Are You Self-Sabotaging Your Relationships?


Written by: Robert Hinojosa, LCSW, CCM

Robert Hinojosa is a Licensed Certified Social Worker based in Little Rock, AR, and expert in behavioral health issues. He has worked extensively with families addressing behavioral concerns and repairing damaged family dynamics. He operates his private practice, Avidus Therapy, LLC, helping families, adults, and teens deal with behavioral health issues, as well as mental health issues.

Self-Sabotage is something that comes up a lot in my work with others.

It stems from a very basic human behavior and habit ingrained in all of us. It is the desire for the status-quo to remain the status-quo.

In other words, humans have a default setting to do everything in their power to keep things in their lives the same. It’s more manageable this way.

Obviously, this is something that is stronger in some than in others. However, in most circumstances, the individual is completely unaware that they are doing this.

Let’s take a look at a situation involving a girl, let’s call her Tina, that reflects this.

Tina is in a relationship. It’s fairly happy and stable at the moment and has been progressively getting better and stronger for the last few months. Of course, there have been bumps along the way, but nothing major that has really tested the relationship thus far.

Now, this seems like something that would be an ideal situation for most people seeking a significant committed relationship. However, this is not so for Tina, and she has confessed that she is experiencing increased anxiety about her future with her partner. So much so, that Tina has been setting aside money and making plans just in case something happens. She desperately wants to keep this relationship but feels it’s out of her control.

On the surface, this may seem strange. There has been no indication that Tina and her partner are drifting apart. It’s been quite the opposite, in fact. So why does Tina feel this way? Why the anxiety? Why the disaster prepping?

Well, to understand this, you must look at Tina’s past. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty here, but let’s hit some highlights.

Tina has been in several relationships before her current one. She’s been “dating around” with multiple partners for years now. If she thinks back on it, she really hasn’t had a recent relationship that’s lasted beyond a couple of months. Even then, it was off and on again, nothing serious.

In fact, if you asked Tina if she had ever been in a serious relationship, she may say “no, or “kind of”. Tina, however, has been in a serious relationship before. Many years ago, Tina was with a partner that she believed she would move in with and marry. They started making plans together. They started looking at houses together. They even started talking about kids. Then, one day, over a year into the relationship, Tina’s partner left.

The specifics of why and how, for this illustration, are not important. What is important is how this affected Tina.

Tina was sad, for a very long time. It would be over a year before she considered dating again, and even at that, it seemed that she never really got too involved with her partners.

This became the norm for Tina. When she wanted to be in a relationship, she found a partner. She stayed with that partner until they did something that she didn’t like, fought, and then pushed them away. Sometimes the partners would come back for another round, but mostly Tina was done.

In speaking with her later, Tina admitted that this is something she didn’t like about herself. She wanted a connection but didn’t see why she couldn’t keep a partner. In fact, when you asked Tina about her relationships, she would become sad and say that she can’t seem to find a good guy out there, or that she only meets jerks.

When we started looking at patterns in the relationships she’s had, however, the truth of the matter became fairly evident. Tina was sabotaging her own relationships.

She described entering a relationship and it would be good for a while. She and her partner would have fun together, go out drinking or go to events, and have fun dates getting to know each other. After a while, however, when the newness of the relationship wore off, she described always having an increased sense of worry.

She would often start to ask her partner questions about the future or her partner’s commitment when she started worrying. Tina would become suspicious that her partners were not going to stick around if they didn’t express a fondness for commitment, or making significant future plans. On the flip side, Tina would suspect they were lying or trying to appease her if they said they were interested in a committed relationship with her, and wanted to build a future together.

When they failed her questioning, it usually ended in a fight and later a breakup. Tina would come out relieved, initially, that she dodged another bullet. However, after years of the same thing happening, she became concerned that she would never find a partner that wanted to build a life with her.

Tina started looking for help.

When we unpacked her relationship history, and how and why she would break up with her partners, the pattern became clear.

1.     She would initiate a relationship with a new partner
2.     They would enjoy an intense honeymoon phase
3.     When this wore off, she would start thinking about the prospect of this partner being “the one”
4.     She would panic, and become anxious and suspicious
5.     She would begin to question her partner, indirectly or directly
6.     Finally, when a fight inevitably happened, she would end the relationship
7.     She would find relief in dodging a bullet, and be happy with being single for a short time, and then become lonely and long for someone else. Then the cycle would start all over again.

Here’s the thing about Self-Sabotage. The goal of self-sabotage is usually singularly focused on keeping things the same. There is a reason for this. Deep in our primal brains, we know that if something is known and understood, it can be managed. However, if something is unknown and unclear, it has a high potential for danger.

For Tina, she knew how to be single. She was good at it. She knew how to manage her own money, had a decent job, had friends and a few hobbies. Tina could manage this type of life, for the most part. However, the thing she couldn’t manage was a sense of loneliness and need for deeper connection that led her to seek out relationships.

Relationships, on the other hand, were something else for Tina. She enjoyed them at first, but they always seemed to end badly. After a while this became the norm. It became predictable. So relationships became sort of a short-term patch for the emotional disconnect that she was feeling.

There is a popular theory of human behavior called Social Learning Theory. Essentially it proposes that humans learn behavior patterns and habits by first observing, and then testing these behaviors in a social environment. If the behaviors bring about a favorable outcome, they stick. If not, they tend to go away.

This, paired with the idea that the mind craves the safety of the familiar and known, allows you to see why Tina’s behavior patterns around relationships have developed the way they did. The self-sabotaging cycle described earlier leads Tina back to what she understands and can better manage, which is being single.

This, however, is not what Tina wanted for herself. This is also something that she was completely blind to at first, and is why she needed outside professional help to understand her relationship habits.

So, how do you break a cycle like this? How do you stop self-sabotage?

First, you identify the behavior and circumstances around it. In my practice, I use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for behavioral health problems. I find it the most effective tool to identify and address the roots of behaviors and make needed changes.

In Tina’s case, after the behavior pattern and cycle was identified, we started to look at the circumstances surrounding the behavior.

The anxiety and suspicion was the key to Tina’s sabotage. It was the trigger. What it all led back to was that Tina saw serious relationships as a dangerous thing. She could handle the fun beginning stages, but when it came to planning, and really looking at a future, Tina panicked.

The ironic thing is that she often saw it as her partners panicking when she started asking about the future and getting serious about their relationship. This is called "projection" and is when you read your own mental state in others. Tina was seeing her own fears and bailing when it got to be too much.

Tina did not want this to happen to her current relationship. She coped with this feeling by preparing for the worst instead of fighting, as she usually had. She had made up her mind to see the relationship through, while at the same time she gave herself an out.

The thing about this plan, is that it did not address the lack of trust and sense of impending doom that the relationship had for Tina. Tina both wanted out, and wanted desperately to remain. Her habits and anxiety were pulling her one way, while her need for deep connection was pulling her the other.

When Tina understood this, we could unpack all her anxiety and dread, and discover where it was coming from; Her first significant relationship and the trauma it caused her. When you identify the pattern and the specific behavior, you can usually identify the trigger. When you can identify the trigger, you can change the behavior.

Tina, subconsciously, was expecting that this relationship would end the same as all the others. After all, why should she think differently? This was her experience.

It caused great distrust in both herself and her partners. She feared that she couldn’t choose the right partners. She suspected the partners she did choose would turn out to be jerks and abandon her in the end.

After working through some of this emotional trauma, the behaviors started to change, and we started looking at the relationship itself, and how to repair the rifts that were starting to form beneath the surface.

Tina had no idea, but by prepping for the worst, it was communicating that she did not trust her partner. It was giving her a way out, and that way out would look more and more appealing as the relationship wore on. All relationships have their ups and downs, and if you leave an exit plan on the table, it’s sometimes simpler to take the exit than work through a difficult problem and grow from it together.

Tina was eventually able to heal from her emotional scars, and work on the relationship she was already in. She was able to decrease her anxiety and stop prepping for the worst, and start planning, along with her partner, for the future they wanted together.

The self-sabotaging stopped, and their relationship was allowed the freedom to grow as a result.

.  .  .

Do you suspect that you’re self-sabotaging your relationships? Or maybe you have other, deeper problems that are affecting you and the loved ones around you? If so, I encourage you to seek some professional help. A circle of family and friends can be very supportive, however, sometimes people need an outside professional to really help.

If you’re in the Little Rock, AR area, and would like to work with Robert, simply call 501-615-7044, or go to HERE to request a call.

If this sounds like something a friend can benefit from, please consider sharing with them. Your voice just may be the one that gets through.

Written by: Robert Hinojosa, LCSW, CCM

Robert Hinojosa is a Licensed Certified Social Worker based in Little Rock, AR, and expert in behavioral health issues. He has worked extensively with families addressing behavioral concerns and repairing damaged family dynamics. He operates his private practice, Avidus Therapy, LLC, helping families, adults, and teens deal with behavioral health issues, as well as mental health issues.