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7 Ways You're Setting Up Your Own Relationships To Fail

Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN
October 30, 2019
Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN
By Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN
Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN is a licensed and triple-board certified clinical and forensic psychologist and neuropsychologist. She received bachelor's degrees in both psychology and business administration from UC Berkeley, and her master's and doctorate from the San Diego State University/University of California San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology.
Image by Leandro Crespi / Stocksy
October 30, 2019

You've got your life together for the most part, but you keep committing blunders in your romantic relationships and you don't know why. Or do you? Perhaps the reasons your relationships haven't worked out have been right under your nose all along, but you've been ignoring the warning signs and not seeing the pattern.

There are so many successful, loving, wonderful people who aren't in the relationships they deserve. Many people end up settling for subpar relationships, and it seems that they are stuck in a rut no matter what they do.

In my work as a psychologist, I've learned that oftentimes these patterns actually emerge from a set of self-sabotaging actions. Without consciously realizing it, people set up their own relationships to fail. Here are a few commons ways that it happens:

1. You keep going after someone who can never give you what you want.

Perhaps you are someone who enjoys challenges and somewhere along the way adopted a belief that you need to "earn" someone's love and affection. If you hold that mentality, you'll constantly be searching for partners who are tough to pin down. But often, there is a reason they're hard to get. They may not want a relationship, be struggling with intimacy, or perhaps (yikes!) they're just not that into you.

If this is you, take a deep breath and commit to changing your attitude about love today. Instead of looking for someone who might pose a challenge, find someone who makes you feel excited to be with them for reasons other than a game of cat and mouse.

2. You look for fixer-uppers because it fills a psychological need for you.

Sometimes people look for partners that are broken in some way, who espouse the belief that they will never love again or generally present with a really messy life they are hoping you will clean up for them. And this often happens for women who revel in caretaking. Sometimes, putting someone else's life back together makes you feel good about yourself and bolsters your self-esteem and sense of importance. But this is a big mistake because it creates an inherent imbalance in the relationship where you're the perpetual giver and your partner is the constant taker.

If this is you, find a different way to fulfill that need to feel good through giving. Volunteer your time or take a job in the helping industries. Work on your self-esteem in other ways so that you don't rely on fixing a partner up to bolster your sense of confidence.

3. You pick a "safe" partner, someone who is unlikely to challenge or abandon you.

This is likely to happen if you have shaky self-esteem, have been unlucky in love in the past, or have seen family members or close friends burned by love. You decide to settle for someone who you're not particularly into, but your belief is that they are unlikely to leave you because they may not have many other prospects—after all, everyone says to your partner how much of a catch you are. While that may seem flattering at first, this type of compliment, if heard over and over again, should clue you in that something's not quite right. If your friends and family are seeing the imbalance, it's time to take a good look under the hood.

If this is you, you'll need to work on your self-esteem and your beliefs about love so that previous ideas and experiences don't get in the way of you finding a truly fulfilling relationship. Ask a trusted friend to keep you accountable in your quest for self-development.

4. You're afraid of true intimacy, so you end up seeking unavailable people.

Some people find true intimacy a bit uncomfortable and even scary. True intimacy requires you to be vulnerable with your wants and desires and to open yourself up to potential pain—because even great relationships have dark times. So if this is you, you may seek unavailable people so that you never have to be vulnerable. They may neglect your needs or leave you first—but at least they are unlikely to ask for a deeper commitment than you're ready for.

If this is you, you'll need to do some work around where your intimacy issues come from and try to resolve them. If you find that perhaps you just don't want a relationship to tie you down right now, that's OK too—just don't keep telling yourself it's what you need and getting into relationships that may leave you more scarred because these partners make you feel insecure and unimportant.

5. You're afraid to be alone and hang on longer than you should.

Some people find it very difficult to be alone with their own thoughts. They have to be out doing things, constantly with other people, perhaps as a way to distract. If this is you, you may find that you stay in unfulfilling and even unhealthy relationships longer than you should because, as they say, "the devil you know is better than the one you don't." But by being with this partner, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to be with someone else who might treat you better and be a better fit for you.

If this is you, challenge yourself to start spending more time alone, starting small like going to a coffee shop by yourself for 30 minutes and working your way up to taking a short vacation by yourself. Find ways to speak up about your needs more assertively to friends and family as a form of practice. Learn to be comfortable in your own skin before getting too entangled in a romantic relationship so that you can better judge when it is time to call it quits.

6. You nitpick the things that don't matter and miss the ones that do.

You look for someone who checks off your list rather than those who align with your values. Sometimes people will make checklists of their perfect partner, and when someone doesn't fit the bill, they nitpick and write off the person without further consideration. But you are likely to miss people who can be great partners for you by not being centered in values in your partner pursuit. Instead of thinking about what you'd like to stand for and what types of ideas are important to you, you overly focus on categorical items that don't make a person who they are. A person's values are the core of their personality and what they want out of life (like adventure, community, spirituality, learning, integrity), and these are important dimensions to be aligned on with your partner.

If this is you, check your checklist at the door and instead create a values grid. If you have trouble naming your top values, I have a free resource available at my website called the Values Card Sort, which is a fun way to get to your top values in a few minutes. In deciding whether a partner is right for you, check in with your values instead of a list. You'll be much better off.

7. You unconsciously seek chaos, perhaps due to past experiences or trauma.

Sometimes people mistakenly believe that a passionate relationship involves a lot of intensity and drama. They may seek this because they believe that's what people do when they're really in love, or perhaps their past relationships have been chaotic or even traumatic, and they inadvertently seek out the same type of relationship qualities over and over again. In essence, they get themselves stuck in a loop with unhappy relationships characterized by a lot of conflict.

If this sounds like you, remember that true love should not involve chaos at every turn. Just because there are ups and downs does not mean that your partner loves you more for it, and just because you find yourself in a relationship that feels more mundane does not mean it's the wrong one. Reorient your thinking regarding what constitutes a good relationship (one rooted in shared values), and consider seeking a professional to help work out any underlying trauma if you find that's the root cause.

When you start to recognize these self-sabotaging behaviors for what they are, you'll be able to start moving past your old patterns and get on your way to finding a truly fulfilling relationship. 

Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN author page.
Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN

Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN is a licensed and triple-board certified clinical and forensic psychologist and neuropsychologist. She received bachelor's degrees in both psychology and business administration from UC Berkeley, and her master's and doctorate from the San Diego State University/University of California San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and is a two-time recipient of National Institute of Mental Health’s National Research Services Award.

Ho is an award-winning researcher, tenured associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, and co-host of Face the Truth. She was born in Taipei, Taiwan and raised in Taipei, Syracuse, and Los Angeles. Today, Ho maintains a private practice in LA where she conducts neuropsychological and forensic assessments, and provides evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapies. She currently serves as Consulting Neuropsychologist at Bridges To Recovery, an inpatient residential treatment center for adults, and Consulting Neuropsychologist to Milestones Ranch Malibu, a dual-diagnoses residential treatment program for professionals. She recently authored Stop Self-Sabotaging: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower, and Get Out of Your Way.