• Taylor Adams, MA, LPC

The 3 M’s of Manipulation in Relationships

I was inspired to write this blog after listening to a podcast that I really enjoy - “Good for You” with comedian (author, actor, and more) Whitney Cummings.  On her podcast, she talks about some pitfalls in relationships that just-so-happen to begin with the letter “M.”

Mothering, Micromanaging, and Martyrdom

She openly admitted to engaging in some of these behaviors at different points in her life, which I think many of us can relate to.  At least, I sure can!

As a therapist, I also see some of these behaviors at play in people’s lives.  In fact, I genuinely enjoy working with people who identify with these patterns and want to work on healing the parts of themselves that cling to them.

So, let’s take a deeper look into the 3 M’s of Manipulation.

*Examples are in first-person; however, take note if you may be on the receiving end of these behaviors as well.


(Fathering or Parenting)

For those with young children, mothering is a beautiful gift which greatly enhances a child’s healthy development and secure attachment.  The key subject being children.  What happens, though, when mothering spills into adult relationships?

Mothering is one of those things that, on the outside, may appear as mere nurturing; however, with a deeper look, we can see a dangerous power dynamic at play.  The person that is doing the “mothering” is, often unconsciously, putting themselves in an authoritative position. They intentionally or unintentionally infantilize their partner through projecting incapacity, incompetence, and immaturity onto them.  This gives the mother-er a false sense of control.

So, what does mothering look like?

  • Telling your partner what they can and can’t eat, based on what you believe to be healthy choices.

  • Regularly picking out your partner’s clothes or critiquing their selection, without being asked.

  • Taking it upon yourself to schedule doctor’s appointments for them, nagging them to take their medications, etc.

  • If you have children with your partner, hesitating to leave your kids with them

  • Taking it upon yourself to memorize your partner’s itinerary and excessively making sure they’re prepared.

Although some partners allow this to happen, and maybe even enjoy it for the relief or sense of security, this is typically short-lived.  Eventually, our partners will wind up feeling disempowered and resentful.


Micromanagement is most commonly spoken about in terms of business.  In other words, micromanagement is a management style whereby a manager tightly observes and controls their subordinates.  Generally, micromanagement is viewed in a negative light as it limits creativity and freedom in the workplace.  Now, imagine applying these characteristics to a relationship. Yikes! Similar to mothering, people who micromanage their partners do so for a [false] sense of control.  Many times, these individuals have experienced heartbreaking betrayal or abandonment in their past; they unconsciously believe that if they limit their partner’s freedom of expression and individuality, they’ll be able to prevent themselves from experiencing pain.

What micromanaging might involve:

  • Telling your partner that they loaded the dishwasher incorrectly, and reloading it, instead of acknowledging them doing it at all

  • Needing to know your partner’s whereabouts 24/7

  • Instead of accepting gifts that your partner gets you, you instruct them on what to get and where to get it from

  • You go through your partner’s belongings, including phone and computer

  • “Allowing” your partner to have certain friends while discouraging their contact with others

  • You notify your partner when they’re wearing the “wrong” color, driving in the “wrong” lane, eating the “wrong” way, etc.

  • Instead of agreeing upon a financial budget together, you dictate what your partner buys as well as reprimand them when they make small purchases (like, a snack)

Even when people feel a degree of control through their micromanaging behaviors, the constant nagging and disapproval typically backfire, leaving them in the position they’ve been avoiding - alone.


Relationship martyrs generally view themselves as victims whose partners repeatedly disappoint them.  They bend over backward for their partner, yet never fully feel like they receive enough appreciation.  On the surface, these people seem heroic because they willingly take on suffering and struggles in the name of their relationship; however, deep down, relationship martyrs are angry and resentful.  Martyrdom behaviors are used to unconsciously manipulate their partners into “seeing their goodness” and therefore, not abandoning them.  They often keep a mental tally of the things that they do for their partner so that they can later throw it in their face.  There is an underlying desire to prove that they are “good;” meanwhile, they inadvertently “set-up” situations in which they can be a victim.  They operate on this belief that “suffering is the cost of love.”

Here are some examples of martyrdom in relationships:

  • You constantly feel like your relationship is disappointing you

  • You believe that if only your partner would change their behaviors, everything would be “fixed”

  • It’s rare that you have effective, direct communication with your partner, yet you’ll repeatedly discuss all their issues with other people who have no control (friends, family, etc.).  You want others on your side

  • You do nothing wrong.  In fact, you believe you’re a noble sufferer

  • When real solutions for your struggles are presented to you, you quickly reject them

  • While it may be true that you’ve experienced some hurtful situations in your relationship, you refuse to own any responsibility in creating or allowing it

  • You will go through mental gymnastics in order to justify why you must continue suffering

There is a paradox at play with relationship martyrs; they desperately long for love while simultaneously attract in people and situations that are incapable of giving it to them.  Underneath martyr behaviors lie many issues with self-esteem, self-worth, and depression. In most cases, these individuals have experienced trauma in their childhood, often in the form of emotional and/or physical abuse.  Their adult maladaptive behaviors were once childhood solutions.

Before we begin self-diagnosing, allow me to reveal that most people have engaged in mothering, micromanaging, and/or martyrdom behaviors at times in their relationships to varying degrees.  When these behaviors become chronic, though, that’s when it’s imperative to address them. If we want to move in the direction of self-growth and promote healthy, functioning relationships, we must look inward and own our shadows.