Are You Self-Sabotaging Relationships? Here’s What to Do
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Here are the signs you may be self-sabotaging your relationships, how to fix it, and when to seek help.
What is self-sabotage?
You’ve finally done it: After what feels like eons of searching, you’ve met what seems like the perfect person. They remember your birthday, they’re sweet with your parents, they’re full of sparkling wit, and they’re not bad to look at either.
Problem is…when they call, you can’t stop letting it go to voicemail. When you see them, instead of thinking about how attractive they are, you focus on nitpicky things like how you don’t like their socks. And when they try to make plans, you’re just…not feeling it.
What’s the deal? While you just might not be clicking, if it happens repeatedly, you may be engaging in self-sabotage.
Standing in the way of your own relationship has deep roots, says Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist and health service psychologist. “This happens when an individual feels they are ‘unworthy’ of the affection and love of another. It can be conscious or unconscious,” says Cook. (These self-care quotes can help you take care of your mind and body.)
“This person’s actions and behaviors elicit negative responses from their partner—missed appointments, always running late, lashing out unnecessarily out of fear, resulting in fights and disagreements. Often it takes a friend or someone on the outside to help this individual see their self-sabotaging behaviors before they can change,” she says. (Beware of these arguments that end relationships.)
Reena B. Patel, author of Winnie & Her Worries, explains that self-sabotage is “when you consciously or unconsciously try to create problems and challenges.” The unconscious part is especially prevalent. “For many people, they don’t even realize they are engineering in this behavior,” Patel explains.
Self-sabotage is not an official diagnosis
But don’t go looking for an official diagnosis. “Self-sabotage is not listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a psychiatric disorder, but it has been described as behaviors that prevent one from reaching a goal,” says Abisola Olulade, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group in San Diego.
“When it comes to relationships, this may mean that you are sabotaging it and preventing it from being a healthy, happy relationship.” (Learn the difference between healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.)
Here, the experts detail the reasons why self-sabotage happens, as well as how to address it for a healthier relationship.
Why does self-sabotage happen?
Like many issues in relationships, self-sabotage can come from many causes, but it is often rooted in fear. “Self-sabotage often stems from a need to stay safe and in control,” says Rachel Eva Dew, board-certified doctor of natural medicine, integrative life transformation coach, and cofounder of the integrative telemedicine platform, ModiHealth.
“Within relationships, self-sabotage is often driven by fear, negative experiences from the past, or even unhealthy relationship examples or trauma from within childhood. It is a form of self-protection, but unfortunately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that destroys relationships,” says Dew.
Low self-esteem and low self-worth are two other classic reasons for self-sabotage. When you think poorly of yourself, you don’t think you deserve a good relationship. (Try these instant self-confidence boosters.)
Anxious or avoidant attachment style
Attachment styles are the different ways people interact in relationships. “Your own attachment style developed when you were younger from your parents or caretakers,” says Patel.
If you are not confident, it can harm how you behave with a partner.
About 60 percent of people are thought to have a secure attachment style, and have no problem forming and maintaining relationships. The rest of the population is thought to have an avoidant or anxious attachment style (or a combination of both), which makes it difficult to form relationships because intimacy feels threatening or triggers anxious behavior.
“Having an anxious attachment style or avoidant attachment style can create sabotage in a healthy relationship. Irrational thinking can bring about mistrust and jealousy. Fear of intimacy can also lead to self-sabotage in relationships,” says Dew.
Afraid of getting close
Being afraid of getting close to your partner can prevent you from addressing challenges, seeking constructive feedback, or dealing with negative emotions. So, instead of feeling safe to get closer, you pull away out of fear or anxiety. (These are the signs you’re in a toxic relationship.)
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What drives the impulse to self-sabotage?
Interestingly, there are not many studies looking at self-sabotage and why it happens, says Dr. Olulade, which makes it more difficult to understand fully. However, self-sabotage is often rooted in past unresolved trauma. (Here’s how to heal from a traumatic experience.)
“No single person can live a life without being deeply hurt by someone else’s words or actions at some point,” says Cook. “Nevertheless, if this ‘tear’ in the relationship is repaired in a positive way, the individual will continue to trust others and be able to be vulnerable in a way that fosters deep, meaningful personal relationships,” she says.
Traumatic childhood experiences don’t necessarily mean verbal or physical abuse, explains Cook. They could expand to a narcissistic parent or guardian who themselves was guilty of self-sabotaging. (Beware of the signs of narcissistic abuse.)
“Having a parent who exhibits self-sabotaging behaviors often results in children who relate to others in a similar fashion due to observational learning,” says Cook. “Kids act like their parents whether we like it or not,” she says.
Patel agrees that relationship trauma experienced when young can lead to self-sabotage. “Any traumatic past, including your first relationship, can lead to this. It’s an underlying fear that you are not worthy of happiness,” Patel says. She adds that sometimes people worry they will lose their freedom in a relationship, and so they act out through self-sabotage, as well.
As always, doing inner work on yourself can help the deep wounds start to heal—but increased intimacy can lead to a period of lashing out through fear.
When everything seems “perfect”
“Interestingly, when someone starts to feel safe and comfortable with ‘perfect,’ this is the time when they are most likely to self-sabotage,” says Cook. “Why? Because the relationship is starting to head into the unknown and uncomfortable ’emotional waters’ of vulnerability and intimacy.” (Here’s how to have more intimacy and better sex.)
Instead of being brave and facing issues together, people might act in ways that actually jeopardize the relationship. “They feel comfortable in unsteady waters because that is what they know as ‘normal,'” explains Cook.
Signs you’re self-sabotaging your relationship
We asked experts for some common examples of self-sabotaging relationships and tips for how to deal with each.
The term “gaslighting” has become increasingly common in recent years, originally stemming from the ’40s movie “Gaslight,” where a husband manipulates his wife into questioning reality and makes her believe she’s going crazy. You may have endured this frustrating experience…or you may be doing it to your own partner. (Check out more gaslighting examples.)
So if you keep making your partner question themselves and undermining their own experiences, are you sabotaging the relationship? Absolutely, says Cook. “Gaslighting is one of the worst ways to tell someone the issue is ‘me not you’ because it breeds self-doubt in the other person, who starts to question their own mental stability.”
Rather than creating an unhealthy environment where you make your partner question their sanity, Cook recommends visiting a therapist to start working through your trauma and how you relate to others. (Get to know these gaslighting phrases that are red flags.)
“Let your partner know what’s going on so they can support you. And if they don’t support you, ditch them, and know that your next relationship will be healthier because you’re doing the work now,” she says.
“Infidelity is one of the most hurtful things you can do in a committed relationship and if you do this then it is ultimately self-sabotaging,” says Dr. Olulade. “This is again if your goal is to be in a committed secure relationship then this prevents you from reaching that goal but the reasons that people cheat may be more complex than that.”
Infidelity has different meanings to different people, however. One couple’s innocent flirtation might be another’s major transgression. (Here’s what micro-cheating means for your relationship.)
Cook says, “First, you and your partner need to define what constitutes infidelity within the bounds of the relationship. Partners have had private ‘rules’ since humans began ‘coupling off.'”
Some couples have rules—such as allowing their partner to have sex with other people, but only once so they don’t “develop” feelings—that other couples might find unfathomable.
“That being said, if you break a relationship boundary—no matter what it is…infidelity or not—this can be seen as self-sabotage,” says Cook, adding that Band-Aid fixes such as deleting phone numbers of hook-ups won’t help.
“The person needs to get to the root of the reason they are mucking up and the best and fastest way to this answer is therapy,” Cook says.
Refusing to meet close friends or family
Say you’ve been dating for a year or two, but you’re just not feeling ready to go home to meet their parents. Is this a sign of self-sabotage? It depends, say experts.
Cook doesn’t think this is a sign of self-sabotage at all, as people might have valid reasons for not yet being ready to meet family members.
“Obviously after a few years, I do think meeting the parents is something that must be done,” Cook says. “Prior to that, your partner may just have other priorities in their life, such as paying off college loans rather than buying plane tickets to travel, choosing to use their vacation time for personal reasons rather than seeing your parents.”
They also might have their own personal history with “parents” which makes them uncomfortable, says Cook, suggesting they need to work on those issues if they want to continue to be with you.
As always, therapy is recommended: “You address this issue with your partner by talking about it and working through it together,” she says. (Here’s what happened when a couple tried marriage counseling.)
However, Dr. Olulade says, “If it’s due to avoiding commitment in a stable happy relationship and if this is your goal i.e. to be in the relationship then it could be self-sabotaging. I would recommend talking with a therapist to explore why you are reluctant.”
When to seek help for self-sabotage issues
If you’re consistently feeling depressed and having trouble with everyday functioning, these low feelings may be interfering with your relationships. In this instance, it would be helpful to seek therapy, says Dr. Olulade. (Here’s how to cope with a depressed spouse.)
“Some symptoms of depression are sadness, hopelessness, loss of pleasure or interest in hobbies and in being with friends, families, and significant others, problems sleeping, eating, and feeling anxious. If you have experienced these symptoms and if they have lasted for at least two weeks then you may have depression and should seek help for this,” she says.
Patel agrees that seeking counseling is important if your actions are affecting your day-to-day life or hampering “trust, communication, respect, and intimacy” in your relationships. (Find out how you can build trust in a relationship.)
Benefits of therapy
“At any time when you identify a habit or pattern that no longer serves you or that does not lead to healthy, fulfilling relationships, it is time to do work within yourself to resolve the root issue,” Dew says. “This may mean working with a therapist or even a life coach. Get the support you need. Simply reading self-help books doesn’t always provide the tools and insight needed for deep healing.”
(Not sure where to start? Here’s how to find a therapist.)
And if you struggle with self-sabotage, don’t forget that therapy could benefit other relationships in your life, too. “If you are unhappy in life and love and feel your relationship(s) with those closest to you could be better, I would seek out help,” Cook says, giving the example of wanting to be a better friend.
“This doesn’t have to only be about a romantic partner,” Cook says. She adds that therapy doesn’t mean you’re ‘broken. “Quite the opposite, it takes someone with courage and a strong sense of self to bravely face their own fears and wounds knowing that on the other side is a happier, healthier life,” she says.
- Abisola Olulade, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group in San Diego
- Bethany Cook, PsyD, clinical psychologist, health service psychologist, board-certified music therapist, and author of For What It's Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting
- Reena B. Patel, San Diego-based licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author of Winnie & Her Worries
- Rachel Eva Dew, DMN, Doctor of Natural Medicine, PhD in integrative medicine, integrative life transformation coach, and CEO of the first integrative telemedicine platform, ModiHealth
- Adult Attachment Theory and Research