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Romantic relationships can offer us some of life’s greatest joys. They can also cause some of life’s greatest pains. As we open ourselves up to another, we leave ourselves vulnerable to rejection and abandonment, thus fueling some of our deepest insecurities. For many, especially those who have experienced childhood trauma or unstable familial relationships, such insecurities can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors.
Psychotherapist Mercedes Coffman, MFT, refers to the concept of emotional memory in understanding why this occurs. “Although we may not have recall of certain early experiences in life,” says Coffman, “our emotional memory is often what triggers a deepened sense of hurt in romantic relationships, which may seem like an overreaction to others, and sometimes even to ourselves. This can make us self-sabotage a relationship that could have had the potential to grow into something wonderful.”
Fortunately, we have a choice. We can either allow ourselves to be flooded with the pain of the past and risk engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors, or we can choose to see our relationships as opportunities to work on ourselves by repairing old wounds long forgotten. Below are a few of the ways that experts say we can begin to do this work. Following these suggestions could help you avoid the trap of self-sabotage and ultimately bring you closer to the loving relationship you deserve.
1. Understand your attachment style
When we are experiencing difficulty, it is helpful to understand our attachment style. “People come out of their family of origin with a blueprint of how they attach to others,” says relationship therapist Rhonda Milrad, LCSW. “This attachment style is played out in every one of their relationships. For people who experienced trauma, abandonment, enmeshment, etc., they most often develop insecure attachments as adults where they have trouble trusting relationships.” Milrad explains that the closer someone is to another person, the greater the likelihood that their attachment style can get challenged in that relationship, and that the strains will bring out their worst qualities (such as jealousy, anger, and enmeshment), which often leads to self-sabotaging behaviors.
“The way our parent(s) responded to us as infants and children has a deep profound impact on how we develop and grow, particularly in how we see ourselves and view others,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Herman. “A parent(s) attention to them in infancy/childhood might have been warm and attentive one moment but cold or aloof at other times. Not knowing what you might get as an infant primes one to possibly feel this way in future relationships.” This can lead to the need for an excessive amount of reassurance, which can make their partner exhausted. Lenderman and Milrad acknowledge that this isn’t permanent, and many people can re-work how they attach in adulthood and thrive in romantic relationships.
2. Identify your triggers
Marriage and family therapist Shadeen Francis suggests journaling about the experiences in your relationship that trigger behaviors you experience as self-sabotaging. Ask yourself the following questions: What was happening? What did you feel at the time? What were you afraid of? How likely is it that the outcome you feared would happen? “Asking yourself these questions,” she says, “can help you find the pattern in your behavior and begin to explore your vulnerability.” Having an awareness of what triggers these behaviors can prepare us for the inevitable conflicts that arise, which brings us to the next point.
3. Be mindful of your behavior
“Insecurity [in relationships ] is inevitable because everybody has issues to work on,” says psychotherapist Marina Lenderman, LCSW. “It’s critical to know what yours are. Awareness comes with behavior. For example, if you frequently pick fights or start blaming your partner, awareness has been lost. Both people have a role in conflict, so it’s important to be aware how much of it is your part.” Milrad describes the need to develop an observing ego that can help you identify when they are acting from their feelings of insecurity, even unconsciously. (For example, I recognize that I am feeling insecure about the relationship when I begin to think my partner is cheating on me, or I check their phone.) “With this insight, a person can then stop behaviors, learn to tolerate the discomfort and engage in alternative and more healthy behavior.”
4. Decipher the past from the present
There is a saying: “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” meaning our strong emotional reactions can be our best clues to some unfinished business from the past. The next time you experience a reaction that you suspect may be out of proportion from what you identify as the triggering event, take a moment to pause before responding. Lenderman suggests asking yourself, “How much is [my] past replaying, and how much is really present day?” We may not always know the answer, but by simply considering the possibility we move closer to healthy patterns of behaviors.
If specific themes continue to arise, at some point it could be helpful to speak to your partner, advises Lenderman. They can be an asset as they can help you point out the self-sabotaging behaviors as they arise.
Darren Pierre, educator, speaker, and author of The Invitation to Love, agrees. He suggests inviting your partner to be patient with you. “All of us have limitations in relationships,” he says, “and a well-defined commitment made up front offers an understanding that we are dedicated to each other beyond the adversities that are bound to occur.”
6. Practice Self-Care and Self-Compassion
Finally, as most of us already know, without self-love there cannot be true love for another—at least not the kind that leads to healthy, loving romantic relationships. Cultivating self-compassion is essential for those who struggle with low self-esteem, especially when this manifests in relationships. Seeking an individual therapist as a collaborator is a helpful way to go about healing from past hurts, finding self-acceptance and moving us closer to finding lasting and fulfilling love.