Self-Sabotaging Behavior in Relationships: 4 Solutions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Big Leap" by Gay Hendricks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do we sabotage our romantic relationships? What are some of the most common self-sabotaging behaviors in relationships?

According to psychologist Gay Hendricks, we’re not evolutionarily built for deep, loving relationships—we’re evolved to meet basic needs and reproduce. This means that we naturally feel uncomfortable when we experience intensely positive emotions in relationships. As a result, we often subconsciously sabotage our romantic relationships by picking fights, keeping a score, and perpetuating dysfunctional communication patterns.

Here’s why we sabotage our most important relationships and how to put an end to this cycle.

Limiting Behaviors in Your Relationships

Psychological research has shown that “successful” people tend to have low relationship satisfaction. According to Hendricks, that’s because those who have already achieved success in other areas of their life are nearer their happiness threshold, so they can’t allow themselves to also experience happy relationships. Not only do we individually self-limit here, but in intimate relationships, couples will work in tandem with each other to create an intertwined happiness threshold and reinforce that.

(Shortform note: Studies have found a correlation between higher social class and certain kinds of relationship problems. The research suggests that the problem is linked to more rigid kinds of thinking, and a tendency for higher-status individuals to lack wise reasoning in interpersonal conflicts.)

Close, intimate relationships are evolutionarily something new that we’re grappling with. So we will engage in sabotaging behaviors to bring the feelings back down to a level we’re familiar and comfortable with.

Romantic Love and Pair-Bonding

Hendricks doesn’t provide evidence to support the claim that we’re not evolutionarily built for deep, loving relationships. Research in evolutionary psychology undercuts this claim. A number of research studies conclude that romantic love has long been a mechanism to support pair-bonding in humans. Due to similarities in the physiological responses observed in our brains and bodies, researchers believe romantic love co-evolved with mother-infant bonding, and it goes back perhaps even to our pre-modern human ancestors.

It may be more likely that we sabotage relationships to protect ourselves from being hurt. Self-protective mechanisms often result in self-sabotage, particularly when they’re based in negative beliefs about ourselves, such as the belief that we’re not worthy of love.

Some of the common self-sabotaging behaviors in relationships are by picking fights, communicating poorly, and engaging in power struggles. While each of these behaviors may be instigated by one partner, they all clearly take two people to create a cycle of conflict. Once both partners are engaged in bickering, vying for control, or dysfunctional communication patterns, the cycle gets very difficult to break. Thus, Hendricks emphasizes the importance of getting your partner on board in the process of addressing these telltale behaviors. In this case, two people are working together to reinforce the happiness threshold, so both partners need to commit to working on the problem, or one will continue sabotaging the relationship. 

To prevent and fix these unhealthy relationship dynamics, Hendriks recommends a few strategies:

1. Both partners should regularly take alone time to recharge and reconnect with themselves. When we’re in a relationship, we need to maintain our sense of individuality and independence; when we don’t have this, Hendricks says that we will tend to create conflict to force that distance and avoid intimacy. So if both partners voluntarily take time away for themselves, they’ll be less likely to force that distance in unhealthy ways. Hendricks advises that any time you experience a high level of intimacy or happiness in your relationship, take a bit of time to do something “grounding” (connect with the earth in some way), in order to avoid falling into the pattern of bringing yourself and your relationship back down in an unhealthy

2. Both partners should commit to cultivating better communication skills. This involves practicing speaking openly and honestly about your feelings. Both partners need to allow all feelings to be expressed, without trying to suppress or avoid them in themselves or the other person.

3. Partners should remember to regularly show non-sexual physical affection to one another. This is just as important as sexual affection. 

4. Hendricks advises creating a support network with a few friends, who would be willing to work together with you on the happiness threshold problems. You can support one another and hold one another accountable.

Self-Sabotaging Behavior in Relationships: 4 Solutions

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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