Sex & Relationships

Why we really self-sabotage in relationships: How to spot it and put an end to it

There are three major signs that you're doing it.
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We often hear the phrase “self-sabotage” when talking about dating and relationships, but the fact of the matter is that many of us still aren’t totally sure what that looks like.

It can be easy to spot in movies and TV shows; just look at Kristen Wiig’s character Annie in Bridesmaids.

In Bridesmaids, Annie self-sabotages in her relationship because of past heartbreak.

(Universal Pictures)

She’s in an unfulfilling “situationship” with a guy who doesn’t care about her, then a lovely man who really understands her comes along and they have great chemistry together.

So, what does Annie do? She pushes him away because she’s afraid of being hurt again and in doing so she sabotages the relationship before it can even begin.

Watching it play out on your TV screen, you almost want to scold Annie for ruining a healthy relationship she obviously wants, but real-life people are just as guilty of self-sabotage as TV and movie characters.

So, what makes us sabotage our own relationships? How can we spot self-sabotaging behaviours, and more importantly, how can we stop engaging in them?

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What is self-sabotage?

Self-sabotaging is a pattern of behaviour that holds someone back from what they want or need, and it often presents itself in romantic relationships.

These behaviours are self-defeating and can wreak havoc on otherwise healthy relationships, but sometimes the people engaging in them don’t even realise they’re doing it.

Sometimes people who self-sabotage in relationships can find themselves perpetually single, or discover that none of their serious relationships last due to these behaviours.

The relationships that do last through sabotaging behaviours can often become unhealthy or imbalanced, and as a result become strained.

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Why do people self-sabotage?

So, why do we do it? Self-sabotage in a relationship is often a defence mechanism, something a person uses – knowingly or not – to protect themselves from being hurt.

They may have experienced heartbreak or trauma in the past and are trying to prevent it from happening again, or they may just be scared of opening themselves up to pain if the relationship doesn’t work out.

Self-sabotage is almost always driven by fear, but it can be hard to recognise or identify in a relationship, as the behaviour isn’t a “one off” – it’s spread out through many different moments and interactions.

Of course, the sabotaging behaviour often leads to relationships ending, or never even getting started in the first place, but in the mind of a self-saboteur, it’s a win-win situation.

If the relationship fails, they get “proof” that they were right to protect themselves by sabotaging the relationship.

If it succeeds, they feel like they “won” because the relations succeeded despite their sabotaging ways.

Self-sabotage in a relationship is often a defence mechanism.

(Credit: Pexels)

How can we identify self-sabotage?

According to research from the University of Southern Queensland shared in The Conversation, there are three key patterns that people who self-sabotage in relationships follow.

These patterns are: defensiveness, trust issues and poor relationship skills. Let’s break them down.


Do you find yourself putting walls up in relationships? This can be defensiveness, which often feels instinctive, to the point where some people don’t realise they’re doing it.

People who engage in defensive patterns of behaviour typically want to protect themselves from a perceived “threat”, which could be heartbreak, rejection, abandonment, criticism or something else within the relationship.

Trust issues

This often manifests as a fear of being vulnerable or honest, as well as jealousy or distrust of a partner – such as one partner who always thinks the other is cheating, despite there being no evidence.

People who struggle with this have often experienced betrayal or have had their trust broken in the past and fear it happening again.

So they choose not to trust, and in doing so close themselves off to relationships and partners.

Poor relationship skills

Some people simply lack the experience or skills gained through healthy relationships, and this can quickly cause them to self-sabotage.

Because they have limited positive experience to draw from, relationships can feel overwhelming and many people who engage in this pattern will close themselves off from relationships entirely.

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How can we stop self-sabotaging?

The first step to solving any relationship problem is to identify it, then start working to address it.

For those who self-sabotage, this may start with gaining honest insight into what patterns of behaviour you exhibit and why you continue to engage in them.

You can also examine what you expect from relationships and partners and if it’s contributing to your self-sabotage; for example, expecting a partner to give you access to all their devices because of your trust issues may not be reasonable.

Getting your partner involved is also important, as they can work with you to identify and address the behaviours that may be sabotaging the relationship.

And remember that it’s always okay to seek outside help from a therapist, psychologist or other provider.

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