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How to tell if you’re self-sabotaging in a relationship


Fear is a big factor (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Do you have a habit of withdrawing emotionally from the people you date when things start to get serious?

Do you tend to struggle to keep a relationship going after several months?

Does fear repeatedly drive you to run the other way?

If you’re answering ‘yes’ to these questions, you might be a relationship self-saboteur.

‘Self-sabotaging often refers to the act of deliberately damaging, destroying or obstructing ourselves and our achievements, or deliberately preventing a plan from being successful,’ explains Counselling Directory member Kirsty Taylor.

‘It may well involve repeating the same patterns of behaviour over and over or going out of our way not to take care of ourselves.’

Having a pattern of self-sabotage can be incredibly destructive, not only to your own mental wellbeing, but for your relationships.

‘Self-sabotage is damaging in a relationship when actions begin to get in the way of communicating healthily,’ says Kirsty.

‘Often, people might begin to cause arguments, might begin to become very controlling or very distant.

‘People might not prioritise the other person enough, might be reluctant to commit in trying to maintain their own independence and protecting themselves but at the cost of the other person.

‘Conversely, some might come to rely on their partner so heavily that it stifles the other person and leads to insecurity and an over-reliance on someone else to make you happy.

‘There may be signs of being overly critical or unnecessarily jealous, finding it almost impossible to trust the other person.

‘You may notice that you are being inauthentic, trying to be someone that you are not in order to gain approval from your partner. All these behaviours and feelings can be as a result of being hurt in the past, of needing to protect yourself from getting hurt or being vulnerable, of wanting to control what happens.

‘However, self-sabotaging behaviours will often lead to an unhealthy and unsustainable relationship and a self-fulfilling prophecy; the very thing the person is trying to avoid happens as a result of such behaviours.’

That doesn’t sound great. So how can we spot self-sabotage and stop it in its tracks?

Do you have a habit of holding people at arm’s length (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Counselling Directory member Beverley Blackman tells us: ‘Signs usually become more apparent as the relationship progresses into serious territory.

‘Essentially, what a person who self-sabotages is doing at this point is holding the partner at arm’s length emotionally, and gradually pushing them away.



Signs you could be a relationship self-saboteur:

  • You start to get freaked out when a relationship gets serious
  • You habitually hold people at arm’s length
  • Your behaviour in relationships is ruled by fear
  • You have a habit of withdrawing emotionally
  • You have low-self esteem and your inner critic is loud
  • You have an insecure attachment style
  • You tell yourself you’d rather lose your relationship now than later when you’re really emotionally invested
  • Your expectations are impossibly high, and you’re disappointed when, inevitably, the people you date can’t measure up

‘This can either be an unconscious process, whereby a person is not aware that they are pushing away, and it becomes a repeating pattern in each relationship (“My relationships just don’t seem to work out” etc), or a person is aware of changes in their behaviour towards their partner, which are usually focused on making the partner less important (for example, not returning calls or texts until later; becoming dismissive; not listening or engaging with their partner in the way that they have been doing) but does not necessarily know or understand why this happens to them (“I can’t seem to stay or settle in a relationship” etc).

‘In short, it’s a way of reducing emotional investment in the relationship, and it’s usually to protect that person against fear of emotional hurt.’

So why do people self-sabotage?

As with so many things, this tendency might be down to our early relationships.

Psychologist Noel McDermott explains: ‘We develop unhealthy coping strategies during times of distress in formative intimate relationships.

‘These then become the internal patterns our brain adopts as the habitual response to triggers and stressors.

‘The younger we were when we are learning these unhelpful coping behaviours the more automatic they will be.’

Kirsty tells us: ‘Often, self-sabotage is driven by our inner critic becoming a louder and more dominant voice and not allowing us to rationally question destructive beliefs, thoughts and excuses.

‘We give little or no space to the emotional responses we might be feeling, overriding these and eventually leading us to self-sabotaging behaviour.’ 

‘Often,’ says Beverley, ‘A person who self-sabotages has an insecure attachment style, or has unhealthy expectations or beliefs about what a relationship should be like.

‘Often they cannot cope with commitment because of fear of problems within a relationship. Often, they also have low self-esteem.

‘Usually, the roots for difficulties such as these can be found in childhood relationships, whereby adults were not responsive or were inconsistent in their care and love towards a child.

‘The child can then be left with feelings of unworthiness and negativity about themselves, or feel as if they are unlovable when it comes to adult relationships; they may end up with fears around abandonment or be uncomfortable with emotional or physical intimacy because of how they were treated in the past by those whom they ideally should have had the closest relationship with.

‘Self-sabotage is built around fear of those old, painful feelings being aroused again, and so a person will sabotage a relationship rather than risk experiencing very distressing feelings if the relationship goes wrong – i.e. they will kill it off before it gets into intimate territory (“I think we’re better off as friends” etc).’

Kirsty agrees that self-sabotage is largely down to fear, saying: ‘We all desire to be loved as humans, but for those people who have had negative experiences with intimacy, it might become something to be fearful of, something that we need to protect ourselves from. Many of these behaviours will be rooted in fear.’

For some, the question of whether they’re having legitimate concerns over their relationship or simply sabotaging it can be tricky to answer.

To those people, Beverley says: ‘Look at your past relationships. Is there a pattern to them? Do you get several months into a relationship and then begin to struggle? Does your behaviour towards your partner become less affectionate?

‘Do you feel more critical of your partner? Do you spend less time thinking about them? Do you focus on yourself more than you do the relationship? Do you feel let down when your partner suddenly does not match up to your (high) expectations?

‘Do you feel pressure? Do you feel emotionally withdrawn?

‘There are lots of complex feelings around self-sabotage in a relationship, but mindfulness of how you feel about yourself in your relationship and how you feel about your partner, and being able to notice changes and anything that may have triggered those changes, are good ways of starting.’

If you’re a self-saboteur looking to change, there are things you can do to break the habit.

Kirsty says: ‘It’s really important to have a good look at ourselves if we begin to notice self-sabotaging behaviours, to be curious about what’s happening as we begin to react in a way that feels at odds with how we are feeling emotionally.

‘Once you begin to see a pattern, you can begin to reframe your attitudes, emotions and beliefs’, says Kirsty (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

‘Reflect on how you normally act in a relationship. Is there a pattern – do you find yourself picking faults very early on, or becoming very anxious about things ending, or have trust issues or start to withdraw if things get serious?

‘It can be useful to begin journaling to identify potential triggers – “what was happening at the time, what was my reaction, what was I afraid of, how likely is it really that the outcome I was afraid of would actually happen?”

‘Once you begin to see a pattern, you can begin to reframe your attitudes, emotions and beliefs and realise it might be your internal critic that is doing the self-sabotaging. It can be really useful to speak to a counsellor if you notice that some of your behaviours are destructive and consistent in each relationship you enter. 

‘It is critical that you know your own worth and believe you deserve to be loved and desired. Once you love yourself, you allow the space for others to love you. You realise that you don’t need to rely on them to make you feel complete. Love becomes the added extra, rather than the main goal.’ 

Noel adds: ‘It’s not about the outcome, but it’s about the process.

‘Attempting to avoid repetition produces another repetition of opposite and equal, so the trick is not to think “am I self-sabotaging or are these doubts real?” but to think, “am I behaving and approaching this situation in a reasonable, rational and estimable way in the face of the triggers?”

‘The only way to defeat past repetitions is to behave differently in the here and now.’

Kirsty also recommends focusing on communication, saying it’s ‘the best way to form healthier relationship habits.

‘If you want to have a trusting and long-term relationship, it’s really healthy to speak up when you notice old habits and feelings coming up.

‘If you share with your partner how you are feeling and why, you can work together to either avoid triggering situations or have a safe space for both of you to verbalise them when you notice them. This is the key to a happy and healthy relationship.’

Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help in unlearning these patterns, too.

‘Relationship issues such as these are most easily worked on in therapy, as the therapist has no bias and is there to help you gain insight and work through feelings that you find frightening and difficult to deal with,’ says Beverley.

‘Don’t be afraid to reach out if you need to – self-sabotage of relationships are not easy things to work through on your own.

‘You may feel very stuck, but you need not be: this is something that therapy is very effective at overcoming.’ 

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.



Need support for your mental health?

You can contact mental health charity Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463.

Mind can also be reached by email at info@mind.org.uk.

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk


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