Stop the self-sabotaging and get back to a healthier footing.

By Jenn Sinrich
May 21, 2020
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As much as we hate to admit it, sometimes we're our own worst enemy when it comes to what's holding us back from experiencing a happy, joy-filled, and relatively stress-free relationship. What relationship expert and co-author of Relationship Sanity, Mark Borg, PhD, finds to be the most common denominator underlying self-sabotage in romantic relationships is a complete misunderstanding of anxiety, especially as expressed or experienced as ambivalence (what it means, what it's for, what it's trying to tell us about what's going on, and, most importantly, what to do about it). "We tend to 'read' ambivalence—our conflicted feelings about wanting and not wanting to be in relationship (especially a romantic one that is triggering deep insecurities)—as an indication that suggests: I must not want this enough," he explains. "What this usually is, though, is a way to sabotage a relationship that has real possibility because being in such a relationship puts our hearts at real risk."

As it turns out, there are many ways that people can self-sabotage their relationship, and many of them are rooted in how we learn to relate to others in childhood. "These memories can lead to unconscious patterns that operate subtly (or not so subtly) and get carried into adult relationships," explains psychologist Antonia Hall, a sex and relationship expert. "Insecurities, such as fear of attachment, fear of abandonment, or fear of rejection, get carried out in self-sabotaging patterns that keep us from the love we deserve."

The most common way an individual may be unknowingly sabotaging their relationship has to do with a lack of listening to their partner. "Feeling understood in your relationship is really key to its being good, intimate, stable, happy," explains Gail Saltz, M.D., psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. She recommends taking time to sit down and actively listen to your partner and then repeating back to them what you think you heard so they can hear that you get them, or correct information if it's not accurate.

On this same note, what's second to not listening to our partner is not making enough time for him or her. Not carving out time together that's meaningful (so more than just sitting side-by-side on the couch on your laptops) means you run the risk of irreparably harming your relationship. "A happy, healthy relationship requires making time to connect with your partner, otherwise you could create a distance between you that becomes hard to repair," says Hall.

Woodpecking, or simply creating drama, is another common culprit causing a rift between couples for no good reason. "You peck at your partner like a woodpecker, picking apart your personality and actions, creating insecurity, and instability as you transform the once solid foundation into something brittle," says Laurel House, dating and relationship expert and host of the Man Whisperer podcast. Whether it's because you're bored of the happy-couple routine or because something else in your life is irking you and you're taking out your frustrations on your significant other, House recommends redirecting your focus towards creating good excitement that will strengthen instead of destroy your relationship. "Break out of your routine by having a weekly or monthly date night that goes outside of your average dinner date that allows you to explore new experiences together and suddenly you will no longer be the boring couple with no excitement," she adds.

While it can be hard to avoid, especially when you know your partner in and out, judging or overly critiquing a partner is a definite no-no. This kind of picking really depletes a relationship and leads to resentment, warns Dr. Saltz. "If there is something really wrong, it's worth saying so, but for the most part you are hopefully both in each other's corner and seeing each other with a bit of rose-colored glasses," she says. "Your partner should be your biggest fan and you should be theirs, so never name call, don't hit below the belt even in a fight and don't bring up every past slight to every present argument."

Even though your intention by criticizing may be to help and improve your partner or the relationship, doing so will likely result in your partner responding in one of two ways: puffing up or laying down. "Puffing up is rebelling and encouraging him to do that criticized thing even more since he doesn't want to feel controlled by you, and laying down is acting defeated, not good enough, and shutting down," says House. Neither achieves the goal, which is change. "While you might genuinely be trying to help improve him or the relationship, when you constantly criticize, you make him feel like you are unhappy—not just with him, but also being with him," she says. "[This could make him] unhappy himself, and if that happens, he will leave and find someone who he can make happy and who doesn't put so many restrictions on him."

Some of the ways we sabotage our romantic relationships are rooted in good intention—we may be making an effort to protect our partner from the negative aspects and realities of our life. For example, you might be afraid that you're going to get fired because your boss isn't satisfied with your work, or you just had a big fight with your mother over the wedding plans. "While you might be attempting to hide the situation from your partner because you don't want them to have to stress about it too, the problem is that they can often sense that something is wrong and may try and come to their own conclusions," warns House. "They know that you're hiding something and you assume it's an affair, disinterested, or something else terrible." What winds up happening is that by "protecting" your partner from having to deal with this difficult situation, you're actually doing more damage, House warns. Instead, if you let them in and truly give them the opportunity to be a partner to you, the negative situation just might make you two even more connected, because you are going through it together.

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