You’re dating someone who’s caring, kind, and wonderful in every way.
Then it bubbles up: the desire to hit that big red ‘DESTROY’ button.
You pick fights. You set ultimatums. You push them away.
Eventually the relationship is done for, because you had that undeniable itch to screw it all up, and now you’re lamenting that things never work out, especially not with nice people.
Sound familiar? If so, you might be guilty of self-sabotage – the act of – consciously or unconsciously – putting obstacles in our own path to wreck our own happiness.
You might be a self-saboteur without even realising it, with only a trail of past relationships hinting that something is going wrong.
So, what are the signs that you’re self-sabotaging? Why do we do it? And how can we sort out this nasty tendency?
Signs of self-sabotage in relationships
‘Self-sabotage in relationships is when you are consciously or unconsciously ruining your relationship or you make it end,’ explains psychotherapist and relationship expert Lucy Beresford. ‘A major sign you are doing this is if you have a history of relationships that are unenjoyable or which end badly.’
You can look at past relationships to see patterns of self-sabotage, but there are also some warning signs that you’re doing it right now – handy, because it can be tricky to recognise the behaviour in the moment.
Psychodynamic therapist Stina Sanders points to some key indicators:
- You don’t reply to texts or answer your partner’s calls
- You avoid plans that lead to commitment, such as meeting their parents
- You cheat
- You constantly look for your partner’s flaws to either give you a reason to leave or to criticise them
- You display jealousy or don’t trust your partner, despite having no reason not to
- You withdraw emotionally
Those are the outward signs, but how about the internal ones?
Neil Wilkie, founder of The Relationship Paradigm, suggests listening out for an inner voice that tells you…
- You are not good enough
- They are better than you
- You don’t deserve this relationship
- You are unlovable
- It will all end badly, so better end it now
If these are messages your brain keeps repeating, you might have a tendency towards self-sabotage.
Why people self-sabotage in relationships
From the outside, self-sabotage makes little sense. Why would you deliberately ruin a good thing?
‘Some of the reasons that people self-sabotage is that they are carrying trauma from previous relationships,’ explains senior therapist Sally Baker. ‘This could be situations that they had no control over, situations where they were disappointed and let down in the past, and they bring that emotional pain to the next relationship.
‘When you have unresolved emotional pain from previous heartache, it’ll colour how you view your current relationships. It means you won’t give people a fair chance, it means you’re always setting yourself up to look for those signs of about to be discarded, about to be let down about to be betrayed.’
This can go back further than past romantic relationships.
‘Every person has a different attachment style, childhood and past experiences that will all have an effect on how we behave in our relationships,’ notes Stina.
‘Childhood is one of the biggest factors as to how people perceive intimacy. If early trusting relationships with parents or caregivers were broken by abuse, this can instill fear of intimacy as people believe that those who love them will inevitably hurt them.’
Often, self-sabotage comes back to low self-esteem. When, deep down, you don’t believe you’re worthy of love, you’ll wreck happy relationships or seek out rubbish ones to back up that belief.
Neil explains: ‘If someone has low self-esteem, then their embedded belief is that they cannot have a good relationship.
‘If they end up in a positive relationship this will create cognitive dissonance where the events do not match their beliefs. An easy solution to this is to destroy the relationship to align with their beliefs.’
‘Most people who sabotage their relationships are doing do from a place of deep fear,’ adds Lucy. ‘They are afraid of either being rejected/abandoned, or they are afraid of the increased intimacy that would come from a relationship moving to the next level.
‘These fears stem from our attachment styles, which come about because of how we were parented.
‘Some people fear being swamped by emotion because it is not what they had when younger. Others are terrified of being alone because this is what they experienced when younger.
‘So great is this pain that people will unconsciously try to end a relationship before they get the chance to be rejected by their partner.’
How to tackle self-sabotage in relationships
Okay, so you’ve started to recognise that you might be a self-saboteur. That’s an important first step. Now, how do you sort out this pattern?
Firstly, keep up that recognition in the moment, upping your awareness of when an urge to self-sabotage is rearing its head.
‘You have to step back and ask yourself certain questions that could help raise clarity on the matter,’ says Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic. ‘What advice would you give to a friend in this situation?
‘Ask yourself, will this issue I’m fixating on really matter in a week’s time, a month’s time, a year’s time? This can help you realise when you’re being quite emotional in the heat of the moment.
‘We need to let emotions die down before we make serious decisions about our relationship.’
Then it’s time to delve deeper and find the root of the issues.
‘In therapy we recommend that you identify the triggers: It might be words, actions, or even places,’ says Stina. ‘I also recommend identifying your attachment style, using the attachment theory framework. This theory explains patterns of behaviour with intimate others.
‘The ideal attachment style is a secure attachment, however childhood and relationship experiences can have a detrimental effect to your attachment style, meaning you could be avoidant or insecure.
‘The good news is you can work with a therapist on developing a more secure style by facing your fears and removing false beliefs about relationships.’
What to do if you’re dating a self-saboteur
‘If you believe your partner is self-sabotaging your relationship (not replying to texts, ghosting you, displaying a push-pull behaviour, picking fights etc), the best thing you can do is to highlight their behaviour in a calm manner,’ recommends Neil.
‘Remember it’s not your job to rescue your partner, however it’s important that you communicate your needs and set boundaries. You can do this by using ‘I’ statements, for example: I feel X when X because X. (I feel sad when you pull away because I want us to be close and communicate our needs effectively.).
‘If your efforts to address the problems have been ineffective or your partner is causing you emotional stress or mental health problems, then these are signs that you need to end the relationship.’
Sally adds: ‘You have to decide whether you want to cut your losses and run or see how it plays out.
But if you’re honouring yourself and you have good boundaries in place, it might be time to let them go. We can’t save anyone. We can only save ourselves.’
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