Things were going great during the first 3 months of your relationship. But when your partner brings up the idea of having an introductory dinner with their parents, all the good feelings you had suddenly take a mass exodus.

As the days go by, all of their cute quirks become annoying flaws, and your long conversations turn into short, cold exchanges. You may even begin to “not have time” to return their calls or texts right away. Soon, you grow further and further apart until your relationship becomes just another acquaintance.

You might shrug it off as something that “just didn’t work out,” but deep down, you know you pushed them away.

In fact, it’s a pattern of yours. You find someone you connect with, you have fun for a while — but once they seem to want to take things a step further, you do something to sever the connection.

If this sounds like you, you might be engaging in relationship self-sabotage.

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Illustration by Maya Chastain

Relationship wreckers like cheating, lying, jealousy, and other, more subtle forms of self-sabotage can originate from an unconscious fear of rejection, vulnerability, or attachment.

It seems to work like this:

  1. A history of insecure attachments crops up in new relationships.
  2. One partner deploys defensive strategies to avoid rejection or vulnerability.
  3. The applied strain on the relationship leads to a breakup.

You may be totally aware of this pattern as it’s happening, or the process could play out unconsciously while you wonder WTF keeps going wrong.

The way out of the relationship self-sabotage loop is to examine what’s really going on.

“If someone finds themselves only getting so far in relationships, they need to look for patterns,” says Dr. Mike McNulty, a certified relationship therapist and trainer with The Gottman Institute.

“What seems to happen when a relationship ends? Do they have a tendency to distance? Do they tend to act or behave in ways that overwhelm their partner?”

Here’s how you can identify relationship self-sabotage and build protections against it.

Your relationships will not implode without warning. There are signs of self-sabotage that you can address before it’s too late.

We talked about relationship self-sabotage with Dr. Marni Feuerman, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships.

“If you self-sabotage, you tend to put up barriers to intimacy,” she said. “This might look like being hypercritical, unassertive, picking fights, being overly distrusting or jealous, needing constant reassurance, and so on.”

Check out these signs of self-sabotage and how they can influence your relationships if left unchecked.

Signs of self-sabotageLong-term impact on relationships
criticizingIf your partner feels like they can’t do anything right in your eyes, they lose motivation to work on the relationship.
blamingWhen you blame every hiccup on your partner, you create a situation where they — and your relationship — can never succeed.
picking fightsYour partner may start avoiding you and the arguments.
disrespect Your partner interprets disrespect as you not caring about their feelings or what’s important to them.
clingingNeeding too much time and attention from your partner may push them away.
withdrawalYour relationship can’t progress when the emotional or physical connection is cut off.
distrustNot trusting your partner will lead to them feeling like they can’t trust you either.
jealousyYou come across as controlling and will cause your partner to withdraw.
addictive or recurring behaviors Indulging in distracting behaviors allows you to ignore problems in the relationship so they never get addressed.
cheating/affairsIt sends a clear message that you’re not committed to the relationship and causes your partner to lose trust in you.

If these behaviors pop up on occasion, there may not be a problem. Watch out for consistency as a sign that your relationship needs an intervention.

According to a 2019 analysis about relationship self-sabotage, these are the reasons people are self-destructive in relationships:

  • fear of getting hurt
  • insecure attachment styles
  • low self-esteem
  • unhealthy relationship beliefs and expectations
  • difficulty coping with relationship problems
  • avoiding commitment

These issues can start in childhood.

“The roots of self-sabotage are often from early negative childhood experiences,” Feuerman said. “Often it results from parents (or other caretakers) who have been either unresponsive, abusive, or inconsistent in their responsiveness and caretaking toward the child. It triggers deep-seated feelings of being unworthy or not good enough. It fosters a negative view of oneself and negative expectations or mistrust toward others.”

Here are some examples of how insecure attachments can manifest in relationships:

  • A person who is afraid of abandonment will avoid relationships to protect themselves. They may also let things progress only so far before sabotaging behavior ends the relationship.
  • A person with a fear of abandonment may be controlling and demanding to hang on to their partner.
  • People who have experienced trauma in childhood or other relationships may be uncomfortable with intimacy and vulnerability because of how they were treated in the past.
  • Some may reject appreciation or positive attention because in the past it turned into abuse.

No shade on the single life, but people in healthy relationships tend to be happier and healthier in the long term. A habit of sabotaging relationships is like any other habit that diminishes your quality of life — you can change it.

Unhealthy love relationship habits

  • Mismatch: repeatedly choosing partners who are unavailable or fundamentally incompatible with you and your goals
  • Serial dating: entering the shallow end of the dating pool over and over only to bail when things get a little deeper
  • Gaslighting: thinking your partner’s “crazy” or dismiss their concerns as invalid or untrue when problems arise
  • Impulsiveness: can stem from chronic anxiety and put you on the verge of self-sabotage
  • The Four Horsemen:
    • criticism
    • contempt
    • defensiveness
    • stonewalling
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Bad relationship habits will stand between you and relationship goals like emotional intimacy, marriage, and having children.

1. Practice introspection

Notice what you’re thinking when a relationship starts to get rocky. How do those thoughts connect with experiences you’ve had in the past?

Investigate your attachment style and whether there are things you could process so you don’t carry them into future relationships.

Think about your self-esteem level and whether there’s room for improvement. Practice self-compassion as you face fears about being vulnerable with a partner.

2. Talk through it with your partner

McNulty says John and Julie Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work can help couples have realistic expectations, handle common relationship issues, and build intimacy.

At the very least, as you examine your history and habits, communicate with your partner about self-sabotaging behaviors and how you’re working to change them.

3. Add checkpoints to your relationship road map

Once you’re aware of your sabotaging habits, have regular check-ins with yourself and your partner to look for signs of stress in the relationship.

“Are you constantly thinking the relationship will end or blow up?” Feuerman said. “Are you always planning an exit strategy? When things are going well, do you do something to create distance? You may notice that you vacillate between idealizing your partner and then devaluing them. Commitment and vulnerability are particularly triggering.”

“Observe the feelings coming up in these moments,” she said. “It’s often fear and confusion. Slow down and get curious with yourself as to the thoughts, feelings, and typical behaviors connected to those thoughts and feelings.”

4. Look into these relationship concepts to build a stronger bond

Vulnerability is a necessary ingredient in strong relationships. Tapping into the sensitive areas and concepts will make you more available for connection with others.

Know when to walk away

A pattern of relationship self-sabotage is often fixable with some self-examination and therapy. But don’t let hope tether you to a relationship that is unsalvageable.

If your efforts to address problems have been ineffective, it may be time for a break. If either you or your partner has been traumatized, abused, noticed mental health declines, or experienced addiction as a result of relationship trouble, it’s OK to dissolve the relationship and seek treatment for yourselves individually.

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Consider seeking therapy if…

  • You’re not ready for a long-term relationship but recognize yourself in some of these behaviors. A therapist could help you process issues from your past before you embark on something serious.
  • Self-sabotage pops up in a mature relationship. Try couple’s therapy to help you and your partner learn skills to manage triggers and cope with problems.

Talking with a therapist about your habits and feelings can help you uncover potential problems, root out the source, and learn to respond in ways that are not destructive to your relationship.

If you keep hitting dead ends in the dating world, self-sabotage could be the problem.

Watch for common negative habits that disrupt your relationships, and ask yourself if you’re consciously or unconsciously throwing up roadblocks to avoid commitment, vulnerability, or rejection. Awareness is the first step to changing your habits and pursuing a fulfilling, healthy relationship.