I recently read this amazing piece in The New Yorker by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz. The article was "The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma." In this article, Díaz described how his early experiences of sexual abuse followed him throughout his life. He explained how they contributed to the destruction of many meaningful romantic relationships. He reflected on and owned up to his self-sabotaging behaviors as well as recognized that he was afraid of facing his trauma. Not only was he afraid that he had become broken and unlovable, but afraid to hope for something better. I felt both empathetic for his pain and validated by his naming of these experiences.

"Super ironic that I write and talk about intimacy all day long; it’s something I’ve always dreamed of and never had much luck achieving. After all, it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask." 

Understanding Self-Sabotaging Behaviors as Trauma

​The root of self-sabotaging relationships is often fear and insecurities resulting from past traumas. These traumas can include difficult family dynamics where you experienced abuse, abandonment, enmeshment, over-involvement, or neglect. The topic of self-sabotage is so broad and complex that I am going to divide it up into several blog posts. In this blog post, I will focus on how to identify when you or your partner are self-sabotaging the relationship.

You might be using self-sabotaging behaviors to help avoid more pain and protect yourself from future disappointments. This gripping, suffocating, and intangible fear of failure, pain, abandonment, and inadequacy makes so much sense when we see it through the lens of trauma. Self-sabotaging relationships can be an effective coping strategy. If you never get too close in a relationship, you will never get hurt. Yet, the outcome of self-sabotaging behaviors is often more painful when you use these behaviors to keep yourself away from the very person you want to be close to.


Examples of Self-Sabotaging Behaviors in Relationships

  • Blaming and criticizing your partner for his shortcomings
  • Setting unrealistic high standards for the relationship
  • Picking fights 
  • Committing time and energy to other people, work, or projects instead of spending time with your partner 
  • Being emotionally or physically unavailable 
  • Pushing your partner away to "test" her commitment 
  • Giving mixed signals
  • Holding grudges 
  • Not allowing your partner to see your "messy" side 
  • Not asking for help
  • Not providing help and support 
  • Not showing true vulnerability 
  • Being "too needy" or "too distant" 
  • Having emotional or physical affairs with other people 
  • Abusing substances 
  • Dating partners who are unavailable and/or don't treat you well 
  • Not fully committing to the relationship 
  • Not taking responsibility for your part in the dynamic 
  • Not apologizing readily for causing pain in your partner  
  • Comparing your current relationship to an ex 
  • Avoiding conversations about the relationship 
  • Trying to control your partner 
  • Giving the silent treatment/stonewalling/withholding affection 
  • Chronic lying 
  • Avoiding conflict 
  • Focusing on being right all the time

I want to point out that self-sabotaging behaviors can vary on a spectrum. They may be behaviors ranging from we-all-do-this-sometime to abusive. If your behaviors are abusive, it's time to seek help from a mental health professional.

Am I Self-Sabotaging Relationships?

Sometimes the reasons behind the behaviors are deep in our subconscious. So deep, we may not be aware that we are self-sabotaging relationships. Thus, one of the first steps in addressing self-sabotaging behaviors is identifying them.


Assess Your Behaviors in Proportion to the Situation

First, ask yourself, "Is my reaction to my partner out of proportion to the current situation?" In the book "Getting the Love You Want," Dr. Harville Hendrix talked about the differences between our "old brain" and "new brain." Our "old brain" consists of the limbic system and the brain stem. It regulates our basic bodily functions and the fight/flight/freeze mechanisms. The old brain is always on the alert for safety and danger. The important note about the old brain is that it works without an awareness of time. This is why when past wounds become triggered, it feels like the wound is happening right now. In contrast, the "new brain" (the cerebral cortex) can:

  • Plan
  • Make decisions
  • Think logically
  • Organize
  • Expect
  • Analyze

If your reaction to your partner is out of proportion to the situation, that's a good sign that some of your past wounds may be triggered. Thus, you may be acting out of your old brain without realizing it. For example, you might be very jealous of your partner spending time with friends and family. These reactions are to past trauma rather than the present moment. These reactions come from deeper fears. If unacknowledged and unaddressed, they can lead to further self-sabotaging relationships.

Assess the Outcome of Your Behaviors

Then, ask yourself, "Is my behavior bringing me closer to my partner or pushing them away in the long term?" When we become triggered or reactive in our relationship, we can feel, act, and think in ways that push our partner further away. When we become triggered, it is easier to express emotions like anger and frustration. It becomes much harder to express vulnerable and tender emotions such as fear, sadness, and loneliness.

For example, my partner came home later than expected one evening from having dinner with a friend who was visiting town. I was seething with anger and gave him the silent treatment. Instead of expressing vulnerable fears of abandonment or sadness, I went straight to the protective emotion of anger. The anger only pushed him further away, which was the opposite of what I wanted. Sometimes self-sabotaging behaviors can bring our partner closer in the short term. Yet, it is still harmful to the relationship in the long term. Similarly, avoiding conflict may create harmony in the relationship in the short term. However, unresolved issues might resurface later and create more damage to the relationship.

Assess Your Values

Finally, ask yourself, "Does my behavior align with my values?" Often, our self-sabotaging behaviors become misaligned with our values, characters, and beliefs. For example, after fights with my partner, I often wondered, "Where did all that anger come from?" I am not generally an angry person nor do I want to be one. These behaviors can leave us with regret because of the shame and guilt for acting in ways that aren't ourselves. The shame and guilt may be a good sign that you might be self-sabotaging relationships. Yet, try not to get stuck in the muck of shame and guilt. Remember that this self-sabotaging part of you is only that, a part of you. It is not the whole of who you are. 

We all have our reasons for why we engage in self-sabotaging relationships. It may be helpful in the healing process to understand your "why." To do so, you can read some great books on family dynamics and trauma. You can check our Recommended Reading page for some suggestions, talk to your partner, friends, and family to get feedback on your behaviors, and eek help from a therapist to uncover past wounds that may be driving the behaviors.

Begin Trauma Treatment in Our Ballard Office or Via Online Therapy

You do not have to go through the pain of self-sabotaging relationships. You can overcome past trauma with the help of a caring therapist at our Ballard therapy practice. If what you've read here resonates and you live in the Seattle area, we encourage you to contact us today. We can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation and begin exploring how psychotherapy can help you on your journey toward healing