THE BLOG
09/03/2010 09:49 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Stop Sabotaging Your Relationships

By Randi Gunther, Ph.D., author of Relationship Saboteurs

  • Do you feel your partners value some of your behaviors at the beginning of a relationship but reject you for those same behaviors over time?
  • When your partners begin to complain about those behaviors, do you tend to be defensive and dismiss their concerns?
  • Do you find yourself stubbornly clinging to certain behavior patterns even when you feel you are pushing your partners away by continuing to do them?
  • Do you believe that your other qualities are so special that your partners should not hold you accountable for those that he or she doesn't like?
  • When your relationships end do you usually feel unfairly rejected and confused?

If you mostly answered yes to these questions, you may be a relationship saboteur. What that means is that you have repeatedly found yourself ultimately rejected for certain behaviors that your partners seemed to desire when your relationship was new, and cannot understand why.

For instance, you may be an insecure person who fears being abandoned. That lack of confidence will often draw a rescuer to you who wants to prove that you've just not had the right kind of caring to cure your fears. But what if you can't stop feeling insecure no matter how deeply your partner tries to reassure you? Over time, he or she will be angry at you for invalidating the caring that was supposed to make you better.

Or what if you are a confirmed pessimist? If you are an appealing brooder, you may bring enthusiastic cheerleaders to you, eager to be the successful partners who will make you see that life is worth living. Unfortunately, if you are determined to stay cynical, you will eventually exhaust their energy and make their pompoms way too heavy to lift.

Perhaps you're the kind of a person who wants to control everything within a five-hundred mile radius but offers everything you can to make your lovers feel cared for in exchange for running their lives. That may be very attractive initially to an unorganized person who loves your micro-managing. But, as time goes by, your over-zealous watchfulness can suffocate your partner's desire to make some of the crucial decisions in the relationship.

Relationship saboteurs often attract other relationship saboteurs. Martyrs can be easily seduced by trust-breakers. People who need to control are drawn to passive-aggressive people who promise to cooperate and don't end up complying. Those who love to fight seek out partners who are practiced at defending their position.

Sabotaging behaviors are combinations of innate qualities, modeling, and personal experiences, and they can be changed. To break out of those self-destructive patterns, you must be willing to look at them without defensiveness or negative self-judgment. Remember, you are not intentionally trying to push your partners away. You are unconsciously repeating patterns that don't work and have not yet learned to do things differently. Personal accountability forms the foundation for change.

Here are seven steps to end your sabotaging behavior:

  1. Be willing to look at your patterns without being self-critical. You most likely learned these patterns in childhood from people you trusted and have repeated them so often that they seem to be part of you. Look at yourself through the lens of a loving camera and just note what you see.
  2. Look for where you learned those patterns and who the people were who taught them to you. Go as far back in your life as you can to find the external dialogues that you have now internalized.
  3. Look for the trigger points in your present life that are likely to set off those unconscious behavior patterns that get you in trouble.
  4. Pay attention to when those triggers are most likely to happen by being in close touch with your levels of vulnerability and resilience.
  5. Look for people you respect and admire who behave differently in the same kinds of situations and note what they do differently. Then make a plan to try those behaviors instead of the ones you have practiced.
  6. When you are trying to change, carefully select people who will support you in your attempts to find new ways to behave. Be careful of those who have an investment in your staying the same. They will knowingly or unknowingly counter-sabotage your efforts.
  7. Create a plan to stay on track by caring more for yourself. Remember, every moment in your life your behavior will take you closer or farther from the person you are trying to become. Don't put yourself down when you slip. If you start living that new behavior again, you will eventually triumph over it and leave your sabotaging patterns behind.

Relationship saboteurs are well-intentioned people who aren't out to destroy their relationships or disappoint their partners. They are at the mercy of learned self-destructive patterns that they can recognize, understand, and heal. Once they've learned to change those patterns, they can look forward to building relationships that can deepen in commitment and connection.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor in Lomita, CA. She had her husband have been married for over fifty years. She is the author of Relationship Saboteurs: Overcoming the Ten Behaviors that Undermine Love.

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