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Amy Green PhD
Amy Green PhD

Are You Sabotaging Your Relationship?

A new study suggests nine ways people put their romantic relationships at risk.

It's no surprise that difficulties with romantic relationships are a common reason people seek therapy.

Because let's face it, relationships are tough.

For some people, finding and getting into relationships is pretty easy; it's staying in relationships or keeping relationships healthy, where challenges arise. Raquel Peel, a psychology and counseling lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, has been studying why people sabotage their romantic relationships for several years. In a recent study published in the Journal of Relationships Research, Peel and her colleagues (July, 2019) interviewed 15 psychologists who specialized in couples counseling about relationship self-sabotage.

Their thematic analysis on the interviews led to nine main behaviors that the psychologists described as contributing to the breakdown of relationships:

Partner attacks: As the name suggests, this involves things like name-calling, criticizing, accusing, judging, or yelling at one's partner.

Partner pursuit: Things like checking on, clinging to, or making unreasonable demands on one's partner.

Partner withdrawal: Things like ignoring (either one's partner or the relationship itself), avoiding, or distancing oneself from one's partner.

Defensiveness: Things like shifting blame or victimizing oneself.

Contempt: Disrespecting one's partner

Trust and jealousy issues: Pretty self-explanatory.

Destructive behaviors: Things like excessive shopping, self-medicating, overeating, or gambling.

Affairs: Having them, having a positive attitude towards them, or having a history of them.

Harassment and abuse: Physical attacks, but also emotional abuse, threats, finance control, stalking, blackmailing, or emotional manipulations.

Do you see yourself anywhere on this list? Some of these things, like defensiveness or shutting down, we've all done at one time or another. Other things, like harassment or abuse, are never OK in any relationship.

As the authors noted, some of these behaviours also overlap with findings from other psychologists who've studied maladaptive/unhealthy behaviours in relationships. For example, we can see similarities with Gottman's predictors of marriage dissolution and the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (i.e., criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling).

So what next?

As I said, relationships are tough. And changing one's patterns of destructive behaviors in relationships can be even tougher. Being honest with ourselves about the ways we contribute to our relationships' demises is a good place to start. Couples therapy can be a helpful next step.

Some more specific ideas about how to change some of these behaviours - and the potential reasons they come up in the first place - is a post for another day.

In the meantime, check out Peel's TedTalk which explores in more detail why people sabotage love.


Peel, R., Caltabiano, N., Buckby, B., & McBain, K. (2019). Defining romantic self-sabotage: A thematic analysis of interviews with practicing psychologists. Journal of Relationships Research, e16, doi: 10.1017/jrr.2019.7

About the Author
Amy Green PhD

Amy Green, M.A., is a doctoral student in Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary.

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