Self-sabotage in relationships: what it looks like and how to stop it

Self-sabotage in relationships involves engaging in self-destructive patterns of behavior—whether unconsciously or consciously—which threaten to end a romantic relationship. This may involve distancing yourself, ignoring your partner, or putting emotional walls up. Often, self-sabotaging is related to past experiences or trauma. 

Self-sabotage can harm or even end relationships that would otherwise be healthy and fulfilling. While self-sabotaging patterns usually reflect underlying emotional issues, recognizing them and their root causes is an important step in avoiding them in the future.

Why Do I Self-Sabotage in Relationships?

There are plenty of reasons people self-sabotage in a relationship. These include: 

  • Fear of vulnerability. Some people may struggle to be vulnerable with their partner, causing them to hold back their emotions and create a distance in the relationship. 
  • Lack of trust. If someone has been hurt in the past, they may find it difficult to trust their partner, leading them to question their actions and intentions or even become jealous and controlling.
  • Poor communication. Communication is critical for a healthy relationship, and if you struggle with expressing your needs, it may lead to misunderstandings or future resentment.
  • Low self-esteem. Individuals with low self-esteem may question their partner’s love and affection, leading them to push their partner away or sabotage the relationship. 
  • Past trauma. Individuals with past trauma which have been unaddressed may be unconsciously repeating patterns or have negative beliefs about themselves that can affect existing relationships. 
  • Fear of commitment. Some people may self-sabotage as a way of avoiding relationships altogether or pulling away when things get too serious. 
  • Fear of rejection. If someone is worried about their partner losing interest, they might end a relationship prematurely to avoid the hurt of being broken up with.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Expecting perfection from yourself or your partner can often lead to disappointment, frustration, and a lack of appreciation and gratitude.

Why Am I Trying to Ruin My Relationships? Why Do I Mess up Every Relationship?

Most people do not intentionally try to ruin relationships or mess them up. In many cases, people unknowingly harm their own relationships due to underlying issues like fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, or attachment. 

If you feel that your behavior is sabotaging your relationship, try reflecting on your behavior, as well as your emotions and past experiences. It could also be beneficial to seek professional help.

Am I Self-Sabotaging in Love?

Often, people sabotage their own relationships without even realizing it. Watch out for these signs of self-sabotage in your relationships:

  • Serial dating. Dating many romantic partners or having sex with no emotional intimacy or closeness can indicate an urge to self-sabotage.
  • Avoidance. This denotes a fear of getting “too close” to others when relationships seem to be going well. It often involves growing a deeper emotional or romantic connection and then pulling away.
  • Low self-esteem. If someone doesn’t believe themselves to be worthy of a healthy relationship, they may take measures to end it, usually subconsciously. 
  • Promiscuity. While being sexually active is healthy and normal, risky sexual behavior or infidelity can point to self-sabotage. 
  • Criticism. Being hyper-critical of your romantic interests or friends and pushing them away because they will never meet your expectations is a form of self-sabotage.

Identifying self-sabotage habits is the first step in breaking them. If you find yourself repeating any of these behavior patterns, it may be beneficial to meet with a mental health professional. They can help you explore your harmful tendencies and learn how to build healthy, meaningful relationships.

Is Self-Sabotage a Symptom of Depression?

Self-sabotaging may co-occur with depression. Depression usually involves a persistent low mood causing low self-esteem, hopelessness, and helplessness. Depressive symptoms such as negative self-talk and low self-esteem can breed sabotaging behaviors. For example, someone with depression might imagine that their low mood makes them a burden to their friends or partner, causing them to isolate themselves. 

You can counter self-sabotage by monitoring your thinking, changing your attitudes, and using action-oriented behavior and healthy coping skills to help mitigate depressive thought patterns with healthy, well-balanced thinking.

Why Do People with Abandonment Issues Self-Sabotage?

Abandonment issues are often caused by past life experiences or trauma history involving a series of broken attachments. For example, growing up without consistent parent figures, experiencing the death of a parent at an early age, and the absence of a loved one due to substance use or mental illness could lead to fears of abandonment. 

 

Circumstances like these inform our attachment style, which often determines how we act in relationships. People who exhibit self-sabotaging behaviors might have an avoidant attachment style, which causes them to avoid deep or intimate relationships. 

When a person experiences abandonment over the course of their life, especially in early childhood, it can be difficult as an adult to trust that a friend, romantic partner, or other important figure will stick around. Therefore, this individual may “self-sabotage” and begin to distance themselves or abruptly end their relationship out of fear that it may end without warning.

Since their causes are often deep-seated, changing self-sabotaging behaviors can seem difficult. However, a mental health professional can help you or your partner not only recognize these behaviors, but also work to stop them. Reach out to a therapist or counselor today to preserve the relationships that mean the most to you.

How Do I Stop Self-Sabotage in My Relationship?

In order to avoid self-sabotaging, it can be helpful to work out any abandonment issues, fear of commitment, past trauma, and trust issues with the help of a mental health professional. If you notice any signs of self-sabotage, a therapist or counselor can help you dig deep and find the root of your habits. They can also give you the tools to build and sustain healthy, meaningful relationships. 

It’s also important to always maintain open communication with your partner. If you can be honest with them about any second thoughts or emotional issues you’re having, that can make it easier to identify and address any self-sabotaging behavior.

Table of contents

Why Do I Self-Sabotage in Relationships?

Why Am I Trying to Ruin My Relationships? Why Do I Mess up Every Relationship?

Am I Self-Sabotaging in Love?

Is Self-Sabotage a Symptom of Depression?

Why Do People with Abandonment Issues Self-Sabotage?

How Do I Stop Self-Sabotage in My Relationship?

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Christine Ridley, Resident in Counseling in Winston-Salem, NC

Christine Ridley, LCSW

Christine Ridley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in adolescent and adult anxiety, depression, mood and thought disorders, addictive behaviors, and co-dependency issues.

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Theresa Welsh, LPC

Theresa Welsh is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Head of Content at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

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  • Avoidant attachment style: Causes and adult symptoms. Attachment Project. (2022, September 12). https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/avoidant-attachment-style/

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on 01/18/2018

    Author: Taylor Bennett

    Updated on  06/29/2023 at 10:30 AM

    Author: Delaney Hammond & Christine Ridley, LCSW

    Reviewer: Theresa Welsh, LPC

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding additional information about what causes individuals to self-sabotage, its connection to depression, and how to stop it. The article was also clinically reviewed by a clinician to double-ensure accuracy, as well as edited for clarity.

  • Updated on  06/29/2023 at 10:30 AM

    Author: Delaney Hammond & Christine Ridley, LCSW

    Reviewer: Theresa Welsh, LPC

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding additional information about what causes individuals to self-sabotage, its connection to depression, and how to stop it. The article was also clinically reviewed by a clinician to double-ensure accuracy, as well as edited for clarity.

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