Are You Self-Sabotaging Relationships?

Warning signs that you might be sabotaging a good thing

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What Is Self-Sabotaging in Relationships?

Self-sabotaging in relationships involves engaging in behaviors, either consciously or unconsciously, that lead to the end of a relationship.

This might involve pushing the other person away or finding reasons to get out of the relationship. Behaviors focused on sabotaging relationships often stem from trust issues, past experiences, and poor relationship skills.

You meet someone new and happily date for a little while. The connection is great, there is chemistry, and sex is fun. You start spending more and more time together and begin considering becoming a couple.

But then, you stop replying to their texts right away. You cancel dates. You avoid talking about taking things to the next level. Your partner expresses frustration, disappointment, or even anger about your behavior. Not long after, the partner breaks up the relationship.

Does this sound like something that happens to you? If so, you might be self-sabotaging your relationships. Self-sabotaging relationships can be a destructive pattern, but there are things you can do to understand the causes, spot the signs, and find ways to cope.

Are you sabotaging your relationships?

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What Causes Self-Sabotaging in Relationships?

The specific reasons why someone may sabotage their own relationships are context-specific. Every person has had a different past: How we were parented and our childhood, teenage years, and first serious relationships all have an effect on how we act right now.

One of the main reasons why people sabotage their relationships is the fear of intimacy. People are afraid of intimacy when they fear emotional or physical closeness with other people.

Everyone wants and needs intimacy. But, in people with certain experiences, intimacy may be linked to negative rather than positive experiences, leading to a "push-and-pull"-type behavior that culminates in a relationship breakup or avoidance.

Childhood Trauma

Fear of intimacy typically comes from difficult or abusive parental relationships and childhood trauma (physical, sexual, or emotional). The deep, embedded belief in people who fear intimacy is: "People who I am close to cannot be trusted."

Because early trusting relationships with parents or caregivers were broken by abuse, people who fear intimacy believe that people who love them will inevitably hurt them. As children, they could not extricate themselves from these relationships; however, as adults, they have the power to end or leave them, even when they are not actually abusive.


This fear appears in two types: fear of abandonment and fear of engulfment. In the first, people are worried that those they love will leave them when they are most vulnerable.

In the second, people are worried that they will lose their identity or ability to make decisions for themselves. These two fears often exist together, leading to the "push-and-pull" behavior so typical of those with deep fears of intimacy.

Reasons People Self-Sabotage in Relationship

Some of the top reasons for self-sabotage in relationships include:

  • Fear of getting hurt or being abandoned
  • Trust issues that are often linked to past negative experiences
  • Excessively high or even unrealistic expectations
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Lack of relationship skills

Signs of Self-Sabotage in Relationships

There are many signs that you might have a tendency to self-sabotage even the best of relationships. Signs of self-sabotaging behavior include:

Looking for a way out of the relationships

  • Gaslighting
  • Serial dating
  • Jealousy
  • Criticism
  • Avoidance
  • Grudges
  • Promiscuity
  • Low self-esteem

Looking for an Exit

You avoid anything that leads to bigger commitment: meeting parents, moving in together, etc. You're always wondering, "If it goes wrong, how can I extricate myself easily from this relationship?"

Because commitment reduces your ability to leave a relationship without financial or emotional consequences, you tend to avoid it.

You might start pulling back from the relationship or start to become distant. In some cases, you might start avoiding spending time with the other person.


Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse whose aim is to deny the other person's reality or experiences. For example, if your partner says: "I'm really upset that you canceled our date," you respond with something like: "You're not really upset. It's your fault I canceled and you're just trying to blame me for it."

Gaslighting is a sign that you don't really believe your partner's feelings are valid or real (even though they are).

Serial Dating

Your friends often ask you why you break up with potential partners so often or lament the fact that you never seem to settle down with anyone. You break up with partners on the slightest of issues, only to start dating another person right away and repeat the cycle. You don't want to be seen as a "player," but you can't seem to find someone who you can commit to.


You always worry that your partner might be seeing someone else behind your back. You demand control over every aspect of their life and require constant contact. When they spend time with other people without you, you fret, text constantly, experience jealousy, and ask for proof that they're being faithful. They break up with you because they find you controlling.


You constantly look for perfection in a partner, even though you know perfection is impossible. You find fault with every little thing they do, from the way they cook to the clothes they wear. You are impossible to please, and your partner eventually gives up trying and breaks up with you.


You spend a lot of time trying to convince yourself that the relationship is perfect, even when it's not. When your partner wants to address a problem, you avoid the topic or simply say: "I don't think we're having an issue; it's going to go away." Your partner grows resentful of your inability to face problems together and leaves.


Holding a grudge against your partner means that your anger never really goes away. It takes a lot of energy to stay mad. Regardless of what else your partner does, you will always come back to those grudges. It's a way of protecting yourself by pushing away the other person. As long as you are mad, no one can really get close to you.


While having sex with other people is okay when both people agree to non-monogamy, in general, going from affair to affair can be a sign of self-sabotage. You're doing one of the most hurtful things you can do to a romantic partner in the hopes that they'll find out and leave you.

Low Self-Esteem

You always talk about yourself in self-deprecating ways: "I'm not as smart as you." "I'm just an idiot, why are you with me?" "You're just with me because you pity me," etc.

This is a sign of low self-esteem, and most people do not enjoy being told that they love someone who is worthless. When, despite their constant reassurance that you are a good person, you keep tearing yourself down, they may give up and break up.

These are just a few examples of how people with a fear of intimacy might sabotage their relationships. Note that many of them are abusive: Behaviors like gaslighting, paranoia, and control can damage the other person. People with these patterns often have childhood trauma and don't know how else to act.

Why Self-Sabotage Relationships Is a Problem

Even when you recognize signs of self-sabotage in your relationships, you may not initially feel a desire to stop these problematic behaviors. Such patterns allow you to exit relationships when you want to—and that's exactly the problem. You want out in order to avoid the intimacy you fear in the short term, but such actions can create difficulties that can haunt you in the long term.

Why does it matter that you want to continually end your relationships, even when things are going well? Some of the potential long-term consequences include:

  • A lack of intimate relationships: As time goes on, you may find yourself longing for a close, secure, long-term relationship. Self-sabotaging behaviors make any kind of commitment difficult to find and maintain. 
  • Loneliness: Lack of close relationships can leave people feeling isolated. You might find yourself longing for connections that you feel unable to forge or keep.
  • Lack of children and family: While not everyone has a desire to have children, some people may find themselves wishing that they had a partner with whom to have a family. 
  • Trouble tolerating closeness. Repeatedly ending your relationships before you can build true intimacy can make it even harder to get close to future partners. Even as you grow closer to a person, you may find yourself constantly holding back parts of yourself out of a fear of getting too attached and then getting burned.

How to Stop Self-Sabotage Relationships

To end self-sabotage, you first need to take a good, hard look at yourself and your behavior patterns. Unless you are willing to be honest with yourself and face all the ways you may have abused or hurt other people because of your fear of intimacy, you are doomed to repeat this behavior.

Therapy is the first step many take to end self-sabotaging patterns. A professional can help you identify your behaviors, dig to the root of your issues, and find new, healthier ways to behave.

Work on Your Attachment Style

Attachment theory is a framework that explains patterns of behavior with intimate others. The ideal type of attachment is "secure": This is when people feel like they can trust others and remain a distinct individual, even in close relationships.

However, childhood experiences can lead to anxious, avoidant, or disordered attachment styles. These are insecure attachment styles that cause issues in adults trying to develop strong relationships and families.

The good news: You can work with a therapist on developing a more secure style by facing your fears and removing false beliefs about relationships.

Take Responsibility

In order to overcome self-sabotage in relationships, you need to be able to acknowledge your role in damaging your relationships. No relationship is perfect, but you are always going to feel disappointed if you keep setting yourself and your partner up for failure. Tackling these problems means that you need to be willing to be vulnerable and recognize your own issues with abandonment and rejection.

Learn Your Triggers

Fear of intimacy and self-sabotage can remain dormant until a trigger wakes them up. It might be words, actions, or even places. Knowing what triggers your fears will help you either avoid them or work on them so they don't trigger you anymore.

Let Go

One of the main problems of self-sabotaging is that we behave in the present as if the current situation was the same as one in the past. It can be childhood or past adult relationships. Learning to say, "That was then, this is now," can help you make decisions that are based on the present, rather than reacting blindly based on what happened to you in the past.

Open Up

One of the hallmarks of self-sabotage and fear of intimacy is the inability to talk about your feelings and your problems. You avoid talking about these things because talking means feeling, and you want to avoid feeling these things at all costs.

Expressing your emotions, your fears, and your needs will not only help you identify the problems but will also help others understand you better.

How do you deal with a self-sabotaging partner?

If your partner tries to self-sabotage your relationship, it is important to remember that it isn't your fault. Don't try to excuse their behavior, but don't take it personally. Try to reinforce positive behaviors and encourage them when they make process. Finally, encourage them to seek professional help.

A Word From Verywell

Self-sabotaging in relationships is understandable when you look at the underlying reasons, so it is important to treat yourself with kindness. Remember that it's okay to get help. Seeking therapy or simply a kind and friendly ear is the first step towards freeing yourself from self-sabotaging behaviors.

It's also important to work with your partner. Being vulnerable and letting the other person understand this side of you isn't easy, but letting them in can help break those ingrained patterns of self-sabotage.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Peel R, Caltabiano N. Why do we sabotage love? A thematic analysis of lived experiences of relationship breakdown and maintenance. J Couple Relationsh Ther. 2021;20(2):99-131. doi:10.1080/15332691.2020.1795039

By Anabelle Bernard Fournier
Anabelle Bernard Fournier is a researcher of sexual and reproductive health at the University of Victoria as well as a freelance writer on various health topics.