Self-sabotage in relationships isn’t always easy to recognize, especially when you’re the one engaging in these behaviors, like cheating or withholding gratitude.
Relationships can be hard. Not just in keeping them thriving once they’re established, but in getting to that point where long-term commitment is possible.
When you can’t seem to maintain relationships, it’s an easy to chalk it up to excuses like “no good ones are left.” But the truth is that sometimes relationships with potential get squashed by your own behaviors.
When this self-sabotage happens, it often comes from challenges related to insecurity, communication, and trust. And it’s likely something you’ve been working through for a very long time.
Learning to recognize self-sabotage in relationships can help you see places where introspection and healing may need to take place.
Change has to start with you. For example, if you see no reason to change yourself there’s nothing your partner can do that will improve the situation — or vice versa.
Cheating isn’t always pure lust. Sometimes cheating can be a self-sabotaging behavior; a way of ending the relationship and making yourself the villain.
“A person may cheat to either consciously or unconsciously end the relationship, especially if they feel they don’t deserve to be in a relationship or deserve to be loved,” explains Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-SS at LifeStance Health a licensed professional clinical counselor from Beachwood, Ohio. “This is often rooted in their own poor self-esteem.”
2. Lack of commitment
Lack of commitment occurs when your relationship progresses to a place where monogamy and titles (boyfriend, fiancé, etc.) are natural and often expected, but you won’t say the words or commit to any deeper feelings.
“If you are not willing to make a long-term commitment to your partner, it can create uncertainty and insecurity in the relationship,” says David Tzall, a psychologist from New York City. “This can cause your partner to feel like they are not a priority in your life.”
3. Holding grudges
Do you hang on to hurt caused by your partner, even if it’s unintentional? Holding grudges is a common relationship sabotaging behavior, indicates Leanza, that, when continually brought up, can create resentment and erode trust.
It often stems from your own place of insecurity and feelings of inferiority, she explains.
4. Passive aggression
Passive aggression is an indirect form of communicating your anger or frustration. It can come from a part of you that’s afraid or uncomfortable with experiencing the negative emotions that come from confrontation.
Tzall says passive aggression can lead to misunderstandings and confusion, and can undermine the trust in a relationship.
5. Withholding gratitude
Gratitude is one of the driving forces of relationship longevity. Showing your partner you’re appreciative of them is a bonding experience.
Dr. Harold Hong, a board certified psychiatrist in Raleigh, North Carolina, explains, “…expressing appreciation for your partner’s efforts, no matter how small, is a sign of respect and can show that their positive actions are valued.”
When you withhold gratitude, deliberately or subconsciously, you’re sending the signal to your partner that they’re being taken for granted.
6. Not communicating
A number of self-sabotaging relationship behaviors involve not communicating clearly, openly, or at all.
Your partner can’t read your mind. They don’t innately know your wants and needs all the time, and that’s not a reflection of their level of affection for you. It just means they aren’t psychics, and like you, the appreciate having open, clear communication.
Have you ever gotten upset because your partner did one thing and you expected something else but never communicated it? This could be considered “mind-reading” or jumping to conclusions.
“Mind-reading” involves making assumptions about what someone else is feeling or assuming they’ll understand you without open communication.
Hong indicates “mind-reading” can cause major misunderstanding in relationships and can be a form of emotional manipulation.
8. Unrealistic expectations
Holding your partner to an unachievable standard is another way to set yourself up, successfully, for failure.
“For instance, expecting your partner to make all the decisions in a relationship or expecting them never to make mistakes is an example of an unhealthy expectation that can lead to problems,” says Hong.
When your unreasonable expectations aren’t met it can allow you to convince yourself the relationship isn’t working, opening up a reason to leave.
9. Emotional unavailability
Intimacy, another pillar of long-term relationships, requires vulnerability, which means allowing someone else participate in your emotions.
“If you have difficulty opening up emotionally, it can make it challenging for your partner to connect with you on a deeper level,” says Tzall. “This can lead to feelings of loneliness and a lack of intimacy in the relationship.”
10. Disrespectful behavior
Self-sabotage in relationships can be abusive. Leanza points out there are many experiences that fall into this category, such as:
There’s no universal cause for self-sabotage in relationships, but knowing why you might be prone to these behaviors can help you address them at their source.
One of the many ways children learn is through mimicking what they see around them. If you grew up with caregivers who displayed self-sabotaging behaviors, you may have adopted those behaviors as well.
Attachment style is a part of psychological theory. It suggests how you form relationships in your adult life is directly impacted by the relationships you had as a child.
“Our attachment style and early models contribute immensely to how much we allow ourselves to connect with others and be in a relationship,” Tzall says. “Someone who has more of an avoidant attachment style may struggle with emotional intimacy and have difficulty forming close relationships.”
The following factors can create a sense of low self-worth that might make you feel undeserving of happiness and love:
Having been hurt in the past can also create a fear of vulnerability that makes you turn to self-sabotage as a means of protection.
“People who display a fear of vulnerability may keep themselves emotionally distant from their partner because they fear intimacy or the possibility of rejection,” explains Leanza.
Healing the underlying causes of self-sabotage in a relationship is the first step toward eliminating these behaviors. Speaking with a mental health professional can provide guidance and actionable steps in the process of recovery.
Therapy can also help you recognize these behaviors in others, an important step in understanding when or if a relationship has run its course.
Practical tips to stop self-sabotage in relationships
According to the experts, you can help stop self-sabotage in relationships by:
- taking ownership of self-sabotaging behaviors
- admitting and apologizing for mistakes
- practicing empathy
- building communication skills
- setting and respecting boundaries
- improving personal wellness
Setting expectations for yourself can also be important. What are behaviors you exhibit that you wouldn’t be okay with in someone else?
“Consider what behaviors you are and are not willing to tolerate, and what expectations you are fine with letting go of,” says Tzall.
Self-sabotage in relationships is a habit that can be difficult to break — especially if you don’t know you have it. Not communicating, holding grudges, and refusing to commit are all potential self-sabotage.
Being able to recognize these behaviors can help improve your ability to maintain relationships and develop relationship quality.