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Why Some Partners Commit Relationship Sabotage

Defensiveness, difficulty with trust, and more.

A new study in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy explains how the instinct to destroy our own relationships is rooted in the urge to protect ourselves against the possibility of actually being vulnerable with our partners.

“It is instinctual to want to belong with others and connect with others in a meaningful and intimate way,” explains psychologist Raquel Peel, the lead author of the research. “But, if as part of that process, we experience pain, the instinct to self-protect can take over. This means that avoiding pain becomes the main goal, as opposed to seeking intimacy.”

Put simply, relationship sabotage happens when we choose our instinct to protect ourselves over our instinct to connect with others so we can avoid vulnerability and, therefore, trauma. It can also come from not wanting to repeat what has happened in a previous relationship or what we have seen happen in another relationship.

According to Peel, relationship sabotage (a form of self-sabotage) is inherently rewarding to us. We assume our relationships won’t last and so we break them preemptively – strengthening our belief that our relationships don’t last. The negative feedback loop is reinforced and it gets harder to sustain a long-term relationship.

Peel’s study conducted extensive interviews with a diverse sample of 696 individuals to understand why and how people self-sabotage in relationships. It identified three key ways the phenomenon typically plays out:

  • Defensiveness is often enacted as a counter-attack when one is feeling victimized. Someone might feel attacked themselves through their partners’ constant criticism or feel vulnerable in their relationship and afraid of getting hurt. Therefore, to combat these feelings, they try to take control by putting on defenses in advance.
  • Trust difficulty is a learned attitude and behavior. For instance, individuals expect their trust will be broken because it has happened in the past or that is what they understand to be true in relationships, and their expectations can often trigger behaviors that fulfill that prophecy.
  • Lacking relationship skills refers to the fact that some individuals do not know how to be in a relationship or how to work toward healthy engagements. They probably did not have positive role models in their early lives. Practicing relationship skills, such as honest and open communication, and managing expectations can help get a relationship back on track.

Peel’s study also offers five insights useful to counteract your own or your partner’s patterns of self-sabotage in relationships. If you are on a self-sabotaging streak in your own love life, Peel recommends working on the following:

  1. Trust. People with a fear of, or a tendency toward, infidelity struggle with trusting their partners. If you do not trust your partner to not hurt you, a relationship can turn into a power struggle.
  2. Commitment. People often fear commitment because it can mean different things to different people. Defining how deep your commitment is to your partner and asking your partner to meet a certain threshold of commitment can help you avoid the problems of over-commitment or tolerating unacceptable behavior.
  3. Communication. Relationships develop cracks when things, especially concerns, are left unsaid. A lack of communication could lead to pretending that everything is fine and defaulting to ‘auto-pilot’ mode when active piloting is needed.
  4. Safety. Feeling unsafe is usually a result of unresolved trauma. For the emotionally insecure, being vulnerable with someone else is one of the hardest things to achieve — but it is necessary.
  5. Acceptance. Stepping into a relationship is a risk you take. Yes, one has to be careful and thoughtful when making such a decision. But, accepting that the possibility of getting hurt (or not) is beyond your control can make your relationship more satisfying.

“Although we do not have much control over what others will do and how they might behave when in a relationship with us, we can work on ourselves,” Peel concludes. “Learning about your fears and reasons for self-protection can teach you ways to navigate the experience of feeling vulnerable and be open to the possibility of connecting with others in a genuine way.”

Facebook image: Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock

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