Self-Sabotaging Relationships: What To Do And How To Avoid Them

Why is it that when we’re on our own, all we want is to be in a loving, caring relationship with someone who gets us, but when we finally get that seemingly perfect partner, we can’t help but ruin the whole thing?

We say things we don’t mean, obsess over silly, insignificant things, entertain catastrophic thoughts and worries, and sometimes go so far as to hurt our romantic partner. We end up sabotaging our relationships, only to feel alone once again and continue the cycle.

In this article, we’ll uncover why so many of us end up self-sabotaging relationships. There are many reasons why we do this, but we’ll explore some of the most common reasons in detail. We’ll also offer some practical tips and advice to help you recognize and cut back on self-sabotaging behaviors and save, maintain, and even improve your current and future relationships.

What is self-sabotage?

Cambridge Dictionary defines the verb ‘sabotage’ as ‘to prevent the success of a plan or action intentionally.’ Self-sabotage, then, may be defined as the intentional disruption or ‘prevention of success’ regarding aspects of our personal lives. We self-sabotage in many ways, including our career and our health, but this destructive behavior is often most apparent in our relationships.

The dictionary definition of sabotage claims that the behavior is intentional. When it comes to intimate relationships, one might want to disagree. It often seems as though sabotage of a relationship is something out of our control. Of course, we want the relationship to work out, and we wouldn’t intentionally ruin it, but something gets in the way, and we can’t help but watch it all fall apart.

Is self-sabotaging intentional?

It might be hard to admit, but much of our self-sabotage is, in fact, intentional. The question you need to ask is, ‘whose intention is it?’ On one level, you want the relationship to work out, but on another, deeper level, there’s a part of you that feels uncomfortable, confused, or frightened and wants nothing more than for the relationship to end. This is the ‘you’ that’s setting the intention to sabotage the relationship, and it is this part of yourself that you must try to heal if you want it to stop this behavior from negatively impacting your life.

Signs of relationship self-sabotage

If you’re just beginning to understand that your behavior in your intimate relationship is destructive and self-sabotaging, check out some of the most common signs of self-sabotage below. Learning to recognize these signs can help you become even more vigilant regarding your behavior.

Lack of communication

Are you intentionally avoiding important conversations? Do you get the sense that an honest and emotional chat is necessary, but you really don’t want it? Have you stopped sharing the details of your life with your partner and stopped caring about their details?

Communication is a fundamental aspect of healthy, happy, and fulfilling relationships. One of the first signs of deterioration in a relationship and a common self-sabotaging behavior is a reduction in the amount of honest and open communication partners engage in.

It can be tricky to navigate relationships at the best of times – your partner is a whole other person who had an entirely separate life before you two met, including other partners, their unique family background, and joys and sorrows you’ll never know about.

As such, the best way for partners to stay connected and remain on the same page throughout the ups and downs of their relationship is to be open to communication. When something inside you is reluctant to continue the relationship, such as your unresolved trauma or your low self-esteem, communication is one of the first things to fall away. It’s as though you no longer want to add wood to the fire of the relationship, so you stop. You starve it of a fuel source, so it will eventually extinguish.

Cheating

Cheating on one’s partner is an extremely dishonest behavior. It causes a lot of emotional pain, which can last for a long time and bleed into that person’s future intimate relationships.

Sure, some couples have an agreement that they can sleep with who they like, and that won’t impact the relationships, but if you’re in a monogamous relationship and you cheat on your partner, then you’re doing a great disservice to them as well as to yourself.

Cheating is done in secret. One partner goes behind the other’s back and has an affair. Since it’s done in secret, it might seem that the cheating person doesn’t want their partner to find out.

However, as is often the case, deep down, the cheater really does want the partner to find out. They want them to find out so that out of respect for oneself, the partner will end the relationship. The cheater might feel guilty and even apologize, but they feel relieved because they don’t have to be the one who actually ends the relationship.

self-sabotaging relationships

Why do we self-sabotage our relationships?

As mentioned above, there are many reasons why people self-sabotage relationships, and most of these reasons stem from feelings of fear and discomfort. We may be dealing with unresolved issues such as trauma that manifests as insecurity and low self-esteem and engage in sabotaging our behavior as a means of protecting ourselves from further pain.

Low self-esteem

When we suffer from low self-esteem, we think poorly of ourselves. We are not confident and self-assured, but instead self-critical, even self-loathing. We can’t see our inherent self-worth and deep down belief that we are not worthy of happiness and love.

Low self-esteem can lead to the belief that we are unworthy of a loving and caring, committed relationship. When we find ourselves in such a relationship, we think it’s a fluke or that our partner doesn’t really know us and is sure to eventually feel disappointed, bored, or just plain sick of us when they finally see our true selves. We struggle with impostor syndrome because we think that our partner views us positively, but that view would be darkened if they knew what we were really like.

Living with low self-esteem is challenging. It makes it hard to engage in healthy relationships and other aspects of our lives, such as our career and our health. With low self-esteem, you believe that you’re unworthy, useless, or a fraud, and, as such, you’ll likely struggle to find the motivation to pursue things that interest you. You might believe that you’re bound to fail or be rejected, so you don’t bother to try.

How does low self-esteem manifest in relationships?

Low self-esteem leads to self-sabotaging behaviors in relationships. Suppose we believe that we are unworthy of the love, care, and affection that comes with a committed and intimate relationship.

In that case, we typically experience a lot of stress and worry that our partner is going to leave us. We imagine how overwhelmingly upsetting and difficult it would be if we were rejected or abandoned, so we get out ahead and sabotage the relationship. It’s a way of ending the relationship on our own terms so that we don’t have the feel of the deep and uncomfortable pain of rejection and abandonment.

Trauma

Low self-esteem typically stems from traumatic experiences in childhood. The word trauma is used to define events that overwhelm our ability to cope and have a lasting negative impact on our lives and is often used in the context of war veterans and survivors of sexual abuse. It’s important to understand that trauma can impact anyone – you don’t have to be a war veteran or a survivor of sexual abuse to suffer from the effects of trauma.

Trauma can happen to anyone of any age, but it is particularly damaging to children. Children are more vulnerable to trauma because they are still developing in so many areas of their life, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Traumatic events, which cause a significant amount of toxic stress to an individual, can disrupt a child’s normal, healthy development and create issues that last well into adulthood.

How parental neglect creates trauma

One type of trauma is neglectful parenting. If a parent inconsistently meets their child’s needs for care and affection, as well as more basic needs like food and shelter, the child learns that they are not worthy of those things.

They don’t get the chance to learn trust and hope, the virtues of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Instead, they develop what is known as an insecure attachment style, one of four attachment styles researched and expanded upon by psychologists John Bowlby and later Mary Ainsworth.

Insecure attachment styles (‘anxious’ and ‘avoidant’) make it hard to trust others. An adult child of inconsistent parenting never learned to trust the word as a safe place and instead became fearful, leading them to take on adaptive coping styles to help them get through life and projections of fear that originates in the parent/child but now manifests in adulthood within the person’s own relationship with a romantic partner.

If a parent was neglectful, the child may have felt rejected and abandoned. In their adult life, this child would feel compelled to do all they can from having to revisit these feelings, so they might sabotage their relationships to prevent that from happening. Self-sabotage, though seemingly against our wishes, actually serves to protect us from the pain of an unhealed wound.

Difficult past relationships

Some of us are so used to putting up with toxic partners that being in a toxic relationship feels like the norm. Jealousy, emotional abuse, and even physical violence come to be expected, and we stay on high alert, walk on eggshells, and suppress important parts of ourselves just to keep things running smoothly.

It’s important to be honest with yourself if you think you’re in a toxic relationship and do whatever you can to get out of it. Still, understand that physically leaving a toxic relationship is not the same as emotionally leaving. The process of emotionally detaching from a difficult and hurtful relationship can take a long time, and issues and reminders of the pain you experience inside the relationship can resurface even years later. 

It’s crucial to do some honest self-exploration and see where you’re still stuck in the past. Some of us are so used to having problems and unhealthy behaviors in our relationship that we feel confused when we enter a relationship without those things.

We’re still vigilant and hyper-alert for danger, but this partner is not abusive, not emotionally immature, and only has our best interests at heart. We almost expect things to take a turn for the worse sooner or later and may even go so far as to create problems just to get a sense of familiarity.

How do I stop self-sabotaging relationships?

It can take a long time to notice and be honest about self-sabotaging behavior in your romantic relationships, so if you’ve recognized this destructive behavior in yourself, you’re already on the right track to overcoming it.

Learning how to stop self-sabotaging and instead have a healthy relationship might take some time and some conscious inner work, but don’t let that deter you. The rewards of working on yourself to become a better partner, and a better person in general, far outweigh the cost of doing the work in the first place.

Know yourself

Sometimes we self-sabotage our relationships because we don’t dare to be assertive and simply end it with honesty. We don’t want to hurt our partner, but we do so indirectly and even subconsciously anyway. If you’re in a relationship that you don’t want to be in, take the mature approach and share your feelings with your partner.

Even better, know yourself enough to choose a partner wisely. Understand your attachment style, and be curious about your partner’s attachment style. Really get to know them before you jump into a relationship, and give both of you time to experience what being together is like without committing too quickly. Give yourselves time to experience each other, and then reflect on that experience.

Try not to fall into the trap of committing to a relationship because it’s a source of immediate gratification. Figure out what works for you in a relationship, what doesn’t, and what type of relationship or person you would feel most comfortable with regarding commitment and emotional vulnerability.

Heal your wounds

If you recognize that fear of rejection and abandonment or the echoing memory of a difficult past relationship is making you act and behave in ways that are detrimental to your current relationships. Then to stop acting in those distinctive ways, you’ll need to revisit those unhealed wounds and finally heal them.

self-sabotaging relationships

Reach out for support

Healing your past wounds is not always going to be easy and may be incredibly challenging in some cases. However, understand that you don’t need to go through the healing process alone. Reach out to friends and family who can offer you a safe space to discuss what’s really going on with you.

If you do reach out to a friend or family member, choose wisely. Try speaking to someone who has exhibited mature behavior in the past or who you think may be able to relate to what you’re going through. Make sure they have the capacity to listen, too. It may be that some of your friends or relatives have their own struggles that compromise the ability to offer you the support you need.

Speak to a professional

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to friends or family about your past, your fears, your insecurities, and whatever else is making you self-sabotage your relationships, don’t be afraid to speak to a therapist or counselor.

Therapy and counseling are not just for people who have a diagnosed mental illness. Many people who attend therapy do not struggle with mental illness but simply struggle with issues and concerns in their daily life that are confusing or overwhelming.

A therapist can help you identify and address unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior that are leading you into a cycle of relationship self-sabotage. They can offer you a safe space to uncover and explore your fears and insecurities and guide you on how to deal with those feelings in healthy ways. Seeking out support for issues that are impacting your emotional well-being is a radical act of self-love that you will not regret.

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