Self-sabotage in relationships is no joke. I had a friend once who was a serial dater. It seemed like she would find someone who met her needs, was kind to her, and loved to be around her, and just as things were settling down, she would break up with them. This happened over and over, and I watched her come up with reason after reason why each person she dated wasn’t “quite right” for her.
In hindsight, my friend was self-sabotaging in her relationships. This can look like many things for many people, but for my friend, it looked like withdrawing when the relationship started getting serious.
What is self-sabotage in relationships?
Besides that one example I just gave, what actually is self-sabotage? According to Dictionary.com, self-sabotage is “the act or habit of behaving in a way that interferes directly with one’s own goals, well-being, relationships, etc., as by comfort eating, procrastination, or lashing out at others.”
In the context of relationships, this translates to a pattern where our behavior contradicts our desire to form a relationship. We might crave a fulfilling, long-term partnership, but unconsciously engage in actions that push potential partners away or damage existing relationships.
What causes self-sabotage in relationships?
So what actually causes us to behave in these unconscious ways? If all we want is a loving relationship, what makes us push others away? Unfortunately, it can be any number of things, from childhood trauma to anxiety to grief. Understanding what exactly is causing you to self-sabotage is the first step in figuring out how to stop.
Early experiences play a pivotal role in shaping our views on relationships and our capacity to navigate them. Exposure to trauma, such as neglect, abuse, or witnessing dysfunctional parental relationships, can leave lasting scars. Subconsciously, we may associate intimacy with pain, leading to:
- Fear of vulnerability: We may push partners away as intimacy deepens, fearing that close bonds will inevitably lead to hurt. This defense mechanism can manifest as destructive behaviors like infidelity, emotional withdrawal, or picking fights.
- Negative self-beliefs: Internalizing negative messages from childhood can foster a belief that we are unworthy of love, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies. We unconsciously validate those beliefs by engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors.
- Attachment difficulties: Trauma can disrupt secure attachment formation, leading to anxious or avoidant attachment styles. These patterns create relationship instability, as we attempt to deal with the idea of vulnerability and closeness.
Therefore, recognizing and addressing childhood trauma’s impact is crucial for healing and developing healthier relationship patterns.
Unaddressed fears often drive self-sabotage, even without a history of trauma. Fear of abandonment, rejection, or failure can make vulnerability feel incredibly risky. Consequently, we may:
- Push love away before it can hurt us: We might unconsciously “test” partners by provoking arguments, setting unrealistic expectations, or prematurely ending relationships. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of abandonment, reinforcing the fear we initially sought to avoid.
- Settle for less than we deserve: Fear of rejection can make us feel unworthy of fulfilling relationships, leading us to settle for partners who mistreat or disrespect us. This reinforces a negative self-image and perpetuates a cycle of dissatisfaction.
- Lash out or withdraw as defense mechanisms: When fear takes control, we might lash out with anger, jealousy, or excessive criticism, pushing partners away. Alternatively, we might withdraw emotionally, creating distance and preventing genuine connection.
These destructive patterns stem from a desire for self-protection, but ultimately prevent us from experiencing the love we crave. By recognizing and confronting our fears, we can free ourselves from their restrictive grip and build healthier relationships.
Anxiety has the unique role of being both a fear and a misjudgement, making it much more likely to be a culprit in self-sabotage. Here’s what anxiety may look like in the context of self-sabotage:
- Hypervigilance to threats: An anxious mind is constantly scanning for signs of rejection, even misinterpreting neutral partner behavior as negative. This can lead to accusatory outbursts, clinginess, or pre-emptively ending relationships to avoid the anticipated hurt.
- Self-fulfilling prophecies: Worrying we’re not good enough can make us act in ways that confirm this belief. We might become overly apologetic, self-deprecating, or avoid expressing needs, making us less attractive partners and fueling our anxiety further.
- Difficulty trusting the ‘good times’: If anxiety convinces us happiness is fleeting, we sabotage it. Picking fights when things are good, or sabotaging successes (like a partner’s promotion meaning less time for us), creates the instability our anxiety ‘expects’.
Grief, too, can cause us to push others away. This can be especially difficult if both parties are grieving, but even one person grieving can engage in acts of self-sabotage that break down a relationship. Here’s how:
- Unresolved loss impacts new bonds: Unprocessed grief over a past relationship, death, or major life change can leave us emotionally ‘stuck’. We may compare new partners to the idealized lost one, or fear attaching deeply due to the potential for future pain, hindering present connections.
- Emotional numbness: Deep grief can lead to detachment from our own feelings, making it hard to reciprocate affection or be present for a partner’s needs. This can appear cold, even if it’s not our intent, damaging the relationship.
- Guilt as a barrier: If we start finding joy after loss, guilt can arise, making us feel disloyal to what/who we’ve lost. This can lead to sabotaging new happiness to ‘prove’ our loyalty to the past, preventing healthy forward movement.
Signs of self-sabotage in relationships
Now that we understand how self-sabotage in relationships can come on, it’s important to recognize the signs of it occurring in your own relationships. These symptoms can include one or more of the following:
- Serial Dating
- Excessive Criticism
- Grudge Holding
- Low self-esteem
Keep in mind that these signs can exist to varying degrees. Not every instance means the relationship is doomed, but they’re calls for self-reflection and possibly professional support.
Why self-sabotage in relationships is a problem
Self-sabotage isn’t just a pattern of bad choices; it’s a pervasive force undermining our happiness and potential. While specifically damaging in relationships, its impact ripples into broader aspects of life:
1. Robbing Us of Fulfillment:
- Cycle of Unhappiness: We long for connection, yet our actions prevent it. This creates dissatisfaction, reinforcing negative beliefs about ourselves (“I’m unlovable”) and the world (“love is unreliable”). This distorted lens makes healthy choices even harder.
- Missed Opportunities: Beyond romance, self-sabotage can impact friendships, work, even self-care. We might turn down promotions out of fear, ghost supportive friends, or neglect our health. This limits growth and joy we’re capable of.
- Loneliness Spiral: Humans are social creatures; connection is vital to well-being. Self-sabotage isolates us, increasing risks of depression, anxiety, and physical health issues. This isolation confirms our fears (“I’ll always be alone”), deepening the problem.
2. Eroding Self-Esteem:
- Internalizing Failure: Each self-sabotaged relationship, goal, or opportunity becomes proof of our inadequacy. This damages self-worth, making us believe we don’t deserve good things, thus fueling further destructive behavior. It’s a vicious cycle.
- Comparing and Despairing: Self-sabotage makes us focus on others’ successes, fueling envy. We ignore our own strengths, convinced we fall short. This distorted view worsens decision-making, as we act from a place of scarcity, not self-worth.
- Impact on Identity: Over time, “self-saboteur” can become part of our self-concept. This makes change harder, as we act in ways that align with this identity, even if it brings pain. Breaking free requires redefining who we believe we are.
3. Ripple Effects on Others:
- Hurt Loved Ones: Our actions don’t exist in a vacuum. Seeing us self-destruct pains those who care. Romantic partners feel pushed away despite their efforts, friends grow weary of the drama, family worries about our well-being. The impact is widespread.
- Unhealthy Models: If unaddressed, self-sabotage can shape our parenting, friendships, etc. Children learn by observing; showing them love is about pain and push-pull dynamics sets them up for struggle. Breaking the cycle benefits generations.
- Societal Cost: While personal, self-sabotage collectively impacts our communities. When individuals aren’t thriving, it strains support systems, impacts work productivity, and limits the collective potential for growth and connection we could achieve together.
How to stop self-sabotaging relationships
1. Identify Your Patterns:
Self-awareness is key. Look for recurring issues in past relationships, or even friendships/family. Is there a point where you withdraw, create conflict, or lose interest? Journaling, therapy, or honest friend chats can help spot these.
2. Understand Your Attachment Style:
How we were raised impacts how we attach to others. Anxious attachment craves closeness, but fears abandonment. Avoidant attachment pushes people away when intimacy grows. Knowing your style helps predict your triggers for self-sabotage.
3. Challenge Your Negative Beliefs:
Often, we act based on deep-seated beliefs about ourselves like, “I’m not worthy of love” or “Everyone leaves eventually.” These become self-fulfilling prophecies. Actively replacing them with positive affirmations rewires thinking.
4. Communicate, Don’t Assume:
Self-sabotage thrives on mind-reading. Instead of assuming your partner’s thoughts/feelings, ask. Good communication builds trust, preventing the self-protective urge to sabotage before you get hurt.
5. Slow Down the Process:
If you tend to rush into intensity or commitment, then pull back, slow down consciously. Give yourself time to assess if this person is right, and let trust build gradually, preventing the overwhelm that leads to self-sabotage.
6. Build Strong Self-Esteem:
Low self-worth makes us believe we don’t deserve good relationships, so we ruin them. Self-care practices that aren’t relationship-focused are vital. Pursue hobbies, friendships, goals that remind you of your worth independent of a partner.
7. Learn to Tolerate Discomfort:
Not all relationship bumps mean it’s doomed. Self-sabotage often jumps at the first sign of conflict or fading honeymoon bliss. Building distress tolerance (through therapy, mindfulness, etc.) helps you ride out normal ups and downs.
8. Don’t Compare to Others:
Social media and our own biases make us think everyone else has perfect relationships. This fuels self-sabotage: “See, I’m failing compared to them.” Focus on YOUR connection, its unique strengths, not an idealized fantasy.
9. Seek Professional Help If Needed:
Deep-rooted patterns are hard to break alone. Therapists trained in relationship issues or attachment styles can provide tailored tools. No shame in needing help to learn new behaviors for healthier bonds.
10. Relapse Doesn’t Mean Failure:
Change isn’t linear. If you backslide into old habits, it doesn’t negate your progress. Use it as a learning opportunity: What triggered this? What could I do differently next time? Self-compassion is key to lasting change.
Keep in mind that these tips work best when combined. Addressing both internal beliefs and external behavior is crucial when it comes to improving your relationships with others.
Self-sabotage in relationships isn’t a personality flaw, it’s a learned pattern. And like any learned behavior, it can be unlearned with the right tools and support.
This journey is about more than just happier romances; it’s about choosing yourself. It’s saying, “I’m worthy of love and connection, not just the fleeting high of newness or the drama of self-inflicted chaos.”
It may be uncomfortable, it may require facing parts of yourself you’d rather not. But on the other side lies the potential for authentic intimacy, the kind unaffected by your past.
If anything here resonates, if you’re ready to turn the page, don’t go it alone. At Modern Era Counseling, our team of experienced therapists is here to guide you, with no judgment, only expertise and compassion.
Give us a call at (704) 800-4436 or shoot us an email. That first step isn’t about finding all the answers, just about deciding you deserve better. We’ll find that ‘better’ together.