As humans, we all crave intimacy and social connection. For some people, though, intimacy can be a source of fear and trauma. As a result, that fear might lead to self-sabotaging behaviors that damage or destroy intimate relationships. If these patterns aren’t addressed and corrected, they can lead to unhealthy relationships, loneliness, and social isolation.
While a self-sabotaging relationship cycle can be challenging to break, it is possible to recognize and change these behaviors through in-person or online therapy. Read on to learn how to identify and stop self-sabotage in a relationship.
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What Is Self-Sabotaging in a Relationship?
When people self-sabotage, they engage in behaviors that interfere with their well-being or keep them from achieving their long-time goals. In a relationship, self-sabotage can prevent you from having a close connection with your partner.
Self-sabotage can be conscious or unconscious. From the outside perspective, though, the behavior often appears deliberate.
“Self-sabotaging is a set of behaviors that are conscious or unconscious which can result in the ending of a relationship. Self-sabotage can come from past experiences that cause a person to be mistrustful of others. With it comes a fear of getting hurt, which might happen if someone stays in a relationship. Therapy can help a person identify their behavior as self-sabotaging and help them stop it.”
Reasons for Self-Sabotaging in Relationships
While people might self-sabotage relationships for many reasons, the behavior is often rooted in trauma. During childhood, our relationships with caregivers can have a lasting impact on how we relate to others. People with a history of insecure relationships may automatically assume that future ones are doomed to fail.
Research backs up the theory that self-sabotage can be a form of self-protection. As discussed, if someone’s afraid of being hurt or abandoned, it might lead to them sabotaging a relationship — subconsciously or purposefully — to try and prevent future harm.
Fear of abandonment or intimacy is a primary cause of self-sabotage, but research also shows that people might self-sabotage for other reasons, too. For example, trust issues, limited relationship skills, unrealistic expectations, or low self-esteem, among other things, are all common in self-sabotaging relationships. Further, we know that these behaviors often repeat across multiple relationships.
5 Signs of Self-Sabotaging in a Relationship
Since self-sabotage isn’t always conscious, it can be challenging to spot.
“Signs of self-sabotage include gaslighting, criticism, difficulty maintaining relationships, and jealousy. It’s important to recognize how one might be sabotaging the relationship so that the behavior can be stopped before it’s too late. Therapy can help someone who’s struggling develop more self-awareness and insight to prevent the behavior from moving forward.”
Someone with a history of self-sabotaging relationship patterns may engage in some of the following behaviors.
1. Trust issues
As noted, people prone to self-sabotage often struggle to trust their partners. Experiencing insecurity in relationships due to a lack of trust can lead to accusations and jealous behaviors. In some cases, someone who self-sabotages may search for proof of betrayal, even when there is no indication that their partner has done something wrong.
Gaslighting in relationships is a form of manipulation and emotional abuse in which someone makes another person doubt their memories, experiences, or feelings. Someone who consistently self-sabotages may deny wrongdoing or dismiss their partner’s feelings when confronted for their behaviors.
3. Excessive criticism
Another common form of self-sabotage is looking for excuses to leave a relationship. When some people self-sabotage, they might fixate on the negative emotions and aspects of a relationship while ignoring the positives. They may nitpick their partner’s behaviors, picking fights and searching for fault in everything they do.
While some people who self-sabotage look for problems, others may try to avoid conflict entirely. For example, someone who self-sabotages may refuse to talk through issues with their partner. They might insist things are fine. People who cope with avoidance also might deny their feelings or desires in romantic relationships.
It’s not uncommon for people who self-sabotage to engage in deliberately hurtful behaviors. They might cheat, for example, to give their partner a reason to leave them. It’s also not uncommon for them to justify their unhealthy behavior by claiming they’re just “hurting their partner before they get hurt.” If you’re experiencing infidelity in your relationship, be sure you learn how to get over infidelity.
How to Stop a Self-Sabotaging Relationship
Self-awareness is key to ending self-sabotaging behavior. If you can recognize destructive patterns of behavior, you can take steps to prevent these behaviors in the future. You can also work to build skills that will help you form healthy, intimate relationships.
How to end self-sabotaging behavior
To stop self-sabotaging, you must take responsibility for your behavior. First, recognize the role you’ve played in damaging your past relationships. Once you confront these behaviors, you can work to change them.
If you have a history of sabotaging a relationship subconsciously, try to figure out what triggers your behavior. Do you tend to lash out after a partner expresses a need for commitment? Are there certain places that put you on edge? Once you figure out what triggers your fears, you can find healthier ways to deal with your feelings.
Share your feelings
Expressing your feelings to your partner can be difficult when you’re afraid of intimacy or abandonment. However, opening up about how you feel can help your partner understand what you’re going through. You can work on issues together when you learn to communicate with your partner about your struggles.
Seek professional help
Self-sabotage can be deeply damaging, and these behaviors aren’t always easy to overcome. Working with a therapist can help you identify problematic behaviors and heal from past trauma. With professional help, you can develop essential coping skills and work to end the self-sabotaging relationship cycle.
How to help a self-sabotaging partner
Remember that it’s not your fault
Don’t make excuses for your partner’s behavior or blame yourself when they lash out. Self-sabotaging can be deeply hurtful, but it’s important to remember that you’re not at fault for your partner’s actions. Stand up for yourself and ask your partner to take responsibility when they lash out.
Provide positive reinforcement
Many people with a history of self-sabotage don’t know what a healthy relationship should look like. When your partner opens up to you about their feelings or takes steps to address their destructive behaviors, offer them support and encouragement. Let them know you appreciate their efforts toward breaking the cycle.
Encourage them to seek help
While you can give your self-sabotaging partner love and support, you alone can’t fix their issues for them. Remind them how much you care about them and want to see them get the assistance they need. Encourage them to seek help from a professional.
End Self-Sabotaging Behaviors with Professional Help
It isn’t always easy to stop self-sabotage in a relationship, but if you realize that relationship self-sabotage is something you or your partner are struggling with, get support. Talkspace offers online therapy with skilled mental health professionals who understand how to break the cycle of self-sabotage behavior and can assist you in learning how to fix a broken relationship. It’ll take work, but you can learn how to have a healthy, mutually-rewarding relationship. You and your partner can begin offering one another the love and stability you’re both looking for in a relationship.
Talkspace will connect you with an online therapist who can help you work through the trauma and change the self-destructive behaviors that are damaging your current relationship. Self-sabotage can be devastating, but it’s something that you can overcome with professional help.
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- Collins NL, Ford MB, Guichard AMC, Allard LM. Working models of attachment and attribution processes in intimate relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2006;32(2):201-219. doi:10.1177/0146167205280907. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16382082/Accessed October 19, 2022.
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