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Self-Sabotage in Relationships: An Insight into Romantic Dynamics

Posted August 24, 2023 | Written by Stephanie Underwood, RSW

Unsplash Image: A couple sitting overlooking a canyon


  • Understanding Love's Foundations: Sternberg's theory: Passion, Intimacy, Commitment.

  • Definition of Romantic Self-Sabotage: Self-destructive behaviours that impede relationship success.

  • Patterns of Self-Sabotage: Partner Dynamics, Internal Battles, Controlling and Self-Destructive Behaviours, Misaligned Relationship Beliefs

  • Root Causes of Self-Sabotage: Insecure attachment patterns: Anxious and avoidant behaviours, societal and individual expectations in romantic relationships, & trading off between desirable characteristics in mate selection.

  • The Impacts of Betrayal Trauma on Self-Sabotage.


Love, an emotion so profound yet so complex, accompanies us throughout our lifespan. From the innocence of childhood attachments to the deep-rooted bonds of adulthood, love manifests in varied forms. Yet, in the realm of romantic engagements, many are puzzled by a curious phenomenon: self-sabotage. While some engage in a relentless pursuit of love, their own behaviours can become the very impediments to the happiness they seek.

Understanding the Foundations of Love

Sternberg's (1986) theory of love identifies three fundamental components: passion, intimacy, and commitment. Together, these form eight distinct subtypes, ranging from the exhilarating rush of infatuation to the profound connection of consummate love. However, love extends beyond mere emotions. It incorporates elements like partner compatibility, emotional bonding, and effective conflict resolution. Moreover, attributes such as self-awareness, accountability, and a commitment to personal growth are vital in a partner. Engaging in self-healing is crucial, but if our partners can't take responsibility for their actions, self-reflect, and address problematic behaviours, the relationship is likely to falter.

Defining Self-Sabotage in Romantic Relationships

At its core, romantic self-sabotage refers to self-destructive behaviours that inhibit the success and longevity of romantic engagements. Instead of nurturing the relationship, individuals unknowingly or knowingly set it up for failure. Self-sabotaging behaviour can present as (but is not limited to) some of the following:

1. Procrastinating on Important Conversations: Avoiding essential discussions about feelings, boundaries, or future plans can be a form of self-sabotage. It prevents growth and mutual understanding within the relationship.

2. Seeking Perfection: When one constantly compares their relationship to an unrealistic ideal or expects their partner to be perfect, they are setting the relationship up for inevitable disappointment.

3. Excessive Jealousy: While a little jealousy might be natural, letting it dominate one’s actions or constantly doubting the partner without reason can erode trust.

4. Avoiding Intimacy: Whether emotional or physical, avoiding closeness can be a way to protect oneself from potential pain, but it also prevents genuine connection.

5. Frequent Testing of the Partner: Setting up scenarios see how the partner reacts, or continually pushing their boundaries to test their patience or commitment, is an unhealthy pattern.

Decoding the Patterns of Self-Sabotage

Peel et al. (2019) identified prevalent themes that characterize self-sabotage in relationships:

  • Partner Dynamics: Behaviours like unwarranted criticism, clinginess, and stonewalling create an environment of mistrust and hostility.

  • Internal Battles: Contempt, defensiveness, and issues with self-esteem can prevent individuals from being open and vulnerable.

  • Controlling and Destructive Behaviours: From controlling a partner's finances to indulging in destructive habits like excessive drinking, these actions strain the relationship's fabric.

  • Misaligned Relationship Beliefs: Holding onto misconceptions about love can hinder the relationship's growth.

Root Causes of Self-Sabotage

Patterns of insecure attachment, like anxious and avoidant behaviours, significantly contribute to self-sabotage. Anxiously attached individuals might constantly seek approval, leading to behaviours like excessive neediness. In contrast, those with avoidant attachment might resist intimacy, often withdrawing emotionally from the relationship.

Furthermore, societal and individual expectations about romantic relationships also influence these behaviours. For example, mate selection often involves trading off between different desirable characteristics like kindness, attractiveness, and wealth. When a partner doesn't meet all these expectations, the perceived "shortcomings" can lead to dissatisfaction.

Betrayal Trauma and its Impact on Relationship Self-Sabotage

Betrayal trauma occurs when individuals are deeply hurt or deceived by those they believed were trustworthy and loyal, such as partners, family members, or close friends. This type of trauma can be emotionally devastating, shaking the very foundations of one's ability to trust and engage meaningfully with others. When left untreated, the pain and mistrust stemming from betrayal trauma can fester, leading to a host of psychological challenges. Among the most significant is relationship self-sabotage. Individuals may erect emotional walls, struggle with trust, and even project past fears onto new partners. This not only hampers the depth and authenticity of new relationships but can also perpetuate a cycle of hurt and mistrust. Recognizing the symptoms and seeking support can be pivotal in healing and fostering healthier relational dynamics.

Past betrayal trauma can contribute to relationship self-sabotage in several ways:

1. Trust Issues: After experiencing betrayal, individuals may find it difficult to trust again, fearing a repeat of past traumas. This lack of trust can manifest as constant suspicion or doubt in a partner, even when it’s unwarranted.

2. Emotional Walls: To protect themselves from potential hurt, individuals might erect emotional barriers, preventing them from fully opening up or becoming vulnerable in relationships.

3. Attachment Issues: Betrayal trauma can influence an individual’s attachment style, making them anxious or avoidant in relationships. They might either cling too tightly out of fear of another betrayal or keep a significant distance to prevent getting too close.

4. Projection: Past traumas can lead to projecting fears or insecurities onto a partner. For instance, if an individual was previously cheated on, they might accuse a new partner of infidelity without concrete evidence.

5. Self-worth and Identity: Betrayal, especially from someone close, can significantly dent an individual’s self-worth. They may feel they are undeserving of love or a stable relationship, leading to behaviours that push partners away.

6.Avoidance of Intimacy: Out of fear of getting hurt again, an individual might avoid emotional or physical intimacy, stunting the growth and depth of new relationships.

7. Overcompensation: Some individuals might feel the need to overcompensate for past betrayals by becoming overly controlling or demanding in new relationships, which can drive partners away.

8. Unresolved Emotions: Lingering anger, resentment, or sadness from past betrayal can spill over into new relationships, causing conflicts and misunderstandings.

9. Repetition of Past Patterns: Without conscious effort or therapy, individuals might unconsciously gravitate towards partners or situations that mirror their past traumas, setting themselves up for another cycle of betrayal and hurt.

10. Fear of Commitment: After a betrayal, the very idea of committing to someone can become daunting. Individuals might avoid or delay commitment, sabotaging potential long-term partnerships.

Understanding these patterns is the first step in healing and breaking the cycle. Therapy, especially trauma and attachment-based counselling, can be immensely helpful in addressing and overcoming these challenges.

Final Thoughts

Romantic self-sabotage is a reflection of internal conflicts, societal pressures, and unmet expectations. Understanding its origins is crucial for those looking to build and maintain healthy relationships. By recognizing these patterns and seeking appropriate support, such as counselling, individuals can move towards more fulfilling, self-sabotage-free romantic engagements. With awareness and effort, the pitfalls of self-sabotage can be navigated, allowing love to flourish in its purest form.




Raquel Peel & Nerina Caltabiano (2021) Why Do we Sabotage Love? A Thematic Analysis of Lived Experiences of Relationship Breakdown and Maintenance, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 20:2, 99-131.

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