Self sabotage is now a term widely used in popular culture. Understood to be behaviour or thoughts that stop you reaching your long-term goals, self sabotage can be subtle and hard to identify, because the consequences don’t always directly follow the behaviour. Self saboteurs have established self destructive habits and become stuck in a perpetual cycle of procrastination and self preservation. But how and why do people sabotage love?
Dr Raquel Peel has undertaken groundbreaking research in the field of self sabotage in relation to romantic relationships from which she is pioneering a method of assessment, in the form of a scale, to be used clinically and by individuals to help them identify and address behaviours in order to forge successful, fulfilling, long-term, romantic relationships. Her research defines romantic self sabotage as employing a pattern of self-destructive behaviours in relationships to impede success or withdraw effort and justify failure.
Peel’s initial research paper on romantic self sabotage was the first step to empirically define self sabotage in romantic relationships as a cognitive strategy employed for self protection, self esteem and self image safeguarding. Evidence gathered from practising psychologists supported the belief that, whether consciously or unconsciously, people self sabotage their relationships or withdraw from them because they are afraid of getting hurt and are too scared or uncomfortable to make themselves vulnerable.
“The interesting thing about the conversations with the psychologists was that they saw it. Longitudinally, they saw it,” says Peel. That pattern of behaviour was repeating itself again and again. I think that is the basis of being able to call it sabotage. If you say, ‘I had this one relationship and I really messed it up’ — no-one is going to believe that is a trait or a pattern, but psychologists were seeing that again and again.”
Peel’s most recently published research explored participants’ lived experiences, and detailed motivations and behaviours used to self-sabotage their romantic relationships. People from all over the world of various cultural backgrounds, ages, genders and sexual orientations were surveyed. The most widely mentioned motive as to why participants sabotaged their romantic relationships was fear — including fear of being hurt, of rejection, of abandonment and of commitment.
Broken trust, high expectations, lack of relationship skills and self-esteem issues were also cited as reasons. “Self esteem was a big one — an underlying belief almost, that you are not worthy of a relationship, it’s never going to happen for you, or if it does, it’s a ticking time bomb that is going to go off at some point,” says Peel.
Several common behaviours or strategies were identified as being employed by participants to sabotage their relationships including ‘relationship withdrawal’, in the form of distancing and emotional detachment. “The participants would talk about withdrawing from the relationship, so keeping their partner at a distance, to either test it or break it,” says Peel.
Peel’s research journey has also been one of unexpected personal discovery, with her noticing similar behaviours she perpetuated in her relationships only after she had begun her research. “I was blissfully unaware. I knew that there was something wrong in the sense that I wasn’t good at relationships, and with low self esteem I used to blame myself,” says Peel.
“When I started my research it became very clear to me that I was deliberately sabotaging my relationships. I had low self esteem and. a fear of being abandoned, so I used to abandon people in advance. And that is not uncommon. The further I got through my research, the more I saw in other people’s testimonies very similar stories to mine.”
Giving up at the beginning
The testimonies from her research showed participants were afraid of being hurt, abandoned or rejected and were therefore giving up on love quickly and assessing people quickly, after just one or two dates. “I’ll never forget one participant who talked about going on Tinder, then while she was sitting there with the date she would be looking on Tinder for the next one.”
Realising that she was herself a romantic self saboteur, her research gave her the insight to work on herself. Along with improved communication with her husband-to- be, it enabled her to form a loving and successful relationship. “I used to find faults with everyone that I was dating, especially if they liked me. If a guy liked me, I would find everything that was wrong with him, because you want to protect yourself,” says Peel.
How to break the cycle
Having noticed a lot of people blame others in their relationships, Peel first suggests looking at yourself, your own behaviours and possible motivations, before taking that insight and working on making positive improvements to your behaviour. “We must look at ourselves in order to understand anything. It is easy to blame someone else as to why things are not working,” says Peel.
Another important step is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Dr Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure, and posits that in being vulnerable we are revealing our true selves.
In her book, Daring Greatly, the culmination of 12 years of social research, she says: “That social connection is the reason we are all here, and without vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives. To be vulnerable is to be courageous, even when there are no guarantees.”
Sabotaging romance isn’t just for singles. Dr John Gottman has conducted research on long-term relationships and married couples for nearly four decades and is able to predict with over 90 per cent accuracy which couples will divorce and which will stay together. He has identified communication styles that, according to The Gottman Institute’s research, can lead to the end of a relationship. They include a range of behaviours he refers to as ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ which, if unaddressed, can put a relationship at risk and be a predictor of early divorce.
He identifies the four horsemen as contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. According to Gottman, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. The person who is at the receiving end of the contempt is belittled and mocked and made to feel despised and worthless. He warns that relationship conflict is unavoidable, but it’s how it’s managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship. He advises learning the art of expressing a complaint in a way that avoids criticising.
Peel, too, suggests working together with your partner and being mindful of not neglecting your relationship. “Neglecting your relationship can look like not listening to your partner when they are telling you something that really matters to them, spending more time with your friends, spending more time caring for someone, such as the children or elderly parents, and doing that for long periods of time at the expense of powerful, important conversations with your partner.”
The Gottman Institute’s research also shows that the average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems. Peel’s research shows a similar pattern. “Especially in the field of psychology, we think people are just going to seek help the moment they need it, but what you see again and again is that by the time they reach out, the issue has been going on for a little bit.
“We don’t have a diagnosis for relationship issues, that does not exist. So what tends to happen is people experience relationship issues for years, then they get to the point that they are showing signs of depression or anxiety, and that’ll be what they are diagnosed with. If we could reverse the clock, there’d likely be a pattern of broken relationships that could have been picked up.”
Emotional connections and mental health
Peel’s early research in 2018 investigated how lengthy struggles with unsatisfying romantic relationships can lead to diagnoses of anxiety and depression, leaving the cause untreated. Her interest in this area was sparked by her previous research on suicide, where she noticed feelings of hopelessness often resulted from failed personal connections and romantic relationships.
“In reading people’s responses and explanations as to why they were contemplating taking their own lives, a lot of the reasons were to do with relationships, such as broken relationships, loss of hope, loss of love,” says Peel. “It got me thinking that maybe I should look into it — why aren’t the relationships working? What is happening for the person that they have a series of broken relationships and get to a point where they are hopeless?”
“A lack of social connections carries a similar risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even exceeds the risks of inactivity and obesity,” says Dr Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, whose research is focused on the long-term health effects of social connection. Not having quality, satisfying and meaningful relationships has been clearly linked with loneliness in a 2018 survey by the Australian Psychological Society, the survey revealing that lonely Australians are 15.2 per cent more likely to be depressed, and 13.1 per cent more likely to be anxious about social interactions.
“The innate urge to connect with others is one of our most basic instincts,” says Peel. “But if that is threatened by our fear of getting hurt, we prioritise that. We usually want to protect ourselves above all else. So we go against our natural instincts to connect and love,” says Peel.