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Why Do I Keep Messing Up My Relationship? – 8 Relationship Experts Reveal the Real Reason Behind Your Self-Sabotaging Patterns

by Margalis Fjelstad – Ph.D., LMFT, Amy Dunniway – MA, LMFT, Tracy Askilsrud – MA, LMFTA, Hollis Wall – MA, LMHCA, Michelle Henderson – MA, LMHC, Anita Gadhia-Smith – PsyD, LCSW-C, LICSW, Cheri McDonald – PhD, LMFT, Lori Ann Davis – MA, CRS, CRC

Why Do I Keep Messing Up My Relationship

“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

~ Brené Brown

Brené Brown You are Worthy of Love and Belonging Quote
Margalis Fjelstad

I want to start by saying that I don’t think anyone purposely sabotages their own relationships. 

However, there are a lot of factors in ourselves that can intervene to damage or disrupt a relationship—many of which are deeply hidden from our awareness.


Being too self-critical affects women in many ways. The most prevalent seems to be around body image. 

Worrying about weight, body proportion, the right make-up, hair and clothing can create a lot of self-doubt and lack of confidence. And it frequently takes you away from being relaxed and enjoying the interactions in the relationship. 

Disparaging thoughts about yourself or any sort can make you overly sensitive to criticism or more fearful of rejection. 

And it clouds your thinking when you’re so worried about whether the guy will like you rather than figuring out if you even like him. 

Trying to please

Self-criticalness often leads to an overly strong need to please. 

Being pleasant can make relationships flow, but always feeling a need to make the other person happy, giving in, never disagreeing, and totally focusing in on the other person ends up creating a fake relationship that is destined to fail in the long-term. You really can’t nor would want to always give up what you feel, think, and want for the rest of your life.

Being overly pleasing is manipulative and dishonest, and it also makes you vulnerable to being manipulated. 

Pleasers are easily manipulated by toxic, controlling partners simply by the partner being angry, displeased, annoyed, or disappointed. The pleaser often feels so much anxiety about trying to make their partner happy, that they easily give up their needs and give in to whatever the other person wants.

Poor role models

The most likely model that you’ll use in your love relationships with be either very similar to your parent or, if you hated how they interacted, you’ll try doing the exact opposite. 

So, if your parents had poor communication, fought a lot, ignored each other, and so forth, you’re likely to copy that pattern or, conversely, be overly pleasing, agreeable, and extremely attentive. Neither of these patterns will create a healthy, respectful, cooperative partnership. 


As a therapist, I’ve observed that almost all couples who come into therapy to help with their relationship, don’t communicate clearly or nearly enough. Couples probably share less than 10% of what they’re thinking and feeling with their partners. 

As a result, most couples assume their partner is either on the same wave length or extremely different, but rarely check out their assumptions. 

The less you share, the less you know about each other. Assumptions can lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and feel insulting or domineering.


Insecurities often result from a long-term sense of not feeling good enough. If you came from a home in which love was conditional on your good performance, or you felt ignored or discounted, it can leave you with a deficit of self-confidence. 

If your partner ignores you, is demeaning or dismissive, you may assume that it’s your fault. The more insecure you are, the more clingy, self-doubting, vulnerable, and generally needy you are likely to be. It’s difficult to have a strong connection when you feel these inadequacies. 


When you feel much more needy than the other person, you’ll be overly eager to connect. This could easily cloud your judgment about the character and personality of a potential partner. 

Neediness tends to result in lowered standards and a greater willingness to accept questionable personality qualities. 

The more needy you are, the more likely you are to accept someone just to be in a relationship rather than for their long-term merits or potential as a compatible partner.

Difficulty saying NO

Anyone who has difficulty saying no, setting limits, and standing up for themselves will usually end up feeling dominated, taken advantage of, and building up resentment in a relationship. 

Saying NO gives you power in the relationship. 

If you have no power to make your ideas, preferences, and opinions known, then you almost don’t exist in the relationship. Dissatisfaction increases as you feel less and less respected.


  • “I’ve invested so much in this relationship that I can’t leave now.” 
  • “I can’t leave until he understands how I feel.” 

These two statements are really big miscalculations. 

These are the same beliefs gambling addicts have that keep them betting until they lose everything. Your time and energy aren’t investments in the relationship. They are the measure of your experiences. 

If you’ve had too many negative experiences, spending more time and energy won’t get you any closer to your goal. 

In fact, you’re likely to just get more of the same.

In the world of biology, males try to attract females, but it is the female who makes the actual choice of partner. Too many women don’t realize how much power they have in the mating process. When you just go with what you’re feeling in the moment, you’re more likely to make mistakes in your choice. 

Everyone has some insecurities, worries, imperfect experiences and assumptions, so it’s important to be fully aware of what yours are. 

Identify what you really want in a potential partner, and be aware that what you’re being offered in a relationship is actually what you want, so that you don’t inadvertently sabotage yourself.

Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT – www.margalistherapy.com

Amy Dunniway

New relationships come with many hopes and expectations. 

Dreams of a distant wedding or the fantasy of having children can start to dance in a mind that is overwhelmed with “feel good” neurotransmitters. Oxytocin and Dopamine can have amazingly positive effects on this experience. 

These chemicals can cause a whirlwind of thoughts: 

What if he’s the one? Where would we get married? He would be the perfect husband!

As time passes and the romance phase dwindles, life becomes more routine and settles into something less like a fairy tale, something more “real.” 

He starts to seem less perfect and you are more aware that you aren’t either. This can cause anxiety about the relationship.

When anxiety is allowed to become a third-party in any relationship, things are likely to change. 

Thoughts of a promising relationship coming to an end can be stressful. Anxiety may drive the need for control. If left unchecked, those “what if” dreams become “what if” nightmares. What if he breaks up with me? What if he cheats on me? What if I’m just not good enough for him?

This type of thinking can spiral out of control, causing bad decisions to be made and compromising our self-worth. 

Unchecked negative thoughts can cause behaviors to change without us knowing. “What if” thoughts beg us to make sure the worst-case scenarios in our minds don’t come true. 

Let’s say the fear of infidelity drives someone to become extra needy with her boyfriend. She insists on more texts during the day, so she can be assured he’s not out with someone else. He doesn’t like this change. He pulls back and takes space from her clinginess. 

She pursues him further because now she feels even more insecure. He MUST be spending time with someone else, she thinks, because he isn’t spending time with me. Her increased insecurity feels overwhelming for him and he ends the relationship.

This self-fulfilling sabotage happened without her even knowing. 

Had she been able to recognize the negative feelings she was experiencing, maybe she would have opted to have an honest conversation with her boyfriend about what was happening. They might have been able to discuss their individual needs and create a plan about how to work it out together.

Self-checks can also be helpful. 

  • When you are emotionally triggered, take a Time Out. Ask yourself, “what’s going on with me right now? Why am I feeling what I’m feeling?” 
  • If you’re feeling anxious or scared, ask yourself why. 
  • Is there something of great value at stake here? 
  • Does it seem like you’re on the brink of another break-up, like the one that hurt so badly last time? 

Now, in the middle of the emotional upheaval, tell yourself to STOP. 

Say it out loud or in your mind to break that negative thought cycle and to stop the emotion from escalating. 

Walk away from the situation and take a 30-minute break to allow your body to relax. 

Then, take some time to call a friend, take a walk, jump in the shower or have a cup of tea. Buy yourself some time to let those emotions subside. 

Now, ask yourself what you want your next step to be for the outcome you would like. 

Though it doesn’t mean every situation will end perfectly, it does mean that you’re learning self-control and how to sit through difficult emotions before making decisions.

Amy Dunniway, MA, LMFT – www.sctherapist.com

Tracy Askilsrud

If you find yourself acting out in ways that damage your relationship, could it be that you are already expecting to be hurt and are taking action first? Or maybe you are feeling unworthy of the relationship for some reason? 

These types of beliefs can lead to negative thoughts taking hold and causing you to take actions that you don’t feel good about later. 

Here are some tips to tune in to your experience in a new way and prevent actions that you may regret later.

  • Check on your own feelings of self-worth.

Do you have trouble believing that you deserve the good things in your life? If you had a rough childhood or bad past relationships, you might have a belief deep down that you don’t really deserve good things. 

Or maybe you think if the other person really gets to know you, they won’t continue to like you anymore.

Your psyche can be like a thermostat – subconsciously encouraging you to take actions which keep you at the level you feel you deserve. 

This might look like temptations to do things that will ultimately ruin your relationship. 

Try working with a therapist or through a self-help book to improve your feelings of self-worth. 

  • Tune into the thoughts and feelings that arise.

With 35-45 thoughts passing through your mind every minute, there can be thoughts affecting you which you are unaware of. 

Start by paying attention to large changes in how you are feeling, like a drop in energy suddenly. 

There is a good chance a negative thought just had a big impact. What were you doing or thinking about when you had this shift in feelings? This is a great way to track down that thought. 

Practicing mindfulness daily can also help you to build up your mental muscles to both notice what is happening inside your head, and to be better able to tolerate negative thoughts and feelings without acting out.

Find a short 5 minute mindfulness exercise online then practice it daily to build up this skill.

  • Recognize that you are not your thoughts.

It is normal for your mind to have negative thoughts, like “What’s the point; this relationship is not going to work.” Maybe this thought is true; maybe it isn’t.  The problem is when you believe the thought, “fuse” with it, then behave in a destructive way.

It might sound very strange, but there is a way to notice the thought and see it as your thinking mind yet separate from YOU. 

Noticing your thinking self allows you to detach from the thoughts and then make conscious choices about your behaviors. Once you are in control, not the thoughts, you can choose actions that align with your values.

Watch an online video or read an article on the premise of ACT Therapy.

Tracy Askilsrud, MA, LMFTA – www.tracyask.com

Hollis Wall

There could be many reasons why you are self-sabotaging your relationships. 

Self-sabotaging could be attributable to many causes such as how your parents treated you, your childhood and teenage years or what happened in your first serious relationship. 

We will explore these reasons and I will give you some tips on how to recognize when you are self-sabotaging. 

Phases of life shape who we are today and can affect how we behave in relationships. 

Emotional, physical or sexual abuse can affect how we behave in our current relationships whether they are a romantic or platonic relationship. 

This can lead to fear of intimacy; the fear of getting too emotionally or physically involved with people.  

You might also associate intimacy with negative emotions and experiences rather than positive experiences. 

This can lead to a push and pull in your mind and in your relationship and can cause a break up or avoidance.  

If you have had bad experiences in your past you might start to think that people who get close to you cannot be trusted or may hurt you which can lead to pulling away. 

If you find yourself hanging out a lot at the beginning and then talking about becoming more serious, you may have a little freak out moment and then start ghosting him (i.e. stop texting, cancel dates or avoid phone calls). 

This is one of the signs that you are self-sabotaging. 

A few other signs could be you are always looking for an excuse to exit or avoid talking about getting more serious. 

You could also be serial dating. You start to get too serious in one relationship so you start jumping from one relationship to the next. It may feel like you cannot find anyone you can commit to. 

A few tips to try and stop self-sabotaging are:

  • Identify your triggers (this could be one step toward healing your own wounds). 
  • You could do this by journaling about what behavior triggered you and, then write down what was happening in the moment and how you were feeling at the time. 
  • You could also start to notice patterns in your behavior and relationship. Once you identify these you could have a conversation with your boyfriend about them and what you think and feel about them. 
  • You can also make a choice in your relationship. You can choose to either let yourself be overwhelmed by your past pain or you could take an opportunity to work on your relationship and heal old wounds. 
  • Another tip is practice self-care. You probably hear a lot of people say, “You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.” This can be true in some cases. By taking time for yourself and finding a self-care routine you can feel more grounded and in tune with yourself. You may eventually find the love of your life.

I hope talking about the causes, signs and tips for self-sabotaging will be helpful to you.

Hollis Wall, MA, LMHCA – www.wallehollis.com

Cheri McDonald

Women who feel at a loss as to why they cannot keep a relationship often look for whatever is happening between her and him.  

Yet, as a pattern of losing one relationship after another, they are faced to look at the one common denominator in all these losses, themselves.

When a pattern of losing relationships occur, you may be detoured by your saboteur archetype who gets consumed by feelings of confusion, hurt, guilt and shame that then gets projected onto their partner. 

As you can surmise, these feelings of chaos damage the bonding and lead to the demise of the union.

Usually, the saboteur is introduced from a young age and, for some, instinctive and others learned as part of survival. Hence, it is what you know. 

If this is you, no worries, as since it is about you, you can fix it! I offer 3 tips to assist you in refocusing your energy and creating the change desired: 

First, stop, reflect, and look back through your life, examine what was what by exploring fundamental beliefs, unconscious motivators, and the triggers for survival. 

This understanding is the beginning step toward change.

Neuroscience is showing that through our growing years we are impacted by the omissions and commissions during our development, and it is a rare person who escapes hard times, loss and even, trauma. 

When past negative ramifications are left unresolved, they may impede the ability to trust others, develop self-value and cause loss of self-confidence.

This, in turn, can manifest in chronic feelings of shame and guilt that inhibit bonding with others.

Now that you know, you are ready for the second step, that is love yourself for surviving and growing despite any unresolved grief. 

This courage for self-exploration reminds you just how capable you are, and you do have value, because you are you with and without any missteps.

By starting with you, you are ready for the third step to get back in the game of entering a relationship—ready to act: 

  1. Be healthy and begin now!
  2.  Re-evaluate expectations, lean toward mercy, and discard unrealistic projections
  3. Test your ability to trust and discern issues from suspicion in absence of reason. Consistent doubt about your guy’s trustworthiness could be an indication that your past is influencing your perspective.
  4. Move over and allow mutual expression of needs, feelings, and acceptance
  5. Courageously set boundaries and respect boundaries set. The failure to do so can be damaging to the relationship as it is to you. 

At the end of the day be happy to be you

Then be open to replacing any beliefs and actions that sabotage your relationships. Know you have the strength to walk through the unresolved angst, empower yourself with realistic expectations, self-confidence, and trusting endeavor for creating a healthy, satisfying relationship.

Cheri McDonald, PhD, LMFT – www.aplace2turn.com

Michelle Henderson

Self-sabotaging can be very sneaky. 

With nearly everything in life, there’s a part of us that wants something and a part of us that doesn’t. 

If you think about wanting to eat healthier, for example, there may be a part of you that genuinely wants to have better eating habits and another part of you that likes junk food and wants to continue eating it. 

When it comes to relationships, there is often a part of us that wants stability, to “settle down”, to be with one person for the rest of our lives, and to have this relationship be successful. 

There may be another part that thinks settling down sounds boring, feels frustrated with the partner we’re with, or wonders if there could be someone out there that’s better for us. 

This is the part that self-sabotages.

When it comes to overcoming self-sabotage, you have to first acknowledge the part of you that maybe doesn’t want this relationship (or it could be a part that doesn’t want any long-term, stable relationship). 

Find a healthy way to name and express this part, whether it’s talking about it with a friend or therapist, journaling about it, or just listening to your thoughts and noticing them about this part. 

Really tune in to what that part wants to do, what would happen if it was running the show. 

Some people worry that if they do this they’re setting themselves up for those things to happen, but if we repress our urges and pretend they don’t exist, then they become more likely to come out later on in a way we don’t like. 

Facing them and giving them a voice helps us be in charge of them. 

We can’t be in charge of something if we don’t know that it exists in the first place or something that we’re running away from.

Sometimes even just acknowledging this part and these urges, makes it feel much smaller or less significant. 

It can also help you just get another perspective, such as, “Even if there is a part of me that worries this relationship won’t work out and wants to end it, there’s a bigger part of me that thinks we can make this work and that it’s worth it to stay.”

Michelle Henderson, MA, LMHC – www.nextchapter-counseling.com

Lori Ann Davis

Everyone comes into relationships with a past.

This past can bring with it unresolved issues that can affect the health of current relationships. 

We all have losses in our lives when it comes to relationships. It may be a first love that we will never forget or a relationship we just got out of. 

Even your current relationships can have painful moments. 

I do not think anyone is free from some kind of past hurt in regard to relationships. 

These past experiences can cause negative thoughts and beliefs that can affect your current happiness. 

It will also affect your happiness in the future if not dealt with.

Sometimes we come to a place that reminds us of past hurts and we react to the current situation based on that past hurt. We might even become stuck in a pattern where current events trigger past emotions within us. 

These reactions and the feelings that accompany them, can stop us from moving forward and creating better relationships. 

Although we do not have the power to always choose life’s events, we do have the power to change how we interpret them. 

Relationships are in our lives for different reasons; some are meant to be forever, and some only serve a purpose and run their course. 

Relationships are the main avenue for us to learn life lessons. 

It is important to find the lesson, love the person for what they provided, and learn for the future. Have you learned from your past?

Letting go of past experiences and forgiving others and ourselves is an important part of moving forward. 

We are not taught how to accept a relationship or a person for what they have given us and then to move on. 

  • What did you learn from past relationships? 
  • What did you learn about yourself? 
  • What was the silver lining in these experiences? 
  • What role did you play? 

It is important to stop blaming others and take responsibility for your own actions. 

Even though you may be justified in your feelings of hurt, anger, or betrayal, carrying that with you will drag you down. It makes it hard, if not impossible to move forward. Freedom comes from forgiving our past and ourselves. 

Let go of past baggage and feel the huge weight lifted. Your relationships will be healthier and happier.

It might be time to take inventory of your life and your relationships. 

  • Are there areas where you are stuck? 
  • Do you overreact to events in your current relationship because they remind you of past hurts? 
  • Is there someone you need to forgive so you can move forward with a healthier, happier relationship?

Don’t let the past negatively affect your current or future relationships. Don’t let negative thoughts and beliefs stay and determine your future. 

You are in control of what you create in your life from now on! 

This is not always easy work to do, but the results are worth it.

Lori Ann Davis, MA, CRS, CRC — www.lorianndavis.com

Anita Gadhia-Smith

If self sabotage is a problem in your relationships, it is time to look at your part and to do some work on yourself. 

You might have to dig deep and it may take a while, but you can get to the root of this issue.

There are many reasons why we can sabotage our relationships, without even consciously knowing what we are doing. 

Many self sabotage patterns stem from unresolved unconscious conflicts that have not been identified and addressed from early childhood. 

For instance, if you had a father who abandoned you, you may unconsciously seek out men who are unavailable,  or get bored with men who are available, steady, and healthy. 

Although it doesn’t make sense, we can get addicted to drama, excitement, chaos, and confusion if we experienced these types of relationships and resulting emotions in our early family life. 

Our emotional hard drive may be faulty. 

We can unconsciously replicate our original relational patterns until we do the psychological work necessary to understand them, heal , and resolve them.

Another common example is being attracted to active alcoholics or addicts. 

This is another way that we can unconsciously sabotage ourselves, which can result from having grown up with an alcoholic or dysfunctional parent. You can  have an almost uncanny radar for picking out people who are similar to your most important early life relationships. 

The characteristics that they embody can have such a strong pull on you, that even though you know something is not healthy and is going to end badly, you can’t stop yourself from getting into it anyway.

Another scenario is when you sabotage your relationships  by acting out in self destructive ways. 

This could present as difficulty managing anger, excessive anxiety, neediness, overeating, overspending, having affairs, or taking drugs and alcohol. These self-destructive behaviors are often rooted in unhealed trauma and unprocessed stored emotions from the past 

Until we do the work to uncover, understand, and begin to heal our early wounds, we may be destined to repeat them. 

Over and over and over again. This does not happen simply so that we can suffer throughout our entire lives. In the bigger picture, this happens so that we can break the cycle, and learn how to heal ourselves and our early wounds. 

Use self-sabotage as a signal. 

Self sabotage is an indicator that you have some psychological work to do in therapy.  If you are recognizing this pattern, get busy, do your work, stay with it, and trust that you can break your patterns and create a beautiful and fulfilling life that you love.

Anita Gadhia-Smith, PsyD, LCSW-C, LICSW – www.drgadhiasmith.com

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