We humans

Why we sabotage romantic relationships — and what we can do about it

May 16, 2019 /

By examining our actions and attitude, we can start to break the cycle, says psychology researcher Raquel Peel.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Before she met the love of her life, psychology researcher Raquel Peel says that she was a “romantic self-saboteur.” Her early experiences had affected her attitude and behavior towards love. In her TEDxJCUCairns talk, she recalls, “I assumed that people in my relationships would eventually leave me; I also assumed that all my relationships would fail.” Driven by these feelings of impending doom, Peel — a graduate student at James Cook University in Australia would invariably “pull the plug” on romances whenever things got the least bit difficult.

Sound familiar?

She knew many other people who acted in deliberately self-destructive ways in relationships, so she decided to learn more about this behavior. She did it in two ways: by interviewing Australian psychologists who specialize in relationship counseling “to understand what self-sabotage looks like in practice” and by surveying more than 600 self-confessed saboteurs worldwide to find out what they did and why they did it.

“My participants varied in age, cultural background, and sexual orientation,” Peel says, “Yet they answered in very similar ways.” They exhibited one or more of what US psychologist and researcher John Gottman (watch his TEDx talk) calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” or what he has identified as the primary behaviors that can lead to the end of a relationship: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. And while the particular form that these take are as unique as the people surveyed, the people surveyed, according to Peel, “sabotage relationships for one main reason: to protect themselves.”

Of course, while self-protection is the reason given by most of her participants, the actual causes of sabotaging behaviors are complex, varied and deep-rooted. Still, Peel has this advice to share with any self-identified romantic saboteurs out there:

Stop entering relationships that you know are doomed.

One form of romantic self-sabotage is choosing partners that are just plain wrong for you. “We should not be pursuing every relationship that comes our way,” says Peel. “Pursue those relationships that have the potential to work.”

Get curious about how you act when you’re in a relationship.

Peel suggests: “Take a really good look at yourself and your behaviors in relationships and ask yourself, Are you someone who needs a lot of reassurance from your partner? Are you someone who gets nervous when things get too close?”

Think about those four horsemen — criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. How often do you exhibit any of them? Which are your go-tos? And what are the beliefs you hold about yourself or your partner when you act in these ways? Try to observe your actions — or think back to what you’ve done in the past — and strive to understand the reasons behind them.

View your relationship as a partnership.

“We need to figure out how to collaborate with our partners, and how, even, to be vulnerable together,” says Peel. “Are you and your partner on the same team? Do you talk to your partner about your relationship goals?”

Obviously, this isn’t appropriate in the early days when you’re getting to know each other. But when you’re in a committed relationship, writer Mandy Len Catron (watch her TED talk about the reality of love) says — borrowing from linguists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff — it helps to view it as a “work of art” that you two are co-creating together, in real time. Adopting this attitude can make you more excited about the future you’re both building, rather than seeing love, and therefore your relationship, as something that is happening to you beyond your control or input and likely to end in heartbreak.

Many romantic saboteurs mention the dispiriting sensation they have when they’re in a relationship knowing it’s just a matter of time before it will end. As Peel puts it, “it’s like staring into a crystal ball knowing exactly what’s going to happen.” However, the work-of-art mindset can help counter that pessimistic self-narrative. Instead, “you get to stop thinking about yourself and what you’re gaining or losing in your relationship, and you get to start thinking about what you have to offer,” says Catron.

Be kind to yourself.

Your reasons for developing self-sabotaging behaviors most likely spring from an understandable and human place. “It’s natural to want to protect yourself,” says Peel, “but the way out of it is to have insight into who you are in a relationship … and how best to collaborate with them. After all, if you know who you are in a relationship, your partner will also have a chance to get to know you, and together you can break the pattern to sabotage.” She adds, “Love will never be easy, but without self-sabotage, it is a lot more reachable.”

Watch her TEDxJCUCairns talk now: