Many of us struggle to make love work, and a common reason for that is self-sabotaging in our relationships. Diane Arbus states, “Love involves a peculiar unfathomable combination of understanding and misunderstanding.”
It can feel deeply distressing and painful to struggle with self-sabotage in relationships because we are relational beings and often want deep intimacy but find ourselves feeling blocked from having that very desire.
The problem, as Dr. Ron Frederick explains in his book “Loving like you mean it,” is that many people’s brains are running on outdated programming.
Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist, and health service psychologist, validates Dr. Federick stating that relationship challenges often have deep roots.
This article discusses what self-sabotage in relationships is and why it happens.
You will learn how to spot the signs of self-sabotage and get practical solutions to stop self-sabotaging from destroying your relationship.
The intention is that you get the deeper intimacy and love you desire and deserve.
What is self-sabotaging in relationships?
Self-sabotaging in relationships is when you unconsciously behave in a manner that moves you further away from an intimate connection with your partner.
In many cases, when somebody has self-sabotaging thoughts, behaviors, and actions, it leads to them sabotaging their own happiness in addition to the happiness of those they love.
Self-sabotaging is a destructive behavior in relationships. People experience self-sabotage in both long and short-term relationships. This unhealthy dynamic can take place in an isolated relationship or form part of a collection of multiple relationships (self-sabotaging relationship patterns).
For the sake of our sanity, health, happiness, and well-being, it is highly important that we educate ourselves on what to do when somebody is self-sabotaging in a relationship.
We must learn how to stop self-sabotaging behavior before it destroys our relationships.
Related Reading: How is Scorekeeping Sabotaging Relationships
Why do people self-sabotage in relationships?
Many of us have been there. We have told people things like, “It just did not work out, we weren’t aligned, we wanted different things, it was the wrong time,” knowing deep down tht the truth was that we pushed the person we once loved away with self-sabotaging behavior.
It’s a story of self-sabotaging relationship patterns that many of us desperately want to escape.
A big influencer of self-sabotaging behavior in relationships is our relationship attachment style.
In their book “Attached,” Amir Levine, M.D and Rachel S.F Heller.M.A. explains the differences between secure, anxious, and avoidant relationship attachment styles and provides some clarity on why some people self-sabotage in relationships.
Our relationship attachment style is our brain’s blueprint wiring for how we behave, act, and think, both in times of joy and stress. It is often set in the early years of our childhood. However, depending on life experiences and choices, our attachment styles can change in adulthood.
Roughly 50% of people have a secure attachment style. People with secure attachments don’t tend to engage in self-destructive behavior in relationships as often. This is because they have a more innate sense of comfort, clarity, and ease with their emotions.
What about the other 50%, I hear you ask. Well, you may have guessed that half of our population has either an anxious or avoidant attachment style.
Having an anxious or avoidant attachment style often increases the chances of self-sabotaging thoughts. This is because someone with an anxious attachment style can quite often slip into irrational thinking, mistrust,and jealousy at times as they unconsciously don’t feel they have enough information to feel safe.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style, on the other hand, may have an unconscious fear of intimacy, and so will find themselves in self-sabotaging relationship patterns.
Beyond our attachment styles, past traumas have a huge impact on how we relate.
Cambridge Journal of Relationships Research found that negative past experiences could cause low self-esteem and feeling afraid of being hurt or rejected.
Trauma can cause people to start self-sabotaging thoughts and self-destructive behavior.
So, how to stop self-sabotaging in relationships despite these challenges?
Let’s start by going deeper into understanding what is self-sabotaging behavior on a practical level by reviewing some of the signs.
5 reasons people self-sabotage in relationship
Self-sabotage in relationships can take many forms and can have a variety of underlying causes. Here are five reasons people may engage in self-sabotage in their relationships:
- Some people have a deep-seated fear of emotional intimacy and vulnerability, which can cause them to push away or sabotage a relationship when it starts to feel too close.
- People who feel insecure about themselves or their worth may engage in behaviors that undermine their relationships, such as constantly seeking reassurance or becoming overly jealous and possessive.
- Traumatic experiences, such as abuse or neglect in childhood, can create patterns of self-sabotage in relationships as a way of protecting oneself from further pain and rejection.
- People who have a fear of failure may engage in self-sabotage as a way of avoiding the possibility of being hurt or rejected by a partner.
- Unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment and frustration in relationships, which may cause someone to engage in self-sabotaging behaviors as a way of coping with their disappointment.
15 signs of self-sabotage in a relationship
What is self-sabotaging behavior? Are you sabotaging your relationship? Let’s find out.
Here are 15 signs that represent self-sabotaging in a relationship
Criticisms reduce motivation and energy in relationships.
Have you ever felt like you or your partner were nitpicking about almost everything? You might wonder, “Am I self-sabotaging my relationship?”
If you or your partner are constantly talking about what is wrong and never talking about what is right, you could be involved in self-sabotaging relationship patterns.
Related Reading: Critical Spouse Signs and How to Deal With It
There’s a reason why we have the saying, “It takes 2 to tango”. Blaming usually creates emotional distance. When somebody focuses on the other person being wrong, not only do they reject their own role in the relationship, but they expose their partner to potential feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy.
Nobody wants to be with someone they feel inadequate with. Be honest, do you share responsibility in times of challenge, or does it usually feel most important that you’re right and they are wrong?
Related Reading: Why Blaming Your Partner Won’t Help
“You’re too sensitive. I don’t remember saying that, so it can’t be true”
Do these phrases come up often? Is there a feeling of regular self-doubt?
Gaslighting is highly destructive and can lead to disbalance in the relationship. It is also one of the toxic traits in the relationship and should be checked in the first place, if one partner resorts to gaslighting to have their way in the relationship.
Related Reading: Gaslighting in Relationships and Ways to Deal With It
We all want to be heard.
Do you and your partner let each other speak, or do you speak over one another?
Lack of room to speak can create a ripple effect where one of you feels there’s no space in the relationship. So, take turns in the argument, or even during normal conversations. Listen as much as you talk to keep the conversation balanced.
You’ve probably heard about the silent treatment.
Do you or your partner drop off the face of the earth and ignore communications when times get tough and expect to understand?
This is an unhealthy, destructive communication pattern that leaves you both unclear on where you stand. Ghosting also adds more stress and heartbreak.
Related Reading: How to Deal With Being Ghosted in a Relationship
This comes down to more than marital affairs and sex.
Do you or your partner turn to others outside of the relationship to fulfill your emotional needs?
Cheating on your partner, whether it is emotional, physical, or both, is a form of self-destructive behavior in relationships that usually results in you sabotaging your own happiness.
Related Reading: Common Causes of Infidelity in Relationships
7. Addictive/compulsive behavior
Compulsive addictive style behavior is not easy to be around because it’s often rigid and narrows the room for connection.
Do you or your partner channel your energy into ‘things’ such as games, cleaning, drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, and work in a way that does not leave much time to connect?
8. Clingy codependency
Codependency is when we become so dependent on a person it’s like an addiction. Do you and your partner have your own personal space? Is there any mystery in your relationship?
If the answer is no, then you need to set some healthy ground rules to establish healthy interdependence.
Related Reading: Are You In A Codependent Relationship Quiz
9. Projected jealousy
The green-eyed monster, we all feel it sometimes. What we do with it is another question. Do you or your partner make each other feel bad for receiving positive attention from others?
It’s normal for people to find you/your partner attractive, and as long as you both respect and work together on your relationship, you should not let jealousy consume you.
Related Reading: How to Deal with Jealousy in Relationships
10. Withholding sex & touch
Do you or your withdraw affection, touch, or sex when triggered? Using sex as bait is a dangerous game to play and can often entangle with one partner committing infidelity. Intimacy is an important aspect of the relationship and should not be turned into a game of manipulations.
Instead, use it to get close to your partner and establish a stronger bond.
Also, watch this video to learn why we tend to sabotage love:
11. You find yourself pushing your partner away more and more often
This could be due to a feeling of insecurity or boredom in your relationship. If you’re finding it harder and harder to connect with your partner, it may be time to rethink things. Ask yourself whether you’re falling into a pattern of behavior that’s keeping you from moving forward as a couple.
12. You keep finding new reasons to argue with your spouse
Arguments are a part of every relationship. The key is to make sure you’re doing so constructively and respectfully.
If you find yourself arguing about the same things over and over again, you may need to step back and reevaluate how you’re approaching the issue. Don’t give up completely — just try not to let your frustration get the best of you.
13. You keep finding yourself playing the victim
In order to maintain a healthy relationship, you need to be an active participant in the relationship. Being passive and allowing your partner to make all the decisions isn’t going to help anyone in the lowithdrawalTry to be more proactive about your relationship — communication is key!
14. You don’t put effort into the relationship
If you’ve been dating for a while, there’s a good chance that both of you have changed over time. You find yourself growing apart from one another and finding less and less to talk about — when that happens, it’s usually a sign that something needs to change.
15. Your partner seems to be drifting away from you
If someone you care about stops making an effort to be with you, it can be incredibly painful. Sometimes people push us away because they can’t bear the pain that comes with staying in a relationship that isn’t working for them anymore.
Don’t take it personally — they might just need some time to figure things out on their own.
Why is self-sabotage in relationships a big issue?
Even when people recognize the signs of self-sabotaging in relationships, they may have difficulty making changes. You may wonder, “why do I self-sabotage relationships?” This is due to the neurological wiring of the brain. The brain is designed to keep us safe from the unknown.
For many people’s brains and nervous systems, self-sabotaging relationship patterns are familiar and healthy. Happy relationships are unfamiliar.
Therefore, self-sabotaging in relationships is a huge issue because, even if somebody recognizes the signs of self-destructive behavior in relationships and understands what to do when someone is sabotaging a relationship, they can remain stuck in self-sabotaging relationship patterns.
Without deciding to stop self-sabotaging and doing the necessary things for it to happen, people destroy their own happiness repeatedly. As time goes on, they may become lonely through the lack of ability to maintain healthy, secure, loving relationships.
If people have the desire to have children, this can add additional emotional pressure to their lives. This is because conceiving children is usually considered a time-sensitive life experience that requires consistency, clarity, and definitely intimate connection.
If people have children, then their inability to stop self-sabotaging behavior can have negative consequences on the child’s development.
If you know deep down you are self-sabotaging in your relationships, now is the time to stop self-sabotaging behavior and to find out what to do when someone is sabotaging the relationship. This will allow you to reclaim the relationship happiness that you deserve.
Check out the “self-sabotaging in a relationship” quiz, and the following information acts as good practice for us all.
How to stop sabotaging your relationship- 11 ways
Now you’ve learned how and why people self-sabotage, here are ten practical ways to kick self-sabotaging in relationships to the curb and gain deeper intimacy.
1. Admit it
Take responsibility, and develop an attitude in your relationship where improvement is normal and okay. There is nothing wrong with you; in love, the best thing we can hope for in love is two imperfect people coming together and continually trying our best.
As Kate Stewart says in her book “Loving the white liar”. The perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other”
It’s okay to admit you have been self-sabotaging, but it’s not okay to let it destroy your life. You deserve so much more!
2. Observe yourself
Know your triggers, learn about your attachment style and what your behavioral patterns are, especially when things become uncomfortable.
Marriage and family therapist Shadeen Francis suggests journaling about the experiences in your relationship. Ask yourself: What did I feel? What was I afraid of? What do I want/need? What would be helpful?
Meditation helps rewire the brain’s patterns. It can help you to replace destructive thoughts with healthy ones that serve your relationship.
Many people find guided meditations like this one by Jason Stephenson really helpful. Doing a regular meditation practice can also help you communicate in a calmer way.
Related Reading: How Meditation Affects Relationships
4. Talk about it
Speak to a trusted friend that won’t judge you negatively. Even better, hire a professionally trained coach or therapist who is experienced in relationships.
The more you open up, the more possible it is to get support because people have insight into what you’re experiencing and from there can offer solutions.
5. Let go
Don’t hold grudges. Your energy is better spent.
Use movement to calm and destress your nervous system.
Shake your body, dance, and more.
Try EFT with Dr Kim D’Eramo.
You can also try vagus nerve exercises and mindful singing to release stress from the body.
6. Discover love languages
Love languages are the way both you and your partner give and receive love. When we understand this, we can create safety in relationships. When we feel safe, we are less likely to engage in destructive behavior.
You can take Dr. Gary Chapman’s online Love language quiz to gain fast insight that will support you.
Related Reading: How to Use the Love Languages in a Healthy Way
7. Mirror Work
Take a good look in the mirror, and speak positive words.
Building your self-esteem is an important part of developing your self-care and self-compassion. It is from this place of self-love you can feel safer in your relationships and reduce sabotaging behavior.
Here’s a video to help you get started with mirror work.
8. Work out your non-negotiables
In the words of Meatloaf, “I will do anything for love, but I just won’t do that”. We all have things that we simply won’t do or can’t stand. Take time to learn what is really important to you.
Occasionally choose something to do or somewhere to go alone to explore the more hidden parts of yourself. Understanding your and your partner’s non-negotiables is critical for deeper intimacy. It provides an understanding of what will create relationship satisfaction.
9. Connection before correction
Connection creates openness. Lecturing/nagging can lead to a stress response.
One of my favorite examples of “connection before correction” is, “I love you, and the answer is no.” If blaming or criticism is a regular theme for you, try to find ways to connect as a priority.
Remember, this is about shared responsibility and moving away from sabotage and towards intimacy.
10. Ditch expectations
“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”—Henry Winkler.
Make agreements with your partner, don’t expect them to act how you want or read your mind. Make agreement talks a regular habit. Perhaps set up a regular date night to discuss agreements on how you will add even more joy into your relationship, and how you will commit to developing yourselves.
Related Reading: Relationship Expectations – What Should You Do with These?
11. Turn to self-reflection & therapy
Relationships are not always easy, so be patient. Feel proud of yourself for reading this article and taking a step towards developing greater intimacy in your relationship.
Self-sabotage is fixable with self-reflection, therapy, and tools, but it’s important to remember you don’t have to do everything alone. In fact, in most cases, professional support is hugely beneficial as it can offer an objective view.
More questions on self-sabotaging in relationships
Watch out for common signs of self-destructive behavior in your relationships and ask yourself if you’re throwing blocks in the way to avoid discomfort.
Check out these questions on self-sabotaging in relationships
Do depressed people self-sabotage?
Depression is a serious mental illness that can lead to significant impairment in daily life. It has been consistently shown that individuals with depression are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors.
These include substance abuse, harmful sexual relationships, risky and unprotected sex, unsafe driving behavior, and suicide. These behaviors make the lives of depressed individuals worse and increase their risk for greater difficulties in the future.
Is self-sabotaging a toxic trait?
Self-sabotage refers to any behavior that prevents someone from achieving their objectives in life.
Although this is not always negative, it can have detrimental effects on a person’s quality of life and even lead to serious health issues like obesity or drug addiction.
When it comes to self-sabotage being a toxic trait, this simply means that an individual with a tendency to sabotage their own progress runs the risk of harming themselves and others in the long run.
It is important to note that the majority of people who engage in self-sabotage are not inherently destructive but are simply struggling to deal with personal issues that may lead to self-destructive behaviors.
Is self-sabotaging a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder?
Self-sabotaging behaviors are a common symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD). People with BPD may struggle with impulsive and self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, binge eating, risky sexual behavior, and self-harm.
These behaviors may be a way of coping with intense emotions and a fear of abandonment or rejection. Additionally, people with BPD may also struggle with negative self-talk and have a tendency to undermine their own efforts and achievements.
While self-sabotaging behavior is not unique to BPD, it is a common and significant feature of the disorder that can impact a person’s relationships, work, and overall well-being.
Remember, if you or your partner has been deeply traumatized, abused, or noticed a decline in health, it’s good to prioritize seeking professional treatment for yourselves individually. Relationship counseling can also be a helpful resource to address any issues that may be affecting your relationship as a result of these challenges.
Whether you are single, dating, or in a new or mature relationship, talking with a professional coach or therapist can help stop you from sabotaging your own happiness.