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Identifying 5 Subtle Signs of Self-Sabotage in Your Relationships and How to Break the Pattern

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Self-sabotage is the silent killer of relationships. It can doom our relationships before they even begin by whispering lies about our inadequacy and impossibility of being loved. 

Relationships are hard. Even the healthiest relationships suffer from trials, arguments, and setbacks. No one is perfect, so it makes sense that a union of two people is even less perfect. 

However, we sometimes end a perfectly satisfying relationship for no good reason. We might even know we’re doing it but can’t stop ourselves. Self-sabotage is a pattern of behavior that seeks to undermine or end a relationship. It can be conscious or unconscious, but the result is the same: a trail of broken hearts. 

With self-awareness and the proper tools, it is possible to end the vicious cycle of relationship self-sabotage. Let’s dive into how to do that. 

Why Do We Self-Sabotage?

We gain nothing from self-sabotaging, so why is it so common? Well, relationships are risky. We form relationships to fill a fundamental need of belonging, but to do so we become partially dependent upon our partners. When we have to lean on others, we risk falling if they step away from us. 

Researchers believe that the constant threat of pain in relationships is what drives self-sabotage. “People cope with threats to their romantic relationships by prioritizing self-protection goals over connectedness goals,” one study found. This means that when people are alert to a relationship risk, they behave in ways that protect themselves instead of the relationship. 

What alerts people to threats? That depends on your past. People who’ve gotten burned expect to be burned again, and when you think you’ll get burned, you pull away. It’s human nature. Our previous experiences affect our relationship beliefs and lead to our predicted outcomes. 

When people have had traumatic, chaotic, or uncertain relationships, a healthy, stable relationship can feel dangerous, resulting in self-sabotaging behaviors designed to protect themselves from hurt.

Researchers have found three main types of self-sabotagers: 

  1. The Avoidant: Refuses to be in a relationship at all.
  2. The Searcher: Cycles through relationships in search for “the one” but leaves at the first sign of trouble.
  3. The Withdrawn: Becomes checked-out and withdrawn when unhappy in relationships instead of working through issues. 

If you think you might be someone who self-sabotages, read on to learn how to break the destructive pattern. 

Five Signs of Self-Sabotage

Researchers have identified 12 areas of self-sabotage. The most common five are: 

Defensiveness: The strongest indicator of self-sabotage, defensiveness is a way to blame your partner instead of working through an issue or admitting partial responsibility. It is also described as one of the four horsemen of a failed marriage, according to the Gottman Institute, a leading researcher in relationship dynamics.

Example:
Partner: “Have you done the dishes like we talked about?”
Defensive Response: “I’ve had such a bad day. Why would you expect that of me right now?”

Trust Issues: Mistrust in your partner can take the form of unnecessarily scrolling through their phone, questioning them about their whereabouts, or being unreasonably suspicious or even paranoid about their other relationships and activities. It is your past experiences whispering to you that what happened before will happen again, but only if you let your guard down. So, instead, you’re hypervigilant about everything your partner does or says.

Example:
Partner: “I’m going out for drinks with coworkers after work.”
Defensive Response: “Why? Who’s going to be there? Why don’t you want to spend time with me?” 

Criticizing: A classic example of self-sabotage, criticizing involves a pattern of nitpicking and trying to control a situation out of fear of what might happen if you lose control.

Example:
Partner: “I folded and put away all the laundry today.”
Criticizing Response: “That’s great, but you didn’t put away my favorite shirt right, and now it’s all wrinkled, and I had asked you to hang the sweatshirts, not fold them.”

Clinginess: This sabotaging pattern can result from attachment anxiety. Clinginess is a way of resisting separation from your partner, needing to be near them all the time, and seeking reassurance in a desperate, overbearing, or even frenzied manner. You’re convinced that if you can constantly keep your eye on them, things will turn out differently. 

Example: Calling your partner multiple times throughout the day, spending less and less time with your friends, and feeling jealous when your partner’s around other people. 

Stonewalling: The opposite side of clinginess is stonewalling, an equally destructive way of sabotaging a relationship. When faced with the risk of losing the relationship—real or perceived—a stonewaller will pull away and avoid any form of communication. 

Example: Walking away during an argument, giving one or two-word answers, silent treatment, refusing to answer texts or calls. 

How to Stop Self-Sabotaging 

Once you’ve identified self-sabotaging behaviors, it’s time to address them. This can be hard, as you’re going against years of experiences and behaviors that tell you your self-sabotaging behavior is safe. However, with practice, understanding, and support, you can retrain your brain to suppress or stop these self-sabotaging patterns of behavior. 

Steps to stop self-sabotaging: 

  1. Understand your attachment style: Researchers believe that self-sabotaging behavior is rooted in your attachment style. If you have an anxious attachment, you’ll likely be triggered when your sense of self-worth or self-esteem within a relationship is threatened—You want to be accepted. If you have an avoidant attachment, you’ll be threatened by interdependence and intimacy—You want freedom and independence. Knowing what needs are at the core root of your sabotaging behavior will help you identify when it is happening and inform you how to put a stop to it. 
  2. Know your triggers: Maybe your partner going out with friends doesn’t bother you, but leaving a text unanswered sends you into a panic. Keep a list of all the things that trigger your sabotaging behavior and relationship anxiety, then share it with your partner so you can work through this together. 
  3. Separate your past from your present: As often as possible, remind yourself that past events don’t dictate your future. Just because you were hurt in the past does not mean you will be hurt again. 
  4. Talk with your partner about your self-sabotaging behaviors: Working through this together is a great way to form stronger, healthier bonds. 
  5. Improve your self-esteem and self-worth: Many people sabotage themselves because they don’t believe they are good enough for a relationship. This is a lie. Work on cultivating a strong, positive self-image
  6. Get an outside perspective: Sometimes, it helps to consult with a trusted friend to determine if something is really a relationship red flag or if you’re just self-sabotaging. Find a trusted friend or family member and be open about your worries and concerns. 
  7. Let go of fear, and open yourself to love: Letting go of fear is easier said than done, but doing so is the final step to releasing self-sabotaging behavior for good.

Self-sabotaging is an exhausting cycle of heartbreak rooted in past experiences and current fears. However, it is possible to stop. Take it one step at a time, communicate openly, and give yourself compassion. You’re doing great—You got this. 

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources and support in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service.

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About the Author: Alli Mann is a mental health content writer at Lifebulb Counseling. She is interested in bridging the gap between current mental health research and the people who need it through easy-to-understand, succinct, and applicable articles. You can find more of her articles at https://www.lifebulb.com/blogs

Photo by Mikhail Nilov: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anxious-man-talking-to-a-woman-sitting-beside-him-6963897/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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