The Martyr Complex

by Krishna on June 23, 2007

One of the most destructive behaviors in any relationship is the existence of someone with a martyr complex. As the definition from Wikipedia explains, a “person who has a ‘martyr complex’ desires the feeling of being a martyr for its own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need.” The characteristics of such persons include

  • They have the need to be a victim and complain always and relentlessly.
  • They take little initiative in trying to fixing any complaint.
  • If any problem is solved, but in a different way than what they proposed, the problem still exists, as far as they are concerned.
  • If any problem is solved according to their solution, they will find another problem to complain about.
  • If any problem is solved, it is because they complained about it.
  • They complain about problems that do not concern them in the least.
  • They do not appreciate any good things being done.
  • They lie and twist facts to prove their point.
  • They selectively forget, ignore or avoid any facts that may conflict with their point.
  • They resort to name-calling when everything else fails.

Politicians are a master of this behavior. For example, take your classic demagogue who rails against minority religions and cultures (take your pick from any country in the world). Usually, the citizens belonging to the primary religion would be more powerful, wealthy and influential than the minorities. Yet you will hear arguments that minorities are given special treatment and the country will be overrun. This results in horrible crimes like the Holocaust, Apartheid, Rwanda Massacre, etc.

Personal relationships are not immune to this. A standard case is that of the troubled teenager who blames his parents for everything going on in his life. And nothing that the parents can do can change this attitude. It doesn’t matter how hard the parents are working to buy all the things he wants. He blames them for not spending time with him. Now, if the parents listen to him and re-arrange their schedule, he accuses them of wanting something from him. Or tells them that it is already too late and they are wasting their time.

What can the parents do? Most of them desperately crave the same love and affection when the teenager was younger. Nothing they do seems to reduce the anger of the teenager. Anything they do is twisted and thrown back into their faces. I have seen many parents give up at times and get really angry. This does not help, of course, but now the parents start exhibiting irrational behavior. This includes not listening to any complaints and insulting the children whenever they get a chance.

Now, both sides are officially at war! Everyone is miserable, but they are also happy in a way, because now each side can justify what they are doing by pointing to the other. “They did this, so I am doing this.” “I tried my best, but nothing worked.” “He can do what he wants, but I am prepared for anything.” “It is only a matter of time, and then I will be free and happy.

To generalize, here are the dysfunctional dynamics that happen when someone starts developing the martyr complex:

  1. Other people take time to recognize this, but they do in time. They treat the person as “the Boy Who Cried Wolf”. The person loses all credibility. People start ignoring all their concerns, even if some are actually important, because they cannot make out what is truly legitimate.
  2. Other people can behave just as irrational. Since a martyr usually boasts that he was responsible for any change, people avoid doing anything that can be used by the martyr for feeding his ego. Sometimes the very fact that the idea came from a martyr is cause enough to abandon the idea. A martyr creates many enemies directly and indirectly.
  3. Since the martyr picks fights with anyone who disagrees with her, her friends have learnt to nod their heads at whatever she says, reinforcing her opinions. However, friends realize that too much close association with that person can be harmful. They behave like double agents by slandering the martyr in private and further lowering her image. Communicating any issue starts with, “Don’t think I am complaining like John Smith, but…”
  4. A martyr can spoil the well for others by flaunting rules and opposing authority, not for any good reason, but just because of their perceived issues. When this happens, other people start putting up new rules or exhibit behaviors to prevent such incidents in the future. Flexible policies can become inflexible, negatively affecting everyone.
  5. The martyr demands attention, but the opposite can happen with people leaving them alone and ignoring them. Take the example of some elderly people who crib all the time. They may actually be suffering from pain or disease. But, their relatives and caregivers cannot take their complaining any longer and abandon them.

Over time, the relationship can plumb the depths of hell. Resolve the situation as best as you can. In a future post, I will discuss strategies for handling martyrs, especially the need to differentiate between levels of martyrdom.


NICOLE September 2, 2010 at 7:14 am

I think we are seeing a lot more manifestation of these personality types than ever before...I don't recall living like this in the 60s/70s. Life seemed simpler and "better" than. Now we are concerned about bullies, martyrs, complex personality types...
and the work world has become a horrible place. I realize by reading all of the above that I worked with a classic "martyr" for four years and she was very adept at getting me isolated from the got to the point where no one talked to me and I did not have a clue what I may had "done" or said. It turned out she was very possessive and jealous. When my opportunity came to jump ship, I grabbed a state job and found much better working conditions...she ended up leaving the old job a few months after I did (I am sure people woke up then...). She tried to go back to them when all else failed for her and did not succeed. It turned out she moved to North Carolina to move in with a relative...ICK. She ended up hurting herself...not me. In fact, I profitted by her tactics. I can only wish her well now...sounds like she needs it.

Wes September 2, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Why is there so little help for this? Because Martyrs are absolutely sure that all problems come from others, so all solutions come from others. The Martyr's whole life is built around avoiding responsibility.

This includes accepting responsibility for avoiding responsibility. So even if you point this out to the Martyr, they will fall back to their core belief, and avoid dealing with this problem, because that is what they do. Martyrs believe that everything is always someone else's fault.

The Martyr responds to problems by playing the blame game, in one of two forms. They make up excuses as to why they couldn't meet their responsibilities. Things unexpectedly got in the way. Or the deadline is too close (even though they previously displayed confidence they could meet the deadline easily). Or simply that you're the one who wants it done, so you should do it yourself.

The other form of the Martyr's blame game is to feel sorry for themselves. Everyone is always picking on them. No one is ever nice to them. Everyone keeps placing all these huge burdens on them, and then just walks away.

Martyrs do everything they can think of to avoid dealing with their problems. So to deal with a Martyr, we must focus on getting the Martyr to accept responsibility.

Even then, the Martyr will respond by playing the blame game. That's why it's so hard to deal with a Martyr. Not only do they fail to recognize that they have a problem with responsibility, but trying to deal with the Martyr's problem triggers more avoidance.

Dealing with a Martyr is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. So you may not be able to help the Martyr. But when dealing with one, it's important to keep from falling for the Martyr's excuses and/or self-pity. Otherwise, you cooperate with the Martyr and help them avoid problems instead of dealing with them.

accused September 3, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Wes, you just summed up my whole relationship, and no matter how hard i tried it just made things worse. It really hurts when you love someone and this is how it is. I was accused of using him as an emotional punching bag when all I was trying to do is show him how his attitude affects others, and not just me. His family says he will never change and this saddens me, one day reality will hit him in the face and when it does its not gonna be pretty and he will have to stand up and take responsibility and I wish him the best. Thank you for all of your input. Its helped me tremendously

Searching for Help in MN September 8, 2010 at 7:10 am

I think this is my wife, except she is hyper-responsible. There is no end to the amount of work she will do for her employer in the name of "paying the bills." When we do have extra money, she makes sure we don't have extra money by finding something we "need" in her estimation which will make money tight again.

She has no friends, and hasn't for 12 years. She has no hobbies or interests, and any that have popped up in the last 12 years were short lived. She works at home cleaning a home that never seems to ever get clean, and she works taking care of handicapped people. She has an infinite capacity to justify all of this with long, contorted arguments. Arguing is in fact, about the only hobby she has. She will argue the how her procedure for some task is better for countless hours if she has someone with which to argue. I watched her argue with her mother for 4 and a half hours one time over which location of a chain store was a better location to buy a particular product.

A year ago, she attempted suicide after I suggested she needed professional help. She got better after that, for awhile, but is now getting very bad again. Worst of all, she is really treating our children poorly and my eldest (almost 12) is begging me to do something. My eldest child is saying things to me I have been thinking for some time, but never verbalized about my wife. My child sees the problem too.

I just don't know how to get her to get help.

Wes September 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

The problem here is actually two-fold. One - your wife is playing a game of diversion and distraction, doing everything she can to appear busy, but in doing so, avoiding real responsibility. Two - at the same time, she keeps you unaware of what she's really doing so that you can't do anything about it.

To compare, it's like you talking about taking the car to be washed and waxed, taking out the trash, moving the furniture around, doing yardwork, tilling the garden, and re-painting the toolshed. But none of those tasks ever get finished, and the leaky roof (which you've been avoiding all this time) doesn't get fixed.

So you see that all the other stuff your wife does makes it seem like she's being very responsible, but really all she's doing is keeping too busy in a desperate attempt to avoid real responsibility.

Here's what I suggest.

Every time your wife tries to avoid responsibility by being too busy or by arguing with everyone, calmly bring her attention back to the matter at hand. If she tries to do anything else, tell her she's free to do so when the current task is done. Offer to help if you'd like. The point is to get things done. If she says she needs to argue, try telling her you will argue all she wants - as soon as everything is done.

You might also try handling the finances for awhile, without any argument from your wife. You can determine how many hours you and she works per week, where the money goes, and what happens to anything left over. If your wife sees that you handle money better than she does, she might be more willing to listen to your input.

The important thing is that you two start working together in your marriage as a couple. Right now, your wife has control and is doing everything she can to keep you confused. Your wife has sacrificed all her friends, is damaging her children, and harming her marriage with you, all because she is trying to avoid responsibility.

I don't promise things will get better. But now that you have an idea what's really going on, you can do something about it. Since I'm not a trained, licensed professional, you may also want to get a professional's advice to help your wife, your children, and your marriage.

Ava October 17, 2010 at 1:21 pm

My mother exhibits all the signs of this complex, and it made/makes it very hard for my sister and I to form a relationship with her. I am near 30, my sister is 40 years old. As we grew up it manifested in so many ways I lost count, however the main one was that if we as her children made a mistake (intentional or unintentional) she would call all her friends and family in her action to make them feel sorry for her - in our case that she had such 'horrible children'. We really weren't! We had our moments but her reactions escalated and in adulthood it has seemed to have gotten much worse.

She now lives alone, conversations with her are very focused on how her life is not how she wanted it, how we as her children have failed her by moving away and choosing unconventional lives (neither of us have children and both of us had other successes -careers, goals (my sister is a helicopter pilot), choosing to surround ourselves with animals). She has resorted to twisting stories, making them sound worse than they were, and in some arguments she tends to name call and also spurt out seemingly awful things that happened to her. I have delved into some of these and consistently found that she has been untruthful.

Growing up, we as her children felt guilty as her 'suffering' was somehow our fault. It wasn't but as we are more sensitive people, we were unable to see that we were simply feeding her desire to be the martyr. Trips to see my mum always end up making the relationship worse. As her daughter I found it emotionally too much, each time coming away from the visit feeling as if my emotions had been ripped apart, spat out and stood on. As she grows older and her ways have manifested in a lonely life she has sadly become more bitter.

My sister and I are slowly coming to terms with the guilt issues, which have perhaps manifested in our lives in undesirable ways (with relationships with others) and as such we have become more detached from her. Unfortunately I think that means we have to accept that her issues are hers alone, and due to the way she is, and the deep roots of her martyr complex, there is absolutely nothing we can do to help her. It has to be one of the hardest realisations we have had to come to terms with in our life...

Wes October 17, 2010 at 6:51 pm


Congrats on you and your sister realizing that your mom's problems are hers to deal with. And that any help you try give won't help - it will simply prove to your mom that she is justified in feeling sorry for herself.

Good luck with your life, and best wishes on making your life one where your own hopes and dreams come true.

Ava July 31, 2011 at 2:46 am

Thankyou for responding to my original post some several months ago. I have been amazed at how many different stories have been posted here over the past few months and I have read them all. It does seem indeed to be a much more common issue than I thought.

My own story changed rather dramatically... my mum became worse in so many way I lost track. But what I wasn't prepared for was for my father to start exhibiting similar attributes. As an adult my father has always struggled to connect and maintain relationships, my own relationship with him has been sketchy and he feels like a stranger to me. He has not been with my mum for a number of years. As my mothers behaviour worsened and her mean words became meaner, I began to rapidly withdraw from her, stopping calling... to be honest calls from parents to me were sparse so really it would be no surprise.

As I withdrew I found my parents forming one single lonely unity, united in bitterness and spending their time telling themselves how awful we were as kids and other awful unrepeatable things that no parent should really say about their child. Straw that broke the camels back was receiving a long bitter personal assault email from my mother ending in termination of contact. In the end I left the country leaving no details for my parents about where I am going to. Perhaps harsh but believe me, necessary.

Strangely my personal life began to change phenomenally... I had been trying for quite some time to get work abroad... I received a job offer for a fantastic job in australasia... I had been trying and not achieving the right kind of romantic relationship for years... suddenly I had two men to choose from, and once I moved to australasia I found it much easier to find the right person and find a good solid relationship. Money had been a long struggle... suddenly I had money AND a disposable income, AND I could plan the holidays I wanted, afford my own place and car!

So I began to realise something fundamental. I had listened to my mum, and my dad's harsh words of me being unworthy and a horrible person for YEARS. The SECOND I stopped listening and stepped away from that position and chose to state their behaviour as being unacceptable, I had allowed a floodgate to open of all the positive wonderful things to come into my life.

My sister is doing wonderful but she still speaks to them. I really wish she didnt because when she speaks to them she gets stressed and 'wound up', my mum continues to say mean things to her which turns into arguments and my dad only calls her for selfish reasons and never asks how she is doing in life. My mum, inevitably has told all and sundry that I am solely responsible for destroying her sanity. Cant win with her, but you know what I refuse to listen to her rubbish!

So I took a while to re-post as I watched all people's experiences posted and thought long and hard about what I was learning from my own process. Quite a lot! A very personal story but hopefully it will help some of you.

Lots of love x

Claire August 1, 2011 at 12:15 am

Ava, I'm glad to hear that you are happy. I understand where you're coming from and I wish I could detach myself completely like you, but I just couldn't forgive myself if I did. I'm working on detaching myself without withdrawing my presence from my mother. Even though her mental illness kicks in pretty often, whenever she has good days, I try to cherish them. I remember when I was little and she was patient with me, and I feel like I owe her the same. Children and elderly people are weak, physically and mentally... I just wish we could all have enough strength, patience and compassion to endure. Best wishes to you and your family.

Claire August 1, 2011 at 12:17 am

It's funny how good comments build us up, and harsh words can destroy us. You are living proof of that. Keep being positive!

Bryna January 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Oh my god.. this is exactly the situation with myself and my 4 sisters. I started to tear up as I read your post, mostly because I was relieved to find someone in the exact same scenario as us. I too have chosen to have dogs instead of children and I think that was because my mother made motherhood seem so terrible, as something that ruined her life.

I barely talk to her because every time I do, some how she finds a way to bring the conversation back to how much she did for us growing up, how much she sacrificed, how little my father did to contribute to raising us (yet, my fondest, warmest memories of laughing and playing and getting that hug you need come from my father -- but in her eyes because he wasn't 'slaving' over chores, laundry, homework as much as she was, he is unworthy of the title of parent).

She goes on and on about how no one appreciates her or anything she's done for us growing up. Yet what I try to make her realize, is adult children show appreciation for their parent later in life by having a close relationship with them. Involving them in their lives, creating new memories, where the parent doesn't have to take care of the child anymore, now they can simply enjoy each other's company -- and THAT is how adult children show appreciation and love back. But she doesn't see it..

I have had plenty conversations where I have been hung up on because I refuse to let her 'go there' in our conversations. I tell her "Mom, MOM.. I don't want to talk about any of that.. let's talk about life now" and before you know it, she's talking about a present day scenario but citing parallels to situations that have happened in the past where she was 'walked all over'.

In the past, when we'd have these kinds of conversations -- I would feel guilty about it for weeks. I would feel like I was a terrible child, that I was hard on her, that I was maybe judgemental, that I owed her an apology. Today, I hang up angry, take a deep breath and then remind myself I have a good life and get on with my day. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for her. She will tell everyone for weeks about how awful I was to her on the phone and it only fuels her pity parties. So -- we barely talk.

I feel bad for her because 4 out of her 5 daughters do not have meaningful contact with her.

I wish there was a way she would just wake up and live a happy life.

Are there any support groups online that can help children of martyr parents cope?

tobe October 21, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Wow, these stories sound exactly like my husband, a great starter, terrible finisher. I had finally started putting the pieces together in the last year. It dawned on me that there are some jobs that most people would rather not do, do poorly, or not finish, but every job, every project, every thought? Now I realize it exactly for what it is, avoidance. That mind numbing jumble of chaos always surrounding him that he created to look busy, doing a good job, being a "good" boy was just that, avoidance to any true quality time, any feeling of completion, and true comfort in a job well done. I too get the debates and name calling and deflection. I was recently concerned with his lack of care when I fell ill. It was nothing major, but there was no affection, no thoughtfulness, just the occasional "need anything?". I finally asked him (after he asked me what was wrong!) what were his thoughts about taking care of me when I get old? His response was flustered and I could see the desperation at finding the right answer because it was obvious he hadn't given it any thought. The answer that was blurted out was, "I'll be dead by then". I let that answer lay as I was confused, stunned, incredibly hurt and in no position to take the next conversation being turned on me and the inevitable "well you do this all the time" defensive maneuver, BUT, he definitely knew I was NOT ok with that response. His relief was palpable as I left the room.

What I have found to help is leading the projects. I give up letting him get to it "when he can". His perspective of time is all his own and will say anything regarding how long it will take to accomplish something, as long as it fits his time table, no one else's. So, I jump in. Whether I know how to do something or not, I pick up whatever tool I think might be useful and get started. This has worked every time I have tried it. After some time, I'll see the wheels turning to abandon what is present and that's when I gently encourage completion, or just don't stop! Ironically, every single time, the project is complete within a tiny length of time compared to the entire time spent on the project, for example, a four hour project came to a stall within 20 minutes of completion...figure that one out! It happens every time...the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel scares him away, but I think means that he can no longer hold this project between him and anything he's trying to avoid.

I don't know all the answers, but I do know love will keep you in places far longer than you expected, because if I didn't love him, I'da been gone a long time ago. He's a good man, that's for sure. I'm enormously relieved to believe more and more daily that this is what makes him "tick". I try different ways to commuicate based on this fact and the quirks that he has developed and they seem to yield better results. I've even told him I think this is what kind of person he is, his response(?), at first he thought I was flattering him (go figure!), then as I explained he became defensive, (go figure again!), so my guess is he will never truly admit or succumb to any self improvement, why would he? ...its all my fault!!! 🙂 But I made a commitment to be married to him and that's what I intend to do, for better or worse... now that I can see his soft underbelly (his worse!) for what it is, I can hopefully try to make things between us better.

Wes October 25, 2010 at 12:31 am


Congrats on finding ways to work with and help your Husband! I wish the two of you a long, happy marriage!

Michelle October 24, 2010 at 9:49 pm

My husband has told me that I have a martyr complex. I'm not sure, but if I do, I want to change but I don't know how. I don't know what things I do or how I do them is problematic. This may sound odd, but how does one see the martyr complex in themselves? I'm thinking about seeing a counselor but will it help?

Wes October 25, 2010 at 12:58 am


There's a difference between being a Martyr and having a Martyr Complex. A Martyr is someone who suffers needlessly for others: they volunteer long hours, do all the work themselves, take on more than they can handle, and then sacrifice their wants and needs so they can keep going.

Someone with a Martyr Complex doesn't suffer or sacrifice themselves. Instead, they blame others for their problems. Everything is ALWAYS someone else's fault.

If the kids are stranded, it's your Husband's fault (even if he's out of town and couldn't possibly be there to pick them up), or the fault of someone from your carpool (even if it's definitely YOUR turn to drive). If you lock yourself out of the house, someone else is to blame and (more importantly) someone else needs to change so that you don't get locked out. If your work isn't done on time, it's someone else's fault.

That's what defines someone with the Martyr Complex. Avoiding responsibility isn't part of their life, it IS their life. So if finding someone to blame is more important than dealing with problems, you might have the Martyr Complex.

If this is you, and you see yourself doing anything to keep from accepting responsibility, you can get help from those who love you. You can ask your Husband to gently remind you when you're dodging responsibility, and/or looking for someone to blame.

You can also keep an eye on yourself, reminding yourself that he's not trying to hurt you. He's trying to help you. He's not being callous or insensitive. He's trying to help you accept your problems as your own so that you can deal with them.

If this applies to you, remember that there is hope. You can find a balance between being a Martyr who assumes responsibility for everything, and having the Martyr Complex who avoids responsibility. Those who love you can't force you to achieve a healthy balance, but will help as much as you let them.

If you'd like to seek counseling, by all means, go ahead and do so. I suggest that you pick one yourself, as a first step toward accepting responsibility for your life. There is also the possibility that it's your Husband with the Martyr Complex, and that he's blaming you for everything that goes wrong. This makes it all the more important for you to choose who you go to receive counseling.

I hope you come back here often to keep us informed of your situation. We're all rooting for your success.

Missn October 26, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I have posted on this site before because I have had problems with the martyr complex in the past and have come to understand that it is a symptom of low self esteem. It is like trying to make ourselves look important to cover our flaws, but that is not the answer. Real esteem comes from being genuine and now I know that when we are doing the martyr thing, it is just something we are doing to feel better about ourselves, but it is not real and it doesn't help the other person. It is part of our struggle with the ego which is not the real thing.

Bess October 30, 2010 at 11:32 pm

I think my husband has this problem. He will set me up for a fall every time and no matter which way I step, I fall. He will say, what would you like to do today. I say, oh anything, what would you like to do. Then he says, no I don't have any plans, what do you want to do. It will go on like that until I say something like Oh well, we could go to the pool. Even if this is his favourite thing to do, some time later will come the, we always do what you want to do. Why are you so selfish. Then another time I might say lets go fishing, knowing that he enjoys fishing but he will say, its too cold/hot/dark/bright/wet/wrong season etc etc. Then he complains that we never go fishing and why don't I suggest an outing sometime. Why is it up to him. etc etc on and on it goes. This is a lose lose situation but I am learning to keep my mouth shut.

He goes on about how he used to be wealthy but isn't now and work is now so hard and where does all the money go. He buys cars and trucks and all sorts of things he never uses again but still the lack of money is my fault. He leaves all his tools about the yard till they are rusty and useless and then complains he has no tools so can't do any jobs that require them.

He also tells lies which he says are teaching examples. I no longer believe a word he says and try not to give any opinions at all. He bought a car recently and said I was not to drive it as it was his baby. Then he decided he didn't like it so all of a sudden it was always his intention for the car to be mine. All so he could buy another one.

He is a trained psychologist so thinks he is infallible. What can I do?

Olivia December 26, 2010 at 2:07 am

I think my step-mother has this problem. She is twenty years younger than my dad, who is elderly and has dementia. Her life is difficult with him, but the issues started long before my dad was in his present state. She bad-mouths me and my efforts to talk to my Dad. Nothing I do is right, even when I try to do something nice. All I get is blame. If I call Dad, I get blamed (in the background) for never calling him. My internet ordered Christmas present was never delivered, and when I called my dad to ask him if he got the gift, he then had to ask her. In the back ground she barked,"no, we got nothing. She didn't even send us a card". She tries to poison my Dad's view of me and my sister. There are no pictures of us in the house and when I send my Dad home-made gifts and photo albums she hides them so he can't be reminded of us. (Out of sight, out of mind, when you have dementia.) Once she asked me why I was trying to keep her from what she wanted. What is that about? I lived at the time, fifty miles away and only saw them when I invited them over for holidays or special occasions. We never got invited back.
She recently had a "breakdown" in which she complained to my dad's brothers that
my dad needed to go into a home. My Dad gets more confused when there is stress.
She drove two hours to the brother's house and then spent the night, cried the whole time and claimed there was no relief for her. She got the brothers to grill my dad who was unresponsive (confused). She got one brother to call my sister suggesting he be put in a home. The brothers are 90, retired physicians. My sister, who still speaks to the witch to remain in contact with my dad, suggested she look into a day-care center for my dad so she could get some relief. She had every excuse in the book why that wouldn't work.
She doesn't want to solve problems, only whine about them. She has NO friends, had another family who are now estranged from her, and has never had children of her own. (She would have made a real mess of that).
She has been married to my dad for about 15 years and has spent that time trying to make my dad totally dependent on her, which she often reminds us of, then complains we don't do enough.
I live nine hours away from them, my sister is a two-day drive away. We can't be of help on a daily basis. Occasionally she puts my dad on a plane and sends him to my sister for a few weeks. I think this last August was his last trip flying alone. I flew out to my sister's to see him.
I had a long conversation with her two years ago in which she promised to try harder. I had offered to take my dad anytime. A few weeks after that she sent me an email suggesting when I should take him the next week. I wrote her back explaining
I couldn't at that moment, as I was running back and forth between two homes 600 miles apart, trying to sell one of them, that my dog had just died, one of my houses was infested with bats, the other had been flooded in the basement after torrential downpours, my husband was not well (bipolar and narcoleptic, and he was having a flair) and that I would be glad to keep dad after I sold a house, but just then I had all I could handle. For that I got the silent treatment, and when I called my Dad to wish him a Happy Fathers Day, she was there in the background telling my dad I was too busy to keep him, but not too busy to go on a trip (overnight) to see my son, who was filming a TV show near us.
That was the last time I spoke to her. I can't keep subjecting myself to her invective, Unfortunately if I call my dad she is always in the background saying awful things about me and my motives.
In order to not be upset by her, I need to stop calling my dad. I write to him and never hear back. He has failed a lot but he still gets up, dresses himself, helps with dishes, does word puzzles, etc. His short term memory is shot, so he asks the same questions over and over. My stepmother claims he never talks to her or wants to go anywhere with her. I can sure see why.
My question is this: How do I protect myself from her ugly accusations and still keep my dad in my life? My dad can't remember anything so phone conversations are always one-way unless he asks her questions in the background. Also, she exaggerates everything so you never know the real story. Ten years ago she told us he never called us because he could no longer dial the phone. When he is out at my sister's he dials all by himself, and a year ago he wrote me a letter while at her house which was beautifully written, made sense, with only one spelling mistake. My sister said she did not help him write it. He is 92. Who doesn't need assistance at that age?
Ok, this is an epistle, guess I need someone to talk to....
Just how should I handle the fact that she is evil and I want NO contact with her, not even to hear her in the background.
I am 57, my sister is 60. At our ages we need some empathy once in a while, too.
Any ideas for help with a hopeless martyr would be appreciated.
I also think she is a classic narcissist. What else could explain her total lack of empathy? It is always and only about her.

Debra Gray December 29, 2010 at 2:12 pm

My brother said that my Mother had a Martyr complex and I was not sure of what exactly that meant. I found this page and couldn't believe how right on the definitions actually were! She is constantly in pain or sick. She makes me feel so guilty that when I go "under her control" I find it hard to pull myself out of it. I have finally said enough is enough and have been going out more. I live with her and had been staying home with her for years not even dating for the last 7 years. I in the past 6 months have had a boyfriend, I tried bringing him over here but her behavior got worse. He has called him names and said many hurtful things yet I am the bad daughter! I have wanted to GET AWAY from her and have gone out almost every night either to his house or to a girlfriends. I stay home all day and she is either in bed, sleeping or on the couch awake and moaning .....which is most annoying.
I have health problems as well and the stress is not helping at all. I don't know what to do. She needs me to live with her. She is driving me away.
She has had this problem all of her life that I know of but it has gotten much worse as she is now in her 80's. I am aware she does have some health issues that are real but she has made up so many things over the years I don't know what to believe. She has had "imaginary" cancer several times, allergic reactions to pills, chest pains. Many times I have taken her to the emergency room and they never find anything. I have had EMS here and her problem was that she got worked up....she calmed down when they smothered her with attention. When she goes in the hospital she beams with pleasure at the attention she gets. She has had many serious health issues 35-45 years ago and loves to tell the stories to the Doctors and nurses.
She goes to doctors they give her medication for her condition ...she takes them a week then stop and says she is having a reaction or they don't work. then it is back to looking for another Doctor.
I am at my wits end. My Doctor (the family Dr. she goes to as well) says to keep going out, and that I have my hands full. NO KIDDING!
any suggestions?

Debra Gray December 29, 2010 at 2:13 pm

She has called him names.......Typing error

n February 3, 2011 at 3:48 am

Sounds a lot like munchausen syndrome to me

hockey guy February 15, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Thank you very much for this website. A lot of things make sense now. This morning when I suggested to my fiance she has these tendencies she became very angry very quickly and twisted things around to the point where I said "that doesn't even make sense". Am I in a "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink" situation? In the past I've suggested we go to a therapist together but she didn't want to do that. She has a psychology degree and there are times when she makes it clear she thinks she is better than other people. When I call her on this she backpedals and talks her way out of it saying I didn't understand what she was saying.

Missn February 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm

I was told a long time ago that I had a martyr complex which did not make any sense at the time. However, I have also figured out, many years later, that I also try to recover from a certain amount of narcissism which is an incredibly embarrassing thing to admit so I see how the martyr complex was a part of that and how it got started. I work with the behaviors as much as I can and in changing the way I am in the world...but one thing I have figured out about the martyr complex is that when we do something that is used to bolster our own self image, it isn't from the heart, so it is still part of the disorder. It is not nice...we just think it is but it isn't. Took a whole long time to get that figured out.

Toni March 2, 2011 at 12:27 pm

My MIL repeatedly tears me down. I never do things the way she would or I do them differently than her other daughter-in-law. If I actually do something with no obvious flaws she whines, "Well, I guess we all can't be as perfect as Toni." UGH! Really, there's no winning!

Last Christmas she changed the family gathering time from 10AM to 8AM. I told her no. That's important time for us and our young family on Christmas morning. For two weeks I got a call every day telling me how my actions made it so she hadn't slept a wink in days. It was the first time in 50 years she didn't have all her children together on Christmas morning and it was all my fault.

Yesterday she called requesting my 17yo son to come assist her with an important project. It was a HUGE inconvenience as I had major plans. Sending my son would leave me without help and also without a vehicle. Nevertheless, she sounded desperate and I juggled my plans. After being there six hours we called to see what was taking so long. We discovered she had simply wanted a "play date" with her grandson.

I told her how disappointed I was for lying to me. We would do anything in our power to help them! It's the first time in 20 yrs I've chastised her. She had the audacity to blame my son! A CHILD! It was all his fault because he requested weeks ago to "come hang out sometime". When I told her to accept responsibility she went on to make other excuses. She never did admit she was wrong and told me several times I was attacking her. She also told me I would no longer be her favorite. I almost laughed out loud! Favorite? Maybe favorite target. By the end of the 20 minute conversation, between moments of whining about what a failure she was as a human, she was still coming up with new excuses.

What do I do? I worried all night she'd have another heart attack and it would kill her. Looking at her life, she has no friends and most people cannot stand her. She tells outrageous stories about the cruelties others have inflicted on her. They're the same stories, but they keep getting worse! Extended family goes to great lengths to avoid her. Grandparents are were such an integral part of my life, I'd never deny my kids a relationship with her. Somehow I need to find a way to at least co-exist. Any suggestions? Right now my inclination is a formal Sit-Down with the two of us and the two of them. We each get 10-15 minutes of uninterrupted time to vent. I'm ok if she hates me. People know her enough to believe the opposite of everything she says, but If this doesn't go addressed in some way, my kids will suffer. Can you help me find a solution?

daydreamr_22 July 8, 2011 at 10:09 pm

thanks for the insightful info! I've been trying to figure some things out and this really helps!

I think this is what i'm dealing with in regards to my soon to be mother in law. I've noticed that she complains about everyone. Gets herself into situations and then blames someone else for her problems. Bless her heart, she's been thru an awful lot recently. Lost her husband to cancer, found out she had breast cancer while her hubby was dying and had to have both breasts removed etc. But she has made a bunch of bad decisions. It always ends up being someone else's fault. Or if you don't answer the phone when she calls, you hate her. She asked me to take her to an appointment and i couldn't do it (last minute of course) and she threw it in my face several months later!

Life is full of tough choices, i know this all too well. But sometimes we have to make those choices. My fiance and i are getting married in 6 weeks. We can't help that it's out of state. But my parents are paying for it and they aren't even asking her to help. They even reserved a room for her and have to pay for it.

The problem is that she is avoiding making a decision about getting a plane ticket. She doesn't have the money. We were sposed to pay for it but i said that isn't right. So we decided to buy some things from her with the understanding that she will get her ticket. Now she says 'i've never flowed before.' and she told me that she changed her mind about selling the items to us.

My point is this: either way she is going to blame us. if we buy her ticket, barter for it or maker her pay for it. If she doesn't get to go, she will blame us. And hurt her son's feelings. So i have decided that i'm not gona mention it again. she's an adult and has to make adult decisions like anyone else. We have gone over this many times and she us well aware of the situation. she will win either way. And i get this feeling that she enjoys the battle. Sounds strange but she gets some level of secondary gain out of it.

Wes July 14, 2011 at 9:25 pm

I've learned that the way to win in a war with a Martyr is to stop fighting.

Stop playing by their rules. Stop playing their game at all. Stop feeling guilty when they toss the blame around.

That doesn't mean stop loving the person, but it does mean not letting her make you feel guilty. It means learning new and healthier ways of thinking, acting, and reacting.

If your future mother-in-law can't (or won't) improve her behavior, then it's up to you to improve yours. Otherwise, you'll keep playing (and losing) her game, and risk turning into her.

Missn July 14, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I have written on this site before and will write one more time as the struggle with this condition is quite intense. I have this behavior and have for many years ever since one of my parents thanked me for coming back to save her after her divorce. She has been quite cruel when I was younger so this statement came as a shock. But that is history. In working with this condition, have tried to look for spiritual answers, trying to live and be in ways that get me in touch with our Creator and so that I work to get that relationship right instead of doing everything to please my Mom which has just about killed me anyway.
We do not need to be martyrs, that is not our job, our job is to learn how to be human. That is one of the only ways that I can work with this. It is cruel and unusual for a parent to expect a child to fullfill their needs. It is not okay for them to do that. But it is also evidence of their illness.
Take care.

Claire July 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm

My mother has always suffered from this since I remember, but I learned to deal with it or ignore it as necessary... now my/our problem is getting bigger because now I'm married and have 2 toddlers, and I can't handle it anymore. The nagging is excessive, yelling, complaining, and the martyr personality emerges to its fullest more frequently. Before, cycles were longer, but now it's almost every month for about two weeks... What can I do? I've tried everything! Even suggesting psychiatric help, and by the way, medicine doesn't work for her. She also complains about being sick all the time. I'm a doctor, and there's nothing wrong with her, but she complains about pain... which I cannot prove. I'm afraid that one day I will ignore it, and I won't help her.

Toucan July 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Tell her that if she's in that much pain, she needs a second opinion from another doctor. That you are too close to her, and don't want to miss something important. If she doesn't have health insurance, or you guys live somewhere that doesn't have good health care, don't pay for the consultations yourself. She's still leeching off of you, and if you can't pay for some reason then it's going to put you back right where you are at the moment.

Your mental health and your children come first.

Claire July 28, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I do send her to the doctor, but then she complains that I don't take her personally because I don't care, that I don't listen to her, that I'm going to find her dead one day and they I'll regret not paying attention to her. The weird thing is that once the "curve" goes away, she's fine... only to start all over again.

Claire July 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm

When I take her to the doctor and tell him/her her symptoms, she gets upset because "I see her as a senile lady with dementia" which is not the case. It's like a catch 21 thing.

Wes July 30, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Someone who has the Martyr Complex sets up the game so that no matter what you do, they win and you don't.

And the problem with the Martyr Complex is that the person setting up the game doesn't realize that no one wins. You lose no matter what you do. But they also lose.

Because the Martyr Complex, in simple terms, is passing responsibility on to others. In her eyes, you are to blame for everything that goes wrong...

All her health concerns are your fault because she wouldn't be sick if only you'd take good care of her. All her doctor visits are your fault, because she wouldn't need to go to the doctor if you'd take care of her. The doctor not finding anything wrong is your fault because you should know what you're doing.

But Claire, I'll tell you that NONE of this is your fault. None of it.

You've done all you can and it's still not enough. There may actually be something wrong with your Mother, but if you can't find anything, it's time to turn her over to the care of someone else.

There are limits to what we can and should do. We accept responsibility for our own lives, and realize that no one else is responsible for us. The same goes for your Mother.

Claire, you are NOT responsible for your Mother's problems. Her problems are HER problems, not yours.

You might wind up telling your Mother that you're sorry she's not feeling well and hopes she gets better soon, offer to do something with her, and completely avoid any talk about her medical problems.

She may insist on talking about it and state/imply that she'd get better if you'd do what you're supposed to.

But don't let her bait you back into her game. Remember that you lose anytime you play it! Let her talk all she wants about whatever she wants, but don't accept responsibility for her.

She MUST be responsible for her own problems before she can even begin to deal with them. She will probably try every trick in her arsenal to make you feel guilty enough to play her game again. Don't do it!

Whether she accepts responsibility for herself or not, it's important for YOU to set healthy boundaries and not try to take her problems and responsibilities.

Good luck, Claire. And remember, your Mom has her life, for her to live as she chooses. You also have your life, for you to live as you choose.

Your Mother may be making bad choices, but that doesn't mean you have to play her game and go along with her.

Claire July 30, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Thank you very much for your comment. I will probably have to read it again every once in a while. Thank you also for your webpage... I guess it helps all of us to vent.

Searcher July 28, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Is that what my mother has? She is 83 and every time I phone there is not one postive word, not one. Always about her last stay in the hospital, the last test, the last treatment....not one kind or uplifing word ever. Not ever. No comment about the people who come to visit her, the things others do, just a long string of negatives. After a few minutes on the phone I have to hang up because it is so depressing and she has never asked, How are you? except as an afterthought. I get scared to call. Is this normal or a normal part of aging? \what are we supposed to do?

Claire July 28, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Yes, all negative comments. It is very sad for me to think that they have all of that in their head. I tell her that she should be more positive and look at the bright side, but she tells me that I just want to shut her up. She blames me about not wanting to listen to her and that she has nobody else to talk to... but the reality is that she drives people away. She always sees the negative side of things and people. I know she sounds terrible, but like I said before, in my case, it's like a monthly phase that comes and goes suddenly. From one day to the next she transforms herself. I've also thought that she might have some bipolar disorder in addition to a major depression. She just turned 70 y/o and I have noticed that her problem gets worse whenever important dates come around. A birthday, a holiday, a party, an anniversary, and specially a death anniversary. Happy times, celebrations or sad reminders are the worst times for her.

Searcher July 29, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I have been trying to set a boundary on it and I don't know if that is the right thing to do because of her age. I have been trying to write a letter and tell her about the impact but then you don't know because they are older. It is not as though you don't care, it is just how much can we take or are we expected to take? This is the part I don't get. Sometimes I feel that I have to throw everything in the air and go there but even if I am there she doesn't really want me there anyway, I don't think. Anyway, I think the best thing to do is to write and letter and explain the impact, maybe they will understand, maybe they won't, but I know that I have spent several days depressed after one of these phone calls and that is not right. Then I think I am being codependent and need to learn how to detach but it gets very hard as they get older because I often ask my self if I am being selfish. Have trouble getting this worked out.

Claire August 2, 2011 at 11:16 pm

It's hard when you try to be a good son/daughter, yet you also need to detach yourself from your parents because of how they make you feel right? I guess we all understand how you feel. I feel the same way.

Claire August 1, 2011 at 12:25 am

I received good unexpected advice yesterday. We all know it, but I guess I just needed a reminder. Love conquers all. My new plan is to kiss my mother first thing when I see her. Regardless of her behavior. She has had a very rough and difficult life which has lead to her complex. I wish to help her, and I think love is probably the way. I refuse to give up, but I will detach my feelings from her whenever she turns into a hurtful person. I owe it to her. She took care of me when I was a baby, and adopted three children (which by the way she took in because she wanted to help them). Life and a broken heart turned her into a bitter person that suffers and memories bring her pain... now that she is 70 years old, she needs me. I pray that God will give me strength and patience, because I know I will need it. I hope that when I am an old lady, someone will have compassion of me the same I am doing for my mother now. God bless you all and wish me luck! I will post again soon.

Gwen August 3, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Hi, you mentioned in the article that you will have a future post on dealing with martyrs and levels of martyrdom. Can you post the link to the next article dealing with this? When I stumbled upon the above article, I felt much better. I live with a person who exhibits the martyr complex. When I reflect over the past 10 years we have been together, I see this complex has always been there. Over the past two months, it has gotten really bad though. I can do nothing right. He is not to blame for anything and now he sees me as an evil monster who manipulates his life. We are not married, but we have a house together. To be fair, due to political outcomes neither of us has had any control over, we have both been under a lot of stress since February. On top of that, we moved to a house in a tiny town. I'm not sure either of us was ready for this drastic change, but now we need to learn to live with it.

Missn August 29, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I have the martyr complex and I hate it. When it happens, it is like you can feel it come on right away...feeling superior...and have had no idea how to get rid of it so what I try to do is pray....just pray and pray and pray and ask God to take it away because it is not a sign of healthiness. It is the opposite and it is not nice. I know how it got started but now understand that it is basically it is a spiritual disease. If anyone has any other suggestion, would be glad to hear it because I work very hard to overcome it as I know it is not healthy or nice, contrary to the way it might feel. By the started because of a family situation that went astry....and just because a very, very unhealthy way to be in the world...thought I was being helpful but instead just became unwell...

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