How to Avoid Self-Sabotage in a Relationship.

Via Alice Williams
on Jul 29, 2014
get elephant's newsletter

sad couple

When you first meet her, my friend Elissa comes across as an attractive, ‘got it together’ professional woman in her 30s.

Get closer and you’ll also find she’s warm, generous, and what you might call emotionally intelligent. The woman has her shit in order.

After a long period of internet dating, she was set up by a friend with Chris—‘an awesome bloke’, according to Elissa. Yet three weeks into dating him, she found herself, yet again, ‘acting like a psycho.’

Hot and cold, getting down to sexy business one minute, then fighting a strong desire to punch him in the face the next.

“I couldn’t understand my own behavior. I’d pick a fight over stupid things,” she says.

Everything he did infuriated her. He talked too loudly, was too attentive and kind, and ‘ordered badly at restaurants. ‘She’d look forward to seeing him all day, then find herself ‘acting like an absolute bitch’ when he came to the door.

“Unfortunately, it’s something I seem to do regularly,” she says. “With all new partners I’d find something I didn’t like. The way they dressed, their voice, their mannerisms. It would become huge to the point of physical repulsion and I’d have to walk away.”

If you watch sitcoms or beer ads, you’ll be used to seeing this kind of behaviour written off with a shake of the head, since it’s generally accepted that ‘women are crazy.’ But what if this kind of self-sabotage in new relationships is related to something deeper?

“On the surface, nit-picking and being mean over trivial things like the way someone dresses, seems judgemental and mean,” says psychologist and couple’s therapist Julie Houniet. “But if someone is otherwise rational, yet finds themselves being irritable over things they know to be trivial, there’s something else going on.”

For Elissa, this type of behaviour had been a pattern her whole life. “What amazes and saddens me is how easy it is to detach; I can feel myself curl up in a tight little ball, hiding inside. I see and hear everything but I’m not really present. It was easy not to notice in my 20s, but in my 30s when I saw my friends settling down, I started to see the richness in their relationships and realised I wanted that closeness,” she says. “Then when I met Chris, I’d feel myself acting rude and childish and have no idea why.”

For Houniet, there are many reasons people might sabotage in new relationships—“fear of intimacy, abandonment, even guilt if your parents’ relationship wasn’t a happy one. None of these things are conscious, which is why people are surprised to find themselves acting out.”

But interestingly, it’s often when people enter what could be a good relationships that the urge to self-sabotage arises. Why could this be?

“In a positive way, ‘good’ relationships are more demanding of you because they’re more exposing,” says Houniet. “It can actually be easier to be in a relationship with someone controlling, for example, because they don’t really see ‘you.’ So while it may be unsatisfactory, it’s safe because you’re not fully there, you’re less exposed. But when you’re with someone who is actually letting you be you, not playing games, it’s more confronting—the fear is that you have to be seen. So in order to decrease that intimacy you might try and provoke an argument.”

It’s something to which Elissa can relate. “I’m always telling Chris to fight with me, bag me out a bit. It seems more normal…”

Houniet isn’t surprised. “It can feel better when someone’s sledging you because it’s less intimate. But it’s actually sort of a childish response.”

“Ultimately loving someone is an investment, and it’s risky.”

So, how to break the pattern?

1. Don’t dismiss it

“If you’re compatible and you like the person, recognize the urge to wreck it or nit-pick and don’t trust it. Instead of dismissing it, question where it’s coming from,” says Houniet.

2. Give yourself breathing space

“If you’re committing to breaking the habit, you might want to take a little step back and give yourself more time and space to find out more about what’s going on.” How do you do that when ‘I need more space,’ is so often a euphemism for ‘let’s break up’?

“In the early stages you don’t have to over-explain. You could say something general like ‘I really enjoy spending time with you, but maybe just twice a week instead of every night.’”

3. Investigate

“When you give yourself space for things to come up, you often notice obvious links—reasons for your behaviour that you can start to recognize and understand on your own. Or you may find it helpful to go to counselling.”

For Elissa, what helped was counselling and meditation. “I started to see, and feel, how always ending everything came from insecurity. That repulsion was like my body’s response to vulnerability; a massive defense mechanism. In the past I haven’t cared because the minute I dumped whoever it was, I felt huge relief. But even now when I can feel all my behaviour basically telling Chris to ‘f—off,’ I know if he really did I’d be devastated. It’s been incredibly challenging and painful, but Chris has shown such maturity and strength, and ultimately it’s helping me let go of stuff and feel close to him.”


Relephant :

6 Steps to Completing Relationships 



Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: louiscrusoe at Flickr


About Alice Williams

Alice Williams is a Melbourne author and yoga teacher. She teaches media writing at the University of Melbourne. Say hello on The Twitter or The Facebook! Read more from A.V. Williams...


7 Responses to “How to Avoid Self-Sabotage in a Relationship.”

  1. Adam Palmer says:

    Really easy to damage a relationship through poor communication. Although it may be easier to attack the other person out of pain rather than to express your own feelings and that you are hurt, it just damages the relationship further and further.

  2. kmzam says:

    I've done this, and worked thru the issue. With therapy and support of friends and family. And now the person I worked thru it with is doing the exact same thing, despite my attempts to communicate and point out the pattern he himself is repeating that he'd pointed out in me. It's unfortunate that one can recognize the trait in another person, but not themselves. So for those of you dealing with someone who doesn't recognize the behavior in themselves, be patient and understanding, but also realize that not everyone is willing to confront the underlying hurt that drives the behavior in the first place. Be willing to help if the other person is willing to recognize and work at changing the behavior, but accept them for who they are if they can't or won't and be willing to let them go, knowing that you can't help someone who doesn't want to help themselves. Not everyone is self aware enough to recognize their own patterns and behaviors as being destructive to their relationships, and find the fault with their partner. Don't take it personally. Sometimes you just have to let go, no matter how much it hurts or you feel like you can help.

  3. Good advice, kmzam! Funny how no one appreciates it when we point out their stuff. Every time I get the urge to do so, I'm trying to pause and look to see if the behaviour I'm criticising is something I do myself. 9/10, yes. But feels SO much better to point it out to someone else. 😉

  4. I think the trouble is that we're not always aware of what drives the attack/ poor communication until much later. At least once we're aware of it we can try not to repeat the pattern (and maybe we just have to see earlier relationships as 'collateral damage on the path to wisdom'!)

  5. sallysue says:

    There's a great book on this type of behavior, it's called He's Scared She's Scared by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol. It helps you work through commitment problems you may not even be aware you have!

  6. Claire says:

    Some great advice and feedback here. I can recommend another book too sallysue called 'The Dance of Intimacy' by Dr Harriet Lerner. Incredible book about cultivating healthy relationships – be it with your parents, friends, partner or yourself!

  7. Alan Atkins says:

    The best way to avoid self sabotage in a relationship is to not behave in an abusive manner towards your partner. Or if you are on the receiving end of abuse, end the relationship.