Sometimes the only thing standing between us and a happier relationship is ourselves. Many psychologists call this self-sabotaging behavior, which is broadly defined as behavior that creates problems in your own daily life and interferes with your long-standing goals.
In relationships, self-sabotage is when you're actively trying to ruin your own relationship or make it fall apart, whether consciously or subconsciously.
For some people, this is such an ingrained behavior that it can be hard to even recognize, let alone stop it.
Why we self-sabotage our relationships
Although often subconscious, there are several reasons someone might want to sabotage a perfectly healthy relationship. One big reason is low self-esteem and self-worth, according to clinical psychologist Maggie Dancel, Psy.D. If you're worried your partner may like you enough, you might subconsciously act out or push them away so you don't have to feel the sting of rejection.
Stirring up relationship drama can also be a way to keep your partner interested, Dancel tells mbg: "Individuals may not feel that they can get better, so they settle for any attention, affection, and connection, negative or positive."
On the other side of the spectrum, some individuals might fear commitment due to what the relationship will mean for their independence, leading them to self-sabotage the relationship in order to keep their distance and maintain a sense of freedom.
"Much of the reasoning behind someone self-sabotaging a relationship has to do with an individual's attachment style," Madeline Cooper, a psychotherapist and clinical social worker specializing in sexuality and relationships, tells mbg. Your attachment style is the way you deal with relationships, which is learned from our earliest childhood relationships with caregivers.
Individuals with anxious attachment styles often desire intimacy and fear rejection because of experiences of abandonment in childhood, which can lead them to project these negative outcomes of the relationship onto their partner.
Individuals with avoidant attachment styles often avoid closeness and intimacy because their childhood taught them to be self-sufficient, which may lead them to delay commitment or demonstrate a dismissive nature.
Because the desire to self-sabotage is so linked to our attachment style, people can often self-sabotage relationships subconsciously by repeating the relational patterns that we learned as children. "We repeat behaviors over and over again because the negative cycle is familiar," Dancel says.
Signs of self-sabotage in a relationship
Not addressing negative emotions
A big red flag for self-sabotage is having negative emotions about your partner or relationship but refusing to address them. Feeling anxiety, anger, frustration, or doubt in any relationship, romantic or not, is totally normal—but refusing to speak to your partner about these fears signals that you're not interested in fixing the problems you're seeing or keeping your relationship alive.
"I have seen clients who suspect their partners of cheating with no evidence to prove it but are so convinced because of their own insecurities," Cooper says, describing this as an example of self-sabotaging a relationship. It's hard not to get paranoid sometimes in relationships, but if you are constantly worried that your partner is cheating or wants to leave you, this could be a projection of your own fears and anxieties about the relationship.
Criticism toward your partner
The best partnerships involve at least some constructive criticism, but if you are always criticizing your partner for small behaviors, this could also be a sign of self-sabotage. Critiquing your partner when they do not deserve it could mean that you are subconsciously trying to create a wedge between you two or drive them away.
Engaging in unhealthy behavior
While it might not seem like it, eating poorly, drinking or smoking excessively, and overall not taking care of yourself can be a sign of self-sabotage in a relationship. These negative behaviors can function as a coping mechanism for individuals who are unhappy in a relationship but do not know how to fix it. These unhealthy patterns can also be a scapegoat for the issues in a relationship—if someone is focused on their excessive smoking, for example, they can blame their relationship troubles on that rather than looking for deeper problems.
Everyone holds a grudge once in a while, but if you are constantly annoyed by small things your partner does and can't seem to let go of that anger, this may be a sign of self-sabotage. Often, holding grudges in a relationship can lead to poor communication and delayed anger and fighting, which can greatly hurt any partnership. You may be subconsciously holding a grudge to avoid talking to your partner about the issues in your relationship.
Putting energy into everything except your relationship
A big sign of self-sabotage is if you are concerned about the state of your relationship but also not putting time into mending it. If you have suddenly become hyper-focused on work, your hobbies, or the other people in your life and are ignoring your partner completely, you might be trying to convince yourself you don't have time to fix the issues in your relationship, when really you are just prioritizing other things.
Having unrealistic expectations
Intimate relationships can be difficult to manage, and it's hard to always have a perfect set of expectations for what you and your partner owe each other. That being said, if you are regularly upset that your partner is not meeting your expectations and are not communicating your disappointment to them, this could also be a sign that you have already deemed your partner unfit for you in your head and don't think the relationship is worth fighting for.
Not keeping small promises
Small things add up. If you regularly break promises regarding what time you will be home or when you and your partner will be spending quality time, this could mean that you are training your partner to resent you.
Focusing on your and your partner's imperfections
Another red flag is if you are unable to see the good in your partner or relationship and can instead only focus on small imperfections on both sides. This negative pattern is often a sign that you are trying to drive a wedge between yourself and your partner.
Giving up on sex
It's normal for couples to go through phrases of lackluster sex (or no sex at all), but Cooper says it's telling when one person has given up and accepted the unfulfilling sexual relationship. "Because many people are uncomfortable talking about sexuality and intimacy, they will not tell their partner if they are unsatisfied in the sexual relationship. This can lead to frustration, resentment, or even 'the grass is greener' syndrome, where someone wonders if something else is better," she says.
Using the "silent treatment"
One of the biggest signs of self-sabotage is poor communication or a lack thereof. The "silent treatment," or refusing to speak to someone in your life out of anger or to teach them a lesson, is an extremely toxic form of communication that can be very harmful to any relationship.
How to stop sabotaging your relationship
Understand both partners' attachment styles
Understanding both your own and your partner's attachment styles can help you both learn how to better provide for each other's needs. There are easy tests online that allow people to quickly discover their attachment style and give helpful tips on what individuals with each style desire most out of a relationship.
"Knowing your and your partner's attachment style will help each person understand why they act in a certain way within the relationship and can help reframe the action from sabotaging to a pattern created based on a relationship and family history," said Cooper. "By becoming more self-aware of these patterns, people can start to intentionally work to create new patterns by confronting and being honest about their feelings surrounding intimacy, developing direct communication skills with their partner, and working to let go of any fears surrounding relationships and commitment."
Have an honest discussion
If you are feeling anxious or having doubts in any relationship, it is important that you initiate an open discussion about these fears. You and your partner should speak openly about what problems you're having and what the best next steps for your relationship could be. If you feel like you have some growing up to do before the relationship can change, taking a temporary break might be a move to consider.
If you feel like you and your partner cannot solve these issues on your own, counseling can be a great next step. Both individual and couples' therapy provide a great outlet to discuss your relationship fears in a supportive, nonjudgmental, and empathetic environment. If you feel like your issues are only surrounding your relationship, couples' therapy is probably the route to try. However, if you feel like your relationship troubles are stemming from bigger issues in your own life, it might be time to try individualized therapy to unpack some of your own life experiences that might be affecting how you're showing up in your relationships.
Relationships are never easy, and it's important to be patient while you are putting in all this hard work. Remember that you have a support system to help you through rough times and that you should be proud of yourself for recognizing unhealthy behavior and taking the necessary steps to fix it. "Life is hard!" Dancel lamented. "We are all just trying to make it in this world. It's important for people to be understanding and patient with themselves."
Mary Retta is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, sexual politics, and wellness. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Nation, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Vice, Nylon, Allure, and other similar outlets. When she is not writing she can be found scheming, watching cartoons, or sending unnecessarily long emails. To see more of Mary’s work and adventures, follow her on Twitter (@mary__retta).