t make him/her happy.  He/she can only find true joy in Christ.


First, if I am sick, in pain, exhausted or hormonal, I believe the most spiritual thing I can do is take care of my needs so that I don’t become a drain on my husband and children.

But if my attitude is not due to a physical reason, it is time to do some digging!

  • The idol of self, being in control, being sovereign instead of God has to go
  • being “right” and knowing better than God and other people has to go.
  • The idol of suffering has to go.  It’s time to tear all that out and build only on the foundation of Christ. Pride has to go.  True humility must become part of your character by God’s power.
  • Fear has to go.  It’s time to replace that with faith.  And that will start by having a much better understanding of God’s power and sovereignty and your own smallness and weakness.
  • It’s time to repent of all that sin, the idolatry, the pride, the controlling other people, the complaining and the ungrateful spirit, the critical spirit, the lack of faith in God, the manipulation of other people..
  • It’s time to completely submit to Christ and seek HIS will above your own.
  • Self and your own will, your wisdom, your plans, your dreams have to die.  And as you die to self, you learn to live for Christ.  You replace what you want with what He wants.
  • Once you have completely repented and totally yielded yourself to Him, His Spirit can fill you and empower you to become a genuinely Christlike person who can have healthy relationships that bring great glory to Christ and allow people to truly love you for you!

There is so much cause for HOPE!  Jesus can deliver you from the bondage of martyrdom.  His power is strong enough to remove every sin and wrong way of thinking and bring you joy, peace, freedom, hope and abundant life!


Things that Fuel a Spirit of Discontentment in Me

Contentment Comes from Having Christ as Lord

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36 Comments on “Why Playing the Martyr Repels Those We Love”

  1. ronfurg
    November 5, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    Very well said, April. Your entire discussion of manipulation is very useful in helping one see the incidiousness of the sin of self-absorption which is a deadly trap for each of us. Thanks for your skill in stating it so clearly. PS – My problem of “liking” this post has returned and I’m at a loss to understand it. I have NO DIFFICULTY in “liking” posts on other sites. And, I am “logged in” thru my WordPress.com account. I wonder if I’m your only follower experiencing this difficulty.


    • peacefulwife
      November 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm #


      Thanks so much! It is wonderful to hear from you!

      I’m not sure how to fix the like button issue. That makes me sad! I will see what we can do.

      Thanks for letting me know!


  2. ronfurg
    November 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    Not to worry about the like button on my account — just know that there has yet to be a post from you that I did not like. So, in your mind’s eye, when you see those who liked your post just include mine, even if it doesn’t show up on the screen.


  3. Crystal Blount
    November 5, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    wow! Were you talking about ME ?! Just kidding😉 but not really! I see soooo much of myself in this post and so glad God is bringing this to my attention and my husband stopped letting me get away with this unhealthy bottomless pit of sin and unhappiness. I’m still climbing my way out, but taking responsibility and confessing this was the first step.


    • peacefulwife
      November 5, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

      I am VERY, VERY glad your husband had the courage to stick with his convictions and not feed your sin. That is a good leadership trait he is showing you! I’m so proud of you and all that God is doing in you. Praying for you, my precious sister!


  4. Katie E.
    March 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    I searched and searched around the internet for some way to figure out what it is that frustrates me so about my mother. This article describes her to a “T”.

    When I was growing up if you didn’t do the dishes within 5 minutes of her asking, she’d jump in, get angry, and not let you do them, saying “I’ll just do them, you’d probably do them wrong and I’d have to rewash them anyways.” Her motto is and has always been “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” This spreads across lots of issues for her.

    She lays the guilt on my entire family so thick that all of her adult children have stopped having as involved of a relationship as we used to have with her. Now we only contact her when necessary or when it has to do with grandkids. It’s very sad, but there really is no changing a martyr unless they want it and the key to their ways is clinging to their “suffering”.

    One aspect that’s unbearable is the exaggeration of health issues and the refusal to get help. My mother had a hernia for 16 years she refused to have an operation on because she found pride in being able to “grin and bear it” and tell all of us how she’d scrubbed the floor even though she was uncomfortable. She has adult asthma and uses harsh chemicals, coughs her butt off, then complains all night about it even though we bought her tamer products.

    I realize now I’m on venting mode and I’ll stop. I guess my best advice to children of martyrs is to distance yourself from your parent if their behavior is making you depressed or causing you trouble in your own marriage. And pray for them- a lot. Maybe they will find their way, although change after middle-age is unlikely.

    If you are a parent and have a martyr complex, read this and be warned- adult children, if they don’t inherit these ways as well- will wake up and realize what your behaviors are doing to them. They will distance themselves from you. Seek help, please.


    • peacefulwife
      March 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

      Thank you, Katie!
      This is VERY difficult for loved ones and friends to deal with.

      I appreciate you sharing your perspective as a daughter of a martyr. This is exactly how we as wives can make our husbands feel if we use this strategy, too. Being a martyr repels everyone from us. It’s a lonely life!!

      I also have a video about this on Youtube


    • Anonymous
      February 19, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

      Having been brought up in a fatherless home, I wanted my marriage to be a success, and I immediately began by doing anything and everything my husband wanted, did not express any of my own preferences, and kept quiet when I should have spoken up and told him exactly what I could and couldn’t do. I did this for a number of years until I exploded. I literally had the words “please walk all over me, I will do whatever you like and lose my personality in you, I will always smile and do what you want even if I cannot do it, I will immolate myself into other people so I can earn your love and affection” engraved on my forehead.

      I am still in recovery. I have a lot of bitterness and resentment to get rid of, and I still have a lot of open sores and unmet needs that I try to heal. I think there is such a thing as carrying submissiveness too far to the point where you lose all your human dignity. I went from one extreme to the other, and I still struggle to find the happy balance.

      Although I have to say that I think it is really important for people to understand that the martyr invests all her life and energy into trying to make other people happy. I knew how important it was for us to be at church on time, for example. I would wake up frequently throughout Saturday night/Sunday morning in a panic to stare at the clock, because I knew I had to be up at five to get all the kids ready to be at church by seven. Consequently, I never slept well. I spent all church thinking about my strategy to get breakfast on the table super-fast so my husband wouldn’t be hungry too long. Then if he did get upset at any point, it would ruin my entire day. Eventually I would become angry at him. He would ignore me if I was angry, and that made me feel worse after I had stressed out all day just for him. This doesn’t make anything better and it does the martyr no good either, because she feels discounted and worthless when he won’t acknowledge that she has beaten herself up to try to make him happy. This is especially a vulnerable point for a wife who came from a fatherless and abusive background in which she was essentially told she was worthless unless she was fulfilling someone’s needs.

      I would say, as a recovering martyr, that the whole thing is a Catch-22 for both the martyr and her husband. Both have needs, and the martyr often has deep, desperate needs that are killing her. Ignoring her often makes these even worse to the point of her sinking into a worse depression or into despair. She is starving for affection and attention to the point that she would settle for even the crumbs from the table, to paraphrase the Holy Writ. Ignoring her denies her even these crumbs. Often a good dose of real affection and attention can do wonders, even affect a cure.


      • Peacefulwife
        February 19, 2015 at 3:25 pm #


        Your story breaks my heart!

        There is absolutely a thing as being too submissive!!!! A godly wife brings all of herself – her thoughts, her personality, her needs, her desires, her feelings (including the negative ones), her concerns, her ideas, her talents, her wisdom, her abilities and shares them with her husband in a way that blesses him and builds him up. She shares things even when she disagrees- but she does it very prayerfully, carefully, and with great thought, sensitivity to God’s Spirit, and respect for her husband. A wife who loses herself completely to her husband as you are describing probably has her husband as an idol. That mindset always leads to destruction spiritually for the wife and for the marriage. No human can meet our deepest needs. We must look to Christ alone for our purpose, identity, acceptance, value, worth, joy, peace, and contentment. Then we can come into marriage as a whole, healed woman who is complete in Christ. Then we can bless our husbands and children.:)

        I have some posts about bitterness and fear – you are welcome to search those terms on my home page, my precious sister. And I have a post on the snare of people pleasing, as well. And Examining The Real Motives Behind Perfectionism and People Pleasing. And “Control and Boundaries” about healthy boundaries and how we are not to try to control others or be controlled by others.

        I pray for your continued healing! Your worth is in Christ, my beautiful sister! “What God Says about You”

        Much love to you!


  5. Trent
    December 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    That is exact like my mom which is how she is actin now because she has to go to her part time job (it is far less than half of full time hours)


  6. windsor9101
    May 7, 2014 at 9:08 pm #

    It’s nice to finally read an article that isn’t talking about the manipulative “man”. I’m in research mode as to what my wife is doing and why, and your article is the most useful I’ve come across. I can appreciate the God/Christ/Jesus references, but looking at just the human element and how we deal with each other you hit the mark! Thank you April.


  7. Angela.
    August 29, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Hi April, I’m glad I found this article. As it turns out, I might have a martyr-in-law (which is what led me here, as it turns out). I’ll keep taking what she says at face value but continue to offer assistance as well anyway (and not feel guilty when she refuses). Thanks again!


    • Peacefulwife
      August 29, 2014 at 8:14 am #


      That can be very frustrating! It sounds like you have a good plan in place. If she could change, she would. That is a miserable way to live. We will pray God will open her eyes and that she might find the joy, peace and freedom Jesus has to offer her!:)


  8. JP
    November 5, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    How can my three kids and I help my wife to see that we don’t need the perfectly clean house or the perfect life?…..God has blessed us so much already, you wouldn’t believe it. I was thinking of a hand-written letter in which we each tell her how much she means to us, and that we want her to pick something fun for her to do with us for a day…..a picnic, walking through a corn maze, horseback riding…her choice. That way we can feel joy for what’s right in front of our eyes….our beautiful family and our gift from God….not what’s coming up in the next few hours or tomorrow. I’m praying that God can help slow things down so that we can one day say, “You’re such a peaceful mom/wife. I love being near you.”


    • Peacefulwife
      November 5, 2015 at 4:21 pm #


      Aw! What a beautiful idea! It sounds wonderful to me.:)



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