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How Some People Sabotage Their Own Relationships

Often, it's a response learned early in life.

Key points

  • Many self-sabotaging cycles are trauma responses and patterns learned earlier in life as self-preservation.
  • A fear of abandonment is really a fear of intimacy and connection.
  • To change these patterns, we need to be willing to unlearn patterns of self-preservation while learning patterns of self-healing.
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Familiar and comfortable are not the same thing as healthy and safe. Yet we are often attracted to what is familiar and comfortable because it resonates with our early conditioning.

Until we begin taking a deep dive into our personal history, our repetitive patterns, and our learned conditioning, our ability to see whether we’re engaging in self-sabotaging behavior may be blurred. We may be in denial or turn to rationalizations or projections as excuses for why we continue repeating unhealthy patterns.

At the core of all self-sabotaging behavior, we typically find fears of being abandoned, not feeling "good enough," and struggles with self-identity and self-esteem. However, once we peel back these layers, we begin seeing that many self-sabotaging cycles are trauma responses and patterns learned earlier in life as self-preservation.

Why We Self-Sabotage

1. Unresolved trauma

If we grew up in an abusive, neglectful, or otherwise unhealthy family, we were probably handed certain implicit roles, often for survival. We may have had narcissistic or abusive parents who shamed us, physically abused us, or emotionally neglected us. Or we may have had a parent who enabled others in the family to continue cycles of self-defeating behavior, including their own.

These wounds are what get carried with us as self-sabotaging behavior. We often recreate the same patterns in our adult relationships that were modeled and conditioned for us in our childhood, including messages of not feeling worthy, fearing abandonment, or believing maladaptive mindsets that were taught as normal. Eventually, we wind up turning to more misery as “comfortable” or “familiar.”

Growing up in a hostile environment, there are often unspoken expectations that we aren’t allowed to grow as our own person, or to question the status quo of the family dynamic. Because of this, we can become unconsciously tied to these dynamics that perpetuate what we were taught as kids, which reinforces our role in the family. Trying to advocate for ourselves or stepping outside of the prescribed family “expectations” can trigger fears of failing, fears of being smeared by our family, or fears of not being good enough for authentic connection on our terms.

The result? We unconsciously sabotage our happiness, destroy healthy relationships, or “chase” the very thing we swore off because these prescribed expectations and roles are tied into our unresolved trauma.

2. Fear of abandonment

A fear of abandonment is really a fear of intimacy and connection. When we fear being abandoned, it’s typically because we are emotionally invested. The greater our emotional investment, the greater the fear of being abandoned. Our fears of abandonment can exponentially increase in our intimate relationships if we have experienced emotional or physical abandonment in childhood.

After experiencing early abuse, neglect, or abandonment, our inner voice can become our inner critic. These messages may resonate with negative self-beliefs including, “Abandon before I get abandoned. Leave before I get left behind.” Sabotaging a relationship (and ourselves in the process) can be seen as a quick fix to prevent being abandoned, or as a self-fulfilling prophecy that we “knew” we were going to be abandoned anyway. By sabotaging the relationship, we are unconsciously building a wall around ourselves to "protect" us from fears of being left behind. The downside of this dynamic is often a long-standing history of ghosting partners and discarding relationships out of self-preservation, which often backfires in a cycle of more self-sabotage.

Self-Sabotage in Action

At first, we may assume that self-sabotaging patterns are centered on intentionally hurting ourselves. However, behaviorally speaking, self-sabotage is a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement, often in play at the same time and based on conditioning. For example, we may live by the rule of thumb that to be “good enough” we need to be perfect. We may spend a ridiculous amount of time perfecting our body, perfecting our work, or perfecting our relationships, which may give us momentary satisfaction. Yet, while we are hyperfocusing on what to "perfect," we're also negatively reinforcing our fears of being imperfect, which leads to self-sabotage.

One of the biggest patterns of self-sabotage is centered on changes within our relationships. For example, it’s common that after a few years with a person, one or both partners may want to level up in the relationship. They may ask for time, may request personal space, or may be invested in healing their own early trauma that shifts their focus more onto themselves. These shifts can be threatening to a partner who may look at changes in a relationship as something to avoid, discard, or sabotage, instead of something to embrace.

Examples of self-sabotaging behavior in relationships may include the following:

  • Emotionally shutting down
  • Emotional regression
  • Infidelity
  • Perfectionism
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Passive-aggression
  • People pleasing
  • Overthinking
  • Oversharing
  • Self-isolation
  • Inability to be alone
  • Use of distractions (obsessions, compulsions, addictions)
  • Controlling or micromanaging
  • Ghosting
  • Discarding

Breaking the Cycle

I often get asked whether deeply ingrained and longstanding patterns can actually be changed. My answer is always the same: “Yes.”

However, to change these patterns, we can’t be stuck “in the middle” of repeating them. Breaking the cycle requires us to take several steps back. We need to be willing to take time to be alone so we can pull the blinders off. It requires us to take a deep dive into our grief, into our early experiences, and to reach a place of acceptance in understanding why we engage in self-sabotaging behavior. To change these patterns, we not only need to understand their significance, but we also need to be willing to unlearn patterns of self-preservation while learning patterns of self-healing.

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