Why Do People Sabotage Their Own Relationships? A Psychologist Answers

Dr. Raquel Peel describes what makes people destroy their own relationships

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 7, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy explores why some of us develop patterns of sabotaging our own romantic relationships that are potentially promising.

I recently spoke to Dr. Raquel Peel to explore the major reasons behind this unfortunately common behavioral pattern. Here is a summary of our conversation.

It seems counterintuitive that people would sabotage their own relationships. What inspired you to explore relationship sabotage as a topic of your study?

It is counterintuitive. As humans, we are hardwired to search for intimate connections. It is instinctual to want to belong with others and connect with others in a meaningful and intimate way.

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 with others.

My own experience of self-sabotage inspired my research. I also knew I was not alone in experiencing sabotage in relationships, so I wanted to understand this phenomenon and help others through personal insight and research.

Where does the instinct for relationship sabotage come from?

The instinct for self-sabotage comes from the innate human desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure.

Self-sabotage is a hard habit to break because it is rewarding. It is satisfying for individuals to know they have avoided painful experiences, and they were right in doing so. But, this cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If one expects to get hurt in a relationship (often based on previous experiences of break-up, disappointment, and cheating, for instance) they might act in ways that will trigger this outcome in their new connections with others and inevitably prove themselves right.

For instance, they might push someone away (with criticism, ghosting, or cheating) before they can be dumped by their partner.

It is a rewarding process and at the same time a self-defense strategy. We found that self-sabotaging tendencies can influence how people perceive quality and stress in the relationship, which means that individuals' own behaviors are preventing them from maintaining successful relationships.

Your study mentions three major ways people tend to sabotage their own relationships. Could you briefly take us through them?

People tend to sabotage their relationships with defensiveness, trust difficulty, and lack of relationship skills.

  1. Defensiveness is often enacted as a counter-attack when one is feeling victimized – they might be feeling attacked themselves through their partners' constant criticism, or vulnerable in their relationship and afraid of getting hurt. Therefore, to combat these feelings, they resort to taking control by putting on defenses in advance. These defenses, however, serve as barriers stopping relationship repairs and healing.
  2. Trust Difficulty is a learned attitude and behavior. For instance, individuals expect their trust will be broken, because that has happened in the past, or that is what they understand to be true in relationships, and their expectations can often trigger behaviors that will instill a lack of trust in themselves and their engagements with others.
  3. Lack of relationship skills refers to the fact that some individuals do not know how to be in a relationship or even work towards healthy engagements. They might not have had positive role models in their lives, or they simply have not learned skills to be in an intimate engagement with others. Relationship skills, such as honest and open communication, and managing expectations can greatly influence the maintenance and flourishment of intimate engagements.

Could you tell us a little bit about the major recurring themes of relationship sabotage that emerged from your conversations with psychologists as well as participants?

Conversations with psychologists confirmed that the main reason why people sabotage their relationships (knowingly or unknowingly) is fear – fear of getting hurt, fear of intimacy, and fear of rejection.

Another important finding was related to self-esteem. Findings revealed many people do not believe they are worthy of (or deserve) meaningful and healthy relationships.

How do you wish your research and the Relationship Sabotage Scale contributes to intervention efforts?

My work and scale are a tool to create awareness and insight into the ways people are relating to one another and why. With insight, people have the power to change and pursue intimate connections with others.

The scale can be used as a self-measure for personal insight or a professional tool to help clients or patients in the clinical setting.

One important finding is that the best model for relationship sabotage is not linear. This means that while insecure attachment styles can lead to relationship sabotage; sabotaging relationships reinforces existing insecure attachment styles or establishes new vulnerable styles.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might be struggling with relationship sabotage?

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.

Thus, I recommend looking at yourself in the mirror and learning about the ways in which you are relating to others in your life and why.

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.