[Study] 9 Ways We Self-Sabotage Our Relationships And How To Stop
It was the Fourth of July, and I found myself coming back from the lake – with my boyfriend’s phone in hand. I was furiously typing out a Twitter DM to the girl he had been messaging, telling her to back off my man.
After I sent it, I took a breath. What the f**k was I doing??
I realized what I had done was a little bit crazy, and needed to reflect on my relationship. Ultimately, it didn’t work out – I broke up with him about a month later.
Why? It was a toxic relationship, and the two of us were pushing the other to engage in destructive behaviors.
So, while maybe it was a good thing we ultimately didn’t work out, I definitely did my fair share of damage to the relationship – and sometimes on purpose.
According to a recently released study conducted by James Cook University and published by Cambridge University Press – The Journal of Relationships Research, there’s a term for behaviors that cause us to ruin our own relationships – romantic self-sabotage.
Romantic Self-Sabotage: What Is It and How Does It Affect Your Relationships?
First off, what is romantic self-sabotage?
Are you great at falling in love, only for that dream relationship to fall apart a short while later? If so, you may be participating in what researchers call romantic self-sabotage.
Raquel Peel, the lead researcher in the James Cook University study on romantic self-sabotage, spoke to us exclusively about coining the term “romantic self-sabotage,” what it is and what it means for your relationship.
According to her, romantic self-sabotage is all about wanting a “win-win situation” no matter the cost.
This isn’t a ‘win-win’ for both parties in the traditional sense, however, but a “win-win” for just one person. “A key element of being a self-saboteur is wanting to win and not caring how,” Peel says.
Peel explains: “It’s individuals who engage in this game where they can only end up winning – if the relationship fails, they can point to the toxicity as to why it failed. But if it works, then they still ‘won.’”
In other words, if it fails, the answer is “Oh, well, it’s because I decided to let it fail.” If it succeeds, it’s: “That’s because it wasn’t really a problem [the self-sabotaging behavior] in the first place.”
I’ll explain the unhealthiness of how this works later on, but suffice it to say, these scenarios are ones in which nobody really wins.
Before we talk about some of the ways we self-sabotage and why we do it, note that we’re probably all guilty of some of these behaviors at one point or another.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re self-sabotaging – it has to become a consistent, pervasive behavior from relationship to relationship for it to be romantic self-sabotage, Peel tells us.
The 9 Ways You’re Self-Sabotaging Your Romantic Relationships
Peel’s study specifically singles out nine common behaviors we engage in to sabotage our relationships.
Researchers came up with this list “after talking with practicing psychologists about, anecdotally, what they’ve seen with clients,” Peel says.
The 9 ways you’re sabotaging your relationship include:
- Partner Attack
- Partner Pursuit
- Partner Withdrawal
- Difficulties Trusting and Jealousy
- Destructive Behaviors
- Partner Harassment and Abuse
Do some of these ring true? We’ve all probably screwed up once or twice, but some of these, like abuse, are never okay.
Last week, one of my best friends called me up, asking for advice. She and her boyfriend had been fighting – again.
It was becoming almost a daily thing now but had started slowly over the course of their year-long relationship.
“What am I doing wrong?” she asked me. I could hear her choking up.
This had all started with a few insecurities slowly shifting into constant arguments. The two had never forgiven each other for past transgressions, and aired them out at every opportunity.
In other words, my friend and her boyfriend were engaging in “partner attacks.”
According to Peel, partner attacks all stem from one partner going on the offensive as a defense strategy.
“The relationship has someone who is attacking because they, for whatever reason, feel the need to defend themselves,” Peel said.
And, after the attacking partner ramps things up, the partner on the defense will reach a breaking point – ultimately lashing out at the other, making the issue come full circle.
This will ultimately bring about the end of a relationship.
As fighting becomes more constant there’s a shift in how both partners view and talk to the other and communication and respect break down altogether.
Now, it’s not about the happy relationship that came before. It becomes all about winning each argument or getting one up on the other.
Okay, okay – I’m guilty of this one too.
As I realized my ex was emotionally cheating on me, I became obsessed with the thought of him physically cheating on me as well.
We were in a long-distance relationship for about a year while he was away at law school.
Every now and then, I’d catch glimpses of what he was up to – Instagram stories at a bar with girls I didn’t recognize, or a post about something I didn’t have context for.
Something was up. So, what was a girl to do? Check his location, of course. And I did – compulsively.
I was on a pursuit.
Every time I checked his location, that was my subtle call for him to turn his focus back to our relationship – ‘pay attention to me!’ I’d think.
There are a few other examples of what partner pursuing can look like, according to the study: beyond checking social media profiles or location, it can include clinging, demanding, partner checking, or protesting.
For those engaging in partner pursuit, “if their efforts go ignored or unanswered, they may get desperate,” Peel says. “And if they don’t get the attention they want, they may shift to attack mode.”
According to another psychologist involved in this study, this behavior is a death sentence for relationships.
For my own relationship, I guess I saw that one coming.
This is the ultimate defense mechanism – instead of fighting back, the partner just gives up.
What form does partner withdrawal take?
Sometimes, the party that feels slighted may even turn to outside sources for comfort – whether that’s a friend, family member or even getting into another relationship.
Or, if they feel cornered and have nowhere to go, the partner could also attack. Sensing a theme here?
A friend of mine, Jacob, told me he had been doing this in his relationships for years without even realizing it.
“I self-sabotage by keeping my emotions to myself and trying to act instead of tell,” he told me.
Most of this, he says, comes from how he was taught to act in relationships. “As men, sometimes it’s hard to turn your emotions into words because it’s kind of a pride thing. We aren’t raised to talk about that so we don’t do a good job of it.”
Now, he says, he’s getting better.
“[It’s] changing, but it’s a learning process,” he said. He had to learn the hard way, too.
“Probably the best example is a failed relationship from some three years back with a girl I really, really liked,” he said, “where she just told me it wasn’t going to work out because I was ‘emotionally unavailable.’ That hurt, but it definitely put things into perspective.”
Dori Shwirtz, a divorce coach, says this behavior can also be common among couples ending their marriages.
“I see this behavior all the time with my mediation clients,” she says. “What they’ve been keeping to themselves finally comes out in mediation – after they’ve decided to divorce. Usually, it’s too late to salvage the relationship at this point.”
Where does this behavior come from, though?
“[The partner does] not anticipate that someone is actually going to meet their needs,” says a psychologist interviewed in the study, so why put in the effort?
It may sound like we’re getting repetitive here, but defensiveness is the overarching motive behind all of these behaviors, Peel tells us.
“This is out of self-preservation, and what people do when they feel like they’re going to be attacked,” she says.
Peel notes: “The threat, while perceived, may not even be real. It could be lingering from past romantic relationships or even relationships with caregivers, friends or others.”
It doesn’t necessarily matter if the threat is real or not, though – if we feel defensive around our partner, it will lead to relationship issues.
Eventually, dysfunctional relationships will reach a point where at least one person is disrespecting the other, Peel says.
This is called contempt. These may sound like some of the behaviors in partner attacking, because they are similar.
According to Dr. John Gottman, a psychological researcher famous for his work on predicting divorces, contempt is the most dangerous behavior of all.
“Contempt carries with it a poison that seeps into our interactions, turning them into something ugly and toxic,” according to The Gottman Institute.
Peel agrees with Gottman – contempt is the greatest predictor of the failure of a relationship.
Difficulties Trusting And Jealousy
This one is exactly what it sounds like.
Why do we have a hard time trusting? It could be that your partner has previously broken your trust, but maybe not.
“Many times this comes from previous experiences,” Peel explains. “Maybe they were cheated on by an ex, and now they don’t know how to trust subsequent partners.”
I’ve had to deal with this one before, too.
My current boyfriend was cheated on in his last relationship and, this time around, I was seeing someone else before our own relationship was clearly defined. When he found out, he was hurt and was scared to put himself in harm’s way again.
But now, after talking it out (and with a little help from my therapist) we’ve been able to reestablish trust in one another.
Difficulty trusting could stem from non-romantic relationships too – if you didn’t have a stable childhood, or had your trust betrayed by someone close, you could have difficulty trusting in your romantic relationships as well.
As one psychologist interviewed for the study noted: Because of the lack of trust, these partners “wonder [deep down] why their partner even committed.”
Okay, while all the behaviors we’ve listed before might sound “destructive,” these are a bit more serious than our earlier examples.
Author Caitlin Fisher knows firsthand how destructive behaviors can ruin a relationship, after a rough breakup.
After she began recovery for an eating disorder, her partner said she was “approaching the upper limit of weight he found attractive.” After she told him to get over it, his behavior changed.
“For the next several months, he abused alcohol and cannabis to withdraw from the relationship,” Fisher explained.
“Finally, we had an argument and I didn’t immediately forgive him for saying something hurtful to me, and he said he couldn’t be in a relationship where he had to walk on eggshells and be scared of an honest mistake.
Between breaking up and me moving out, he confessed that he just didn’t like living with a partner and hadn’t known how to communicate that. In my opinion, saying that instead of getting drunk and high to avoid his feelings would have been a great start.”
Peel, the lead researcher in this study, explains why some partners may engage in behaviors like this. “Again, this is one of those situations where [the partner needs] a ‘win-win,’” she says. “If things don’t go well, there’s something to blame.”
What exactly does that mean? “We have this inherent need to self-soothe,” Peel told us.
“If you’re feeling defensive, you might have this need to self-soothe to calm yourself down – and ‘calming down’ could be indulging one of these behaviors, whether that’s retail therapy or more extreme behaviors.”
This is the “win-win” Peel refers to – whether the relationship succeeds or fails, the self-saboteur has an excuse. If it fails, the answer is “Oh, well, it’s because I decided to let it fail.” If it succeeds, it’s “That’s because it wasn’t really a problem in the first place.”
I think it’s pretty obvious why this one’s a bad behavior.
“I don’t see the big deal.” or, “Well, this relationship isn’t going to work out anyway. Might as well.”
“It’s a control thing,” Peel says. “They do it to distance themselves, sometimes deliberately, from the relationship.”
One of the study’s psychologists explained, “If you are not committed to the relationship, you will always find a better option.”
For Michelle Baxo, it was her past that kept her from enjoying what seemed to be a perfect relationship.
She tells us:
“I had a history of unhealthy relationships and pseudo-relationships. So when I finally got my sh*t together and finally attracted a solid partner into my life, I’m not surprised that I nearly sabotaged it.
Our relationship was in my opinion, perfect. We both fell hard and knew that we wanted to build a future together. Then I went out drinking with some friends and ended up letting an old fling kiss me. I kissed back before pulling away.
The next morning I called my partner and told him what happened, taking full responsibility and promising that this was old reckless behavior that I was leaving behind. But the damage was done.”
Partner Harassment And Abuse
“When I met my ex 25 years ago I was broken – I grew up in an abusive home – so not only did I attract an abusive man but I was toxic myself. [However,] I wouldn’t say I self-sabotaged the relationship because it wasn’t one I believe was supposed to be in my life.” — Dawn Burnett, divorce coach
Out of all the behaviors listed, partner harassment and abuse are the worst – and they’re never, ever, okay.
What does abuse or harassment look like?
This problem is unfortunately widespread as well.
According to the CDC, intimate partner violence (IPV) affects more than 12 million Americans a year.
But overall, these are rare cases in comparison to the total number of relationships and other forms of romantic self-sabotage.
A partner may turn to abusive behavior as a way of control, Peel explains.
“These are extreme cases and outliers,” Peel says. “These are partners who want to do one of two things: end the relationship [by forcing their partner to leave], or to desperately keep it.”
Note: If you’re in an abusive relationship, please get help. Talk to an expert with the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Why Do We Self-Sabotage Our Romantic Relationships?
If we want to be in a happy relationship, and we love our partner, why do we screw things up?
Ultimately, there’s one main reason why we keep doing this.
Peel, the lead researcher in the study tells us: control.
“People do it to protect themselves,” she said. “In a follow-up study, some participants told me anecdotally that although they were content with their partner, their fear of being broken up with was greater than the happiness of their relationship – they wanted control so badly that they ended things.”
If we have “secure attachment,” that means we’ve been able to form healthy relationships and boundaries.
This usually has to do with how we’ve been raised and how we were taught to interact with others. For those with secure attachment, our biggest need is connection (or, continuing to have a healthy relationship with our partner).
“In healthy relationships, both partners are working toward common goals,” explains Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist.
“These goals generally include keeping the relationship in optimal form, supporting each other, and exploring life as a team. Healthy partnerships allow for open and honest communication and behaviors that support these goals.”
For those with “insecure attachment,” however, that means that for whatever reason we haven’t been able to form and keep close bonds with others.
If we have insecure attachments, we “can’t trust that these attachments will protect [us] against possible threats,” the study explains.
So, we turn to self-defense mode – doing things that include avoidant or clingy behaviors such as the ones previously discussed.
Manly explains further:
“Many people enter relationships with substantial baggage and poor communication skills. As such, even though a person may truly want to be in a healthy relationship, the individual may simply not have the tools to create healthy patterns.
Indeed, unprocessed childhood trauma, prior relationship hurts, and accumulated life wounds can cause an individual to both desire a relationship and want to avoid being bonded to another human.”
If you want to delve deeper into the subject, Peel talks about the need to self-protect in her TEDx talk below:
Three Reasons Why You Could Be Ruining Your Relationship
After reading this far, do you think you might be self-sabotaging some of your relationships?
If so, then it’s time for some self-exploration and introspection.
Why do we ruin our relationships?
Peel says that in a yet-to-be-published study, she found three leading factors that could be why you keep ruining your relationships – and two of them are behaviors we’ve already talked about. The three are defensiveness, difficulty trusting and relationship skills.
As we mentioned earlier, this is all about self-preservation. Where does this need come from, though?
“Unresolved feelings make us defensive,” says psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz. “So we’re not really attacking the other person, we’re just discharging our anger at what we have perceived, incorrectly, as an injustice.”
Same thing here – if we’ve been burned before, we’re hesitant to get burned again.
“Healthy relationships require vulnerability, and when we’ve been hurt emotionally it can be hard to open up and express ourselves,” explains Alisha Powell, a therapist, and social worker.
“Despite the fact that we are happy with the relationship, we can become scared that our partner will leave us and as a result, self-sabotage and say or do something to make what we feel is inevitable, happen.”
Here’s some new territory: the reason your relationships aren’t working may just be that you don’t have enough experience yet!
Our relationship skills come down to a few factors, like age, length in a current relationship or experience in past relationships.
“As we get older, we do get better,” Peel says with a laugh. “There’s hope.”
So, if this is your first time around the block, don’t worry – this is probably just a test run for something better down the road.
How To Stop Self-Sabotaging Your Relationships
So what if you have been sabotaging your relationships, now what?
Peel says not to fear: there’s always room for improvement.
“Having exhibited one of these behaviors isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Peel says. “It’s all about it becoming a pattern.”
And if it is a pattern, it’s time to take steps to break it.
Why Therapy Could Be The Answer
If you’ve noticed a trend throughout your relationships, it’s time to examine where this behavior is coming from.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing that on your own, therapy might be right for you.
“Sometimes we are blind to ourselves,” Luiz, a psychoanalyst, explains, which is why therapy can be a starting point to tackling these issues.
As Peel notes, relationship issues are a common reason for starting therapy.
But as the treatment carries on, deeper issues could arise: “Many find later that underlying reasons could include depression or anxiety,” she says, “which contribute to relationship issues.”
What if Therapy Isn’t An Option For Me?
Not to worry, Peel says. You can still take matters into your own hands to improve relationship patterns.
As a starting point, Peel suggests sitting down and making a list of your relationship behaviors and comparing them with a list of healthy relationship expectations.
Do they line up? If not, why not?
“Some clients will say, ‘Oh, my significant other should just know what I’m thinking,’” she says. “That’s just not realistic! That tells me you need to work on your communication skills.”
Another option for those forgoing therapy: reading articles/books, and listening to or watching podcasts and videos by therapists.
For Luiz, the perspective you’ll gain from looking inward is necessary for moving forward.
“The beauty of looking at [self-sabotage] from this perspective is it gives us a path for how we can grow,” she explains. “Instead of judging or shaming ourselves, we use this as an opportunity for healing, resolution of unresolved emotions, and huge emotional introspection and growth.”
The last step: talk it out with your partner.
Own up to your actions and promise to work to make things better. Both of you have to be on board and willing to make a change – otherwise, it won’t work.
Is Relationship Self-Sabotage Always A Bad Thing?
So, is self-sabotage when it comes to relationships always a bad thing?
No, Peel says. “It’s an innate desire for us to want to protect ourselves, especially if we’re not in a good relationship and maybe we should walk away.”
Call it gut instinct or the ability to see and process red flags, but distancing yourself from a partner (or potential partner) can sometimes be a good thing.
So, if the relationship is toxic or abusive, get out. There’s no shame in ending a relationship.
But, if we’re self-sabotaging a relationship that’s perfectly healthy, it’s time to examine why, Peel says.
There’s plenty of ways you could be sabotaging your relationships: whether that’s being jealous of your partner’s friendships, checking up on them constantly, or even pushing your partner away completely.
But, if you find yourself engaging in these behaviors, “It’s not a death sentence,” Peel, the researcher who coined the phrase “romantic self-sabotage,” tells us.
Meaning: there’s still hope.
Relationships can recover from our actions – we just have to come to the understanding that we made a mistake, examine why we made that mistake, and talk it through with our partner to determine a course of action to prevent the mistake from happening again.
However, if we’re not ready to take those steps, or our partner isn’t, the relationship may be doomed.
Everyone needs to work on themselves – and those unwilling to will face the same issues over and over again.
Therapist Esther Perel often puts it this way when she talks about the subject:
“Would you like to work on your issues in this relationship, or another one?”
The implication being that either way, you’re going to have to eventually deal with your shortcomings to establish healthier relationships, it’s just a matter of which relationships are important enough to do the work necessary to make them work.
And, if your partner isn’t willing to work on those issues together, it’s okay to leave.
Have you sabotaged past relationships? Did you learn from your mistakes? If so, how did you correct course?
Maybe you were on the receiving end a saboteur’s efforts to self-sabotage a relationship? What happened?
Either way, we want to hear from you!
Tell us about your experience by clicking on the “Discuss” link/button that appears at the end of this article.