What are the signs of self-sabotaging in relationships and why do we often undermine our possibilities of a successful romance? Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović explains the logic behind self-sabotage in couples and offers some practical solutions. 


Self-sabotage is acting in a way that undermines our achievements and daily living. We can be and often are doing this in various areas of life. You could be self-sabotaging if you keep eating junk food instead of a healthy diet. If you oversleep almost every exam, or if you are constantly late for job interviews.

In relationships, self-sabotaging behaviour means actively trying to ruin the relationship, whether you do it consciously or unconsciously. It can happen with friendships, family relationships, or in romantic couplings. In this article, we will focus on how and why we self-sabotage romantic relationships when in reality we really want to be in that relationship. 


Signs of self-sabotage in relationships

What does self-sabotaging in a relationship look like? Could you be doing it without even realising it? Here are six ways you could be unintentionally looking to destroy your relationship.


  1. Not addressing adverse emotions
    Every relationship will sometimes spark anger, anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction. Ideally, these emotions will be addressed in a constructive conversation with your partner. However, when you are not willing to do so, it could be a sign of self-sabotage, as a recent study found.
  2. Extreme suspiciousness
    It’s normal to get insecure in a relationship from time to time. Doubts about your partner’s commitment and faithfulness could creep in. However, if you are not responding to reassurance – and there is no easing your suspicion– you could be self-sabotaging the relationship
  3. Extreme criticism
    Expressing your expectations and needs is not only normal – it is a prerequisite of healthy relationships. Yet, you could be overly critical. This happens when you are actively searching for everything that is “wrong” with your partner.

    Also, if you are not providing constructive criticism and suggestions on how to mend the things you don’t like, it can be considered extreme criticism. Constantly nagging in this way creates a wedge between you and your partner and sabotages the relationship
  4. Holding grudges
    Most relationships come with some level of hurt here and there. Those that succeed, research shows, use such occurrences to grow. Partners learn, talk, forgive and self-forgive, change for the better. If you decide to hold a grudge instead of working on forgiving the offence, you might be engaging in self-sabotage. 

    Bearing grudges is a sign of relationship self-sabotage shutterstock/Olena Yakobchuk
  5. Breaking promises
    Life happens, and we cannot always keep our promises. We’ll come late, forget to buy groceries, miss the date night and work instead. However, when you do this regularly, it could be a sign of you unconsciously trying to make your partner so dissatisfied that they will end the relationship.
  6. Avoiding physical intimacy
    Research shows that one of the paths self-saboteurs take when working on ruining their relationship is avoiding physical intimacy. The idea of the sizzling passion that lasts for ever promoted in media is unrealistic and puts unnecessary pressure on couples. Although the topic is extensive, we can say that physical intimacy means much more than mindblowing, fulfilling and happy sex all the time. Indeed, any level of physical intimacy in a relationship can be normal and satisfying for the couple. 

    However, you could find yourself beginning to avoid the usual form of intimacy and physical affection in your relationship. And this might be a sign of withdrawing and self-sabotaging.


Why do we self-sabotage relationships?

Relationship issues are one of the top reasons people seek a psychologist’s help. And the causes of a dysfunctional relationship are many. But one factor that often connects many forms of seemingly senseless actions in unhealthy relationships is self-sabotaging behaviour. 


Here is a typical example. You meet the 'perfect' person. You fall in love and do everything you can to make them yours. They’re an ideal partner – loving, full of kindness, inspiring, passionate, selfless. But now, all of a sudden, you seem to be doing your best to ruin the relationship. It doesn’t make much sense, right? So, why do we do it?


“Research shows that one of the paths self-saboteurs take when working on ruining their relationship is avoiding physical intimacy.”

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Relationship Research brought together the findings and observations of 15 Australian relationships psychologists, giving us insight into the intricate world of self-sabotaging relationships of a romantic nature. The researchers detected six key sources of self-handicapping behaviour in intimate relationships:


1. Fear of getting hurt

Most commonly, people consciously or unconsciously try to wreck relationships because they are too afraid of being vulnerable. The fear of being hurt combines with the desire to self-protect and initiate self-sabotage. 


For example, let’s say you got deeply wounded in one of your previous relationships. If you didn’t address the pain in a healthy way, it might be controlling your actions in all subsequent relationships. So, instead of allowing your partner to see your vulnerability, you could be creating conflict. Being angry all the time, stonewalling, or cheating are some of the proven strategies to damage a relationship. 

The reasoning here is simple: “If I ruin the relationship, I can’t get hurt”.


2. Insecure attachment style

The blueprint of our adult relationships gets developed in childhood. How our parents related to us will eventually transfer to our way of relating to others. A 2019 study determined that romantic self-saboteurs are most commonly those who underwent attachment trauma in childhood. 

If your attachment style is anxious or avoidant, you are likely to sabotage your relationships. The reason is, again, to avoid the prospect of being abandoned or hurt by your partner.  


3. Low self-esteem

In the roots of many self-sabotaging behaviours in relationships is the belief that we are unworthy of love. Being overly self-critical can transfer to how we relate to others in our lives. If you see yourself as hopeless and helpless, you probably won’t even try to deal with a problem or mend a disagreement. In other words, you will allow your relationship to decay, sabotaging it with passivity.

When your self-esteem is low, you will probably expect your partner to find another, and succumb to jealousy fits as a result. Alternatively, you could also accept being belittled all the time. Therefore, you could seek toxic, often narcissistic partners, and self-sabotage your chances of healthy relationships.

Trust and communication are essential shutterstock/oneinchpunch


4. Beliefs about relationships in general

One possible cause of self-sabotaging relationships relates to our preconceptions about how a partnership should look like. A 2012 study confirmed that when couples believe in myths about love and marriage, these misconceptions can negatively impact relationships. It can be any of the two extreme beliefs about partnerships – that they are an inevitable cause of pain – or a fairytale. In both cases, such presumptions and associated anticipations sabotage your chances of developing authentic intimacy. 

Indeed, you will find yourself acting on those expectations without really testing them in reality. People whose beliefs are set in stone are often inflexible. There is no place for compromise or organic growth of love. There is little room for spontaneity. In that way, those people inevitably destroy their relationships.


5. Underdeveloped coping mechanisms

All relationships hit hurdles. Whether it’s day-to-day stressors or a massive crisis – every relationship will go through tough times at some point. Indeed, according to a 2021 study, lack of resilience and self-efficacy was found to trigger self-sabotaging behaviour in romantic relationships.


“Most commonly, people try to wreck relationships because they are too afraid of being vulnerable. The fear of being hurt combines with the desire to self-protect and initiate self-sabotage.”

If you are not prepared to handle conflicts, you could, for example, emotionally withdraw and shut down. Alternatively, you could get defensive, needy and clingy. Furthermore, an affair, for some, presents a sort of a safe escape from having to deal with fights or crises. So, when you cannot cope with stress in a relationship, you could be actively ruining it.


6. Avoiding commitment 

A way to protect yourself from getting hurt is to stick to brief relationships – no real commitment. When you initiate a relationship and then end it before it gets serious, you remain in control. Or, so you think. Who is actually in control is the self-saboteur – and this is not your authentic self. In fact, it’s merely your defense mechanism. 


How to stop self-sabotaging relationships

As mentioned earlier, we will not be talking about the relationships you truly wish to leave for whatever reason. We will be looking into why and how you keep self-sabotaging relationships you do want to be in. So, how can you stop being self-destructive when it comes to your love life? 


  • Understand the hidden saboteur 
    We gave you six evidence-based reasons why people self-sabotage their romantic endeavors. If you want to stop ruining your relationships, you need to understand why it is you felt you needed to do so in the first place. Set aside some time to do some soul-searching and explore your hidden reasons. Dig deep and really ask yourself 'why' a few times over. 
  • Learn about your attachment styles 
    Attachment styles can have a massive impact on our adult relationships. Indeed, you and your partner’s attachment styles could dictate how you relate to each other. To steer your interactions in another way, start by taking a quick relationship attachment style test. When you become aware of your style and how it affects you, you can begin to change the patterns and transform your relationship.
  • Communicate 
    This advice will never get old: communicate. Do it assertively, openly, gently and respectfully. Be direct and genuine. Avoid casting blame – express yourself and your perspective and feelings. Start your sentences with “I feel…”, “To me, it seems as if…”. Explain your position and how you feel in a particular situation, then propose a solution, and ask your partner how they feel about it. Good communication in a relationship is essential to its survival.
  • Seek counselling 
    Self-sabotage often comes from deeply ingrained patterns we can’t clearly notice ourselves. Significant romantic relationships have a way of triggering the unconscious fears and expectations that waited for the right time to appear. Counselling can help you (and your partner) to bring that unconscious content to the light of the day, address it, and regain control over your life and relationships.


Round-up: ditch the saboteur

We all have a saboteur hiding somewhere inside of us. It’s not a villain. It’s merely a part of us trying to protect us from harm the best way it knows how. However, if you want to control your life – including your love life – you need to thank this part of you for its contribution and say goodbye to it. Stop self-sabotaging relationships and embrace the new you when it comes to romance: awaken and brave. •

Please bear in mind that the list doesn’t cover all the nuances of how people sabotage their relationship chances. If you suspect you could be self-sabotaging, consider seeking out a psychologist’s help to assist you in figuring out your feelings and behaviour.


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Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović

bert.jpgStanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.



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