While relationships can sometimes be complicated, you may not even realize the ways in which you’re actually harming your chances of a meaningful, long-lasting connection. In fact, there are certain thoughts and behaviors that you may regard as completely benign, but in reality, they can create distance and negatively impact your relationship.
Relationships experts call this self-sabotage. "When I see self-sabotaging behavior in the couples I work with it usually results from attempts to defend against vulnerability and hurt," says Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and owner of Baltimore Therapy Group. Often, says Lyons, these couples seek connection, "However, the ways they go about seeking that connection pushes the other further from them."
According to licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Sheva Assar, who specializes in relational wellness, self-sabotaging behaviors can also be rooted in low self-esteem, and in turn a fear of intimacy and vulnerability. It can also be attributed to "the uncertainty of how to handle certain situations and not having the effective skills to navigate relationship stressors, which again may be tied to discomfort with vulnerability at its’ core," Dr. Assar says.
Meet the Expert
Heather Z. Lyons is a licensed psychologist and owner of Baltimore Therapy Group. Dr. Sheva Assar is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in relational wellness.
Below, explore five common self-sabotaging behaviors to help determine whether you or your partner may be blocking the path to a meaningful relationship, and what to do about it.
Signs of Self-Sabotage
You Think Your Relationship Will End
One sign that you may be sabotaging your chances of having a happy and healthy future with your partner is that you don’t actually think there is a future. While relationship anxiety is normal, especially in the beginning stages of a relationship, it can materialize into actual problems if left unchecked. "The person with the anxious mind ruminates,” said Jenny Yip, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, in an interview with HuffPost. And the best way to address your fears is to communicate them. “Most people with anxiety will ruminate and imagine the worst possible thing happening. Rather than dooming your relationship, clarify and communicate what your expectations are from the start so that your mind doesn’t have to ruminate to the worst possible places.”
If you feel like you can't overcome your self-sabotaging behavior on your own or through honest, empathetic conversations with your partner, consider seeking therapy, either individual or couples'.
Although it's easy to assume that history may repeat itself, know that your current partner isn't your ex. Try to focus on the reality of your relationship and build on the present, positive experiences instead of what you think may or may not happen.
You Refuse to Open up to Your Partner
Another indicator that you’re harming your chances of having a meaningful relationship is that you’re overly guarded and closed-off around your partner. However, in order to truly get to know someone and build a lasting bond, you have to be willing to be open and honest around them. And while you may be a private person, if you keep hiding things about your past, refrain from sharing your true feelings, and aren’t willing to be emotionally open over time, a meaningful relationship will always be out of reach. A widely cited quote by vulnerability researcher Brené Brown captures the sentiment. It reads, "Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”
Remember that being vulnerable with your partner doesn't mean sharing all of your deepest fears and hurts in one conversation. Instead, it can look like expressing small reflections that get deeper over time. For example, you could share something you've always wanted to try (from learning to play the piano to traveling to a country on your bucket list). As you get more comfortable and confident, you can share more intimate details, like a fear you have or an embarrassing moment.
You’re Comparing Your Partner to an Ex
Another indicator that you’re lowering your chances of having a successful and flourishing relationship with your partner is that your ex is still on your mind. Comparing your current partner to your ex-significant other, and keeping a scorecard in your head does not give you and your current partner a real chance to build a new and enduring connection.
Similarly, having unrealistic expectations of your partner can also be a sign of self-sabotage, Dr. Assar says. Doing this can prevent you from experiencing them as they really are. At the same time, you're also preventing yourself from experiencing who you are with your new partner because you're caught up in how you wish your partner to be.
You’re Automatically Distrusting of Your Partner
If your relationship default setting is to automatically be distrusting and suspicious of your partner, you can trust in the fact that your skepticism could cause your relationship to unravel. And while it may be hard to trust someone new, especially if you've been hurt or betrayed in the past (see: Pretty much all of us), it’s the only way to build a solid foundation for a successful relationship. "Trusting is a decision you must make knowing that there aren't any guarantees," writes Shelley Bullard, MFT, for MindBodyGreen.
You Don’t Think You’re Good Enough
If you’re unsure of yourself and have a tendency to doubt your value, you could actually be contributing to the demise of your relationship. Having a "low sense of self worth and belief that one will be rejected or is not lovable/deserving for the relationship," can be considered self-sabotaging behavior, Dr. Assar says. If you believe that you’re not good enough and/or that you don’t deserve to be truly happy, it won’t be long before your actions reflect these insecurities and doubts.
How to Stop Self-Sabotage in a Relationship
Whether you're the self-saboteur or on the receiving end of the behavior, both members of the relationship can benefit from the following expert advice to address it.
Slow Down and Reflect
A little mindfulness can create the space needed to respond to situation, rather than react. "Try to think back on your relationships and identify what triggers you in relationships. Is it a fear of rejection? Abandonment? Intrusion? Intimacy?" Lyons says. "After you're aware of your trigger, think about your knee-jerk reaction. That's usually the self sabotaging behavior. Instead of moving
right from trigger to that knee-jerk reaction instead try considering the fear you hold. Sit with that and slow the process down," Lyons adds.
Work to Build Trust
When you see your partner engaging in self-sabotaging behavior consider the ways you can build trust in your relationship. Trust builds as the result of consistency in behavior. It's pretty difficult to convince someone to trust you through words alone. However, when your partner sees over and over again that you respond to their vulnerability with openness and care, they'll learn to show you their vulnerability without defensiveness.
Share Your Feelings
At the same time, be an advocate for your feelings. If you recognize your partner committing self-sabotage, communicating how you feel invites your self-sabotaging partner to be more forthcoming with their emotions. "This is often helpful as it helps the partner with the self-sabotaging behaviors to see the impact that their actions are having on their loved ones and often times the impact is very different than what the person is wanting," Dr. Assar explains.