Romantic relationships offer some of life’s greatest joys. They can also cause great pain. As we open ourselves up to another person, we leave ourselves vulnerable to rejection and abandonment, thus fueling some of our deepest insecurities. For many, especially those who have experienced childhood trauma or unstable familial relationships, such insecurities can lead to self-sabotaging behavior.
Psychotherapist Mercedes Coffman, MFT, refers to the concept of emotional memory for understanding why this occurs. “Although we may not have recall of certain early experiences in life,” Coffman says, “our emotional memory is often what triggers a deepened sense of hurt in romantic relationships, which may seem like an overreaction to others, and sometimes even to ourselves. This can make us self-sabotage a relationship that could have had the potential to grow into something wonderful."
Fortunately, we have a choice. We can allow ourselves to be flooded with the pain of the past and risk engaging in self-sabotaging behavior, or we can choose to see relationships as opportunities to work on ourselves by repairing old wounds.
Following are a few of the ways you can begin this work, avoid the trap of self-sabotage, and ultimately bring you closer to the loving relationship you deserve.
1. Understand your attachment style.
When we experience difficulty, it is helpful to understand our attachment style. “People come out of their family of origin with a blueprint of how they attach to others,” says relationship therapist Rhonda Milrad, LCSW. “This attachment style is played out in every one of their relationships. For people who experienced trauma, abandonment, enmeshment, etc., they most often develop insecure attachments as adults where they have trouble trusting relationships.” She explains that the closer someone is to another person, the greater the likelihood that their attachment style can become challenged, and that the strains will bring out their worst qualities, such as jealousy, anger, and enmeshment, often leading to self-sabotaging behavior.
“The way our parents responded to us as infants and children has a deep profound impact on how we develop and grow, particularly in how we see ourselves and view others,” says clinical psychologist Lisa Herman. “A parent's attention to them in infancy and childhood might have been warm and attentive one moment but cold or aloof at other times. Not knowing what you might get as an infant primes one to possibly feel this way in future relationships.” This can lead to the need for an excessive amount of reassurance, which can exhaust a partner. Milrad acknowledges that this isn't permanent: Many people can re-work how they attach in adulthood and thrive in romantic relationships.
2. Identify your triggers.
Marriage and family therapist Shadeen Francis suggests journaling about the experiences in your relationship that trigger behavior you experience as self-sabotaging. Ask yourself: What was happening? What did you feel at the time? What were you afraid of? How likely is it that the outcome you feared would happen?
“Asking yourself these questions,” Francis says, “can help you find the pattern in your behavior and begin to explore your vulnerability.” Having an awareness of what triggers these behaviors can prepare us for the inevitable conflicts that arise.
3. Be mindful of your behavior.
Insecurity in relationships is inevitable, "because everybody has issues to work on,” says psychotherapist Marina Lenderman, LCSW. “It’s critical to know what yours are. Awareness comes with behavior. If you frequently pick fights or start blaming your partner, awareness has been lost. Both people have a role in conflict, so it’s important to be aware how much of it is your part.”
Milrad describes the need to develop an "observing ego" that can help you identify when your partner is acting from their feelings of insecurity, even unconsciously. (For example, I recognize that I am feeling insecure about the relationship when I begin to think my partner is cheating on me, or I check their phone.) “With this insight, a person can then stop behaviors, learn to tolerate the discomfort, and engage in alternative and more healthy behavior.”
4. Decipher the past from the present.
There is a saying, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” meaning our strong emotional reactions can be our best clues to unfinished business from our past. The next time you experience a reaction that you suspect may be out of proportion from what you identify as the triggering event, take a moment to pause before responding. Lenderman suggests asking yourself, “How much is my past replaying, and how much is really present day?” We may not always know the answer, but simply by considering the possibility, we move closer to healthy patterns of behavior.
5. Learn to communicate.
If specific themes continue to arise, at some point it could be helpful to speak to your partner, Lenderman advises. They can be an asset, as they can help you point out self-sabotaging behaviors as they arise.
Darren Pierre, author of The Invitation to Love, agrees. He suggests inviting your partner to be patient with you. “All of us have limitations in relationships,” he says, “and a well-defined commitment made upfront offers an understanding that we are dedicated to each other beyond the adversities that are bound to occur.”
6. Practice self-care and self-compassion.
Finally, as most of us already know, without self-love there cannot be true love for another — at least not the kind that leads to healthy, loving relationships. Cultivating self-compassion is essential for those who struggle with low self-esteem, especially when this manifests in relationships. Seeking a therapist as a collaborator is a helpful way to begin healing from past hurts, finding self-acceptance, and moving closer to lasting and fulfilling love.