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How to Stop Self Sabotage in Relationships

9 love-destroying behaviours your client needs to avoid

Many people sabotage their relationships in one way or another.

Davina was angry with herself. “I’m doing it again!” she cried in exasperation.


“Sabotaging my relationship! Why do I do this?”

A good question. It seemed as if my client would inevitably ruin anything good that would even begin to develop in the relationship department.

Self-sabotage can impact all areas of a client’s life, but because relationships are so important for many of us, relationship sabotage can be especially disruptive for both the saboteur and their partner, who may be left hurt and confused.

Ending a great relationship (perhaps because of a fatalistic sense that “it’s bound to go wrong, so I might as well have the control and end it now!”) is a form of sabotage of course, and a pretty clear one.

But Davina’s case, at least in her current relationship, was a little different.

For one thing, she tried too hard to make it work. She’d blitz her lover with messages all day long, try to ensure he was having a great time with her all the time, and want to talk about the relationship with him even when all he wanted was to relax.

But there were other problems, too.

A pattern of insecurity

Davina was immensely insecure in her relationships.

“I get so insecure! I look for signs it’s not going to work, and it’s like I believe it’s destined to fail. Then it’s like I try to ruin it! I think it’s going to fail, so I make it fail. I know, it’s really weird.”

Davina sighed wearily. At 36, she no longer wanted it to be like this.

I could see why Davina saw her behaviour as weird. But it wasn’t weird at all, at least not in the sense of being unusual. It’s actually a remarkably common human experience. Many people sabotage their relationships in one way or another.

Of course, it takes two to tango, and you might think you’ve sabotaged the relationship when in fact it could have been headed for the rocks anyway. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to avoid the kinds of behaviour that can make it more likely!

Davina seemed to see the relationship in terms of control, even if she may not have put it like that herself.

Lover or rival?

In some ways Davina was seeing her relationships as a kind of power struggle. This was unconscious, but it was certainly the way she was acting. Wanting to know what her lover was doing all the time, always having to know what he was thinking, berating him for even the smallest ‘misdemeanour’ that might indicate he was losing interest… it had gotten to the point where he was too scared to say or do anything! It was almost as if she were singing from the totalitarian hymn sheet.

Partly from my work with Davina so many years ago, but also from many other clients who have taught me so much over the years, I’ve composed a list of relationship-sabotaging behaviours we can both check for in our clients and help them stop and avoid.

But first a small caveat.

Unconscious versus conscious relationship sabotage

Sabotaging a relationship is often unconscious. Not everyone has the insight Davina did. We don’t necessarily know what we’re doing, and we don’t usually mean to screw up when it comes to romance. But by helping our clients to think calmly and carefully about what they do in relationships, and to consider whether any of the following relationship-sabotaging behaviours seem familiar, we can help them enjoy their relationships in much healthier ways.

I’ve worked with hundreds of relationship saboteurs over the years, and they all do similar things. I’m about to share with you some of the most common ways people sabotage their relationships. But of course, this is far from an exhaustive list.

Here’s what not to do when seeking to have a sustainable and happy relationship.

Rule one: Don’t play mind games

Playing mind games can rot a relationship from the inside, almost before it even begins. These kinds of games often arise when a client finds it hard to believe, as Davina did, that someone genuinely wants to be with them.

So a message we sometimes need to relay to clients is: “Believe it or not, people want to be with you, not some image or representation of you created to gain the ‘upper hand’, but YOU, with all your foibles, faults, and qualities!”

Once a client really hears and internalizes this, they are freed to stop trying too hard to be a certain way and instead enjoy being themselves in the relationship and being loved because they are authentically themselves.

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Here are a few common examples of mind games I’ve noticed over the years – good ones to look out for.


Obviously it’s important to get to know someone as best we can before, and as, we enter into a relationship with them. We need to know they are safe and sane. But while it may seem natural to test someone’s limits early on by ‘treating them mean’ or disrespectfully pushing boundaries, this is not an open and honest way to conduct a relationship. In fact, it can destroy it before it gets started.

Trying to make someone jealous can be a method of testing, as can playing hard to get.

Playing hard to get

Playing hard to get may be one of the more conscious relationship stratagems. Being purposefully aloof to get a reaction (rather than, say, out of fear of commitment) may seem preferable to being offputtingly eager early on, but it’s still treating the relationship like a contest. And a contest can quickly degrade into a struggle, at which point people tend to just give up.

Research has found that aloofness is not as attractive in a partner as friendliness.1 Acting like you don’t care is a risky game that may make the other person stop caring about you as the relationship starts to feel like too much hard work. The colour red at a traffic light is less encouraging than the colour green.

Davina would alternate between trying too hard and acting disinterested in an attempt to demonstrate her independence and make him want her more. Yet we pinpointed a pattern, finding that her worst rows with her partner had been during those times she’d started acting aloof.

A behaviour that often ties in with playing hard to get is sending mixed messages.

Sending mixed messages

If one day your client is really affectionate and keen and the next they seem bored and disinterested in their partner, and they seem to be doing that as a tactic, then they need to know how damaging that can be. Some people may find it more exciting if their lover runs hot then cold, but many will run away because they just never know where they stand.

Of course everyone has different moods, but going silent and not communicating after being warm and effusive just breeds insecurity in the partner or a sense that “this is just too much hard work!”

In some cases this kind of behaviour can cause someone to get ‘hooked’ in a kind of masochistic, addictive way, as inconsistent reward tends to be quite addictive.2 But this is hardly a basis for a healthy relationship!

Another behaviour that’s easy to pile on top of the above tactics is gaslighting.


Playing mind games with someone and then acting as if they are the one with the problem when they seem confused or upset is particularly toxic. If you’ve seen the classic movie Gaslight, you’ll understand where this term comes from: the male villain tries to convince his wife she’s going mad by purposefully turning the gaslights down in their house then claiming it’s all in her head!

This tends to be a tactic of the narcissist, but Davina, who wasn’t one, admitted she did sometimes do this out of desperation not to come across as ‘bad’ (or “rejectable” as she put it) to her partner. So if he commented on her overmonitoring or hot-and-coldness, she would turn the tables and suggest he was imagining it.

Okay, so these kinds of manipulative mind games are obviously super-efficient ways of ruining a relationship. But what other behaviours do our clients need to avoid in order not to sabotage what could turn into something beautiful?

Rule two: Don’t try to make your partner jealous

This comes under the umbrella of mind games too, but it’s so important it gets its own section. Attempts to make a partner jealous can quickly break a relationship apart. Not only does the partner feel horrible, but the person trying to elicit jealousy comes over as unreliable, disloyal, and untrustworthy.

This is a clear lose/lose strategy. Your client’s partner will either see them as someone who is inherently unfaithful, or as someone who is manipulative! Not a good look either way!

And the effects may not always be immediate. Flirting with others in front of your partner or trying to make them jealous in other ways can damage the relationship not only in the moment but even years down the track as resentment continues to fester.

If your client wants a long-term relationship, they need to consider the long-term effects of their behaviour. Even if they’re only pretending to be interested in other people, as Davina sometimes did, the impressions they make in the early days may come back to haunt both partners later on.

Trying to make your partner jealous or playing hard to get may not seem related to the next point, but it most certainly is.

Rule three: Don’t try too hard

Paradoxically, playing hard to get is a form of trying too hard. Relationships get sabotaged all the time for want of taking the foot off the gas a little in the early days. Many people – and this was particularly true of Davina – need to relax more when it comes to romance.

Love bombing is a term that means bombarding someone with so much attention, affection, and approval that they become overwhelmed. People are especially vulnerable to love bombing if they’ve been lonely or suffered a bad breakup not long before.

Cults do this to hook vulnerable people. Suddenly they’re swept off their feet by all this wonderful attention. So while we shouldn’t play hard to get, coming on too strong can also backfire if a person feels overwhelmed by it.

There are two problems with love bombing in the early stages of a relationship. First, you may hook the person in, but now they will expect this level of attention from you all the time. The moment it slips, they may feel the relationship is dead and want to give up on it. Second, it may smack of desperation, and desperation is, for many, a big turnoff.

Your relationship needs to be part of your and your partner’s life – hopefully an important part, but not the whole raison d’être.

Showing attraction, appreciation, and love can be done without overwhelming the ‘target’ with blizzards of positivity to the point where they feel suffocated.

Love bombing is one of the most obvious manifestations of trying too hard, but there are plenty of others, especially when the relationship has become established.

Rule four: Don’t overmonitor or interrogate

Davina told me her partner had specifically complained to her about the endless questions she would put to him, one after the other. A partner isn’t a therapy client or, worse still, an interrogation subject.

  • “What are you thinking?”
  • “Why didn’t you seem happy when I suggested we go out next week?”
  • “Where were you last night?”
  • “Do you still love me? Do you really still love me?”
  • “We need to talk meaningfully about…”

Not every ‘issue’ needs to be earnestly ‘explored’ and endlessly dissected. No one likes to feel like they’ve signed up to some ongoing interrogation, with every thought and action being analyzed minutely. Where’s the fun in that? And yes, fun is very important to the health of a relationship.3

Couples who know what not to talk about tend to be happier.4 Constantly shining super-bright lights into a cave won’t necessarily make it more beautiful.

Couples who know what not to talk about tend to be happier. Constantly shining super-bright lights into a cave won't necessarily make it more beautiful. Click to Tweet

Some monitoring is necessary, but so is a sense of freedom, spontaneity, and fun. Overanalysis is often driven by emotional insecurity, but the fallout of this stress may be damaging to the relationship.

Relationships need to be fun as well as heavy. In fact, they should seldom be heavy.

Yes, if there is something really important going on then you might need to ‘explore’ it with your partner. But treating a relationship like one big explorative therapy session may cause unhealthy dependency and unbalance the reciprocal and equal exchange of attention that is so vital to the health of any relationship. Or it may send the other person running for the hills just so they can feel safe to have a private thought or two.

Alongside overmonitoring we often find another classic relationship corroder.

Rule five: Don’t be clingy

Insecurity is a big issue in millions of relationships. Why? Because relationships matter so much to us. But clinginess stemming from relationship insecurity can backfire terribly.

Research has found that expectation of rejection is often a self-fulfilling prophecy – that is, it eventually produces the very rejection we fear.5

Constantly asking someone what they are thinking or wanting to know where they are all the time is a form of control. Pretty soon your partner can feel emotionally distanced from you. After all, you don’t feel connected to someone who constantly doubts you. Intimacy is a sense of togetherness and shared reality. Doubt and distrust are the exact opposite to that.

If your insecurity makes your partner feel hemmed in, restricted, and unable to ‘breathe’, it’s no wonder it can become self-fulfilling.

I helped Davina relax deeply in our sessions and mentally rehearse during hypnosis feeling calm and self-reassured in her relationship so that she didn’t need to be too clingy, nor play hard to get.

She began to give her partner space sometimes. We worked on her jealousy too, and she gradually began to misuse her imagination less when he wasn’t with her. Eventually she came to trust him – which was fine, because he’d never given her any real reason to doubt him.

I reminded Davina that nothing in life is 100% secure. We can’t demand total security in any aspect of our lives, and it’s a real developmental step when we learn not to.

This next behaviour may be familiar to you as well. Perhaps you’ve been guilty of it yourself, had it done to you, or seen other people do it in their relationships.

Rule six: Don’t try to change them

There’s an old joke that when a man marries a woman he hopes she won’t change, but when a woman meets a man she hopes he will.

Sure, in a healthy relationship people help one another develop, and people naturally change over time, hopefully in good ways. But actively seeking to mould your partner to fit your expectations can make them feel little short of tyrannized. The (perhaps) unspoken message is: “You are no good as you are!”

If your partner comes to feel that you don’t value them because everything they do is ‘wrong’, not surprisingly they may start to prefer to spend time with those who do seem to value them for who they actually are.

Trying to change what someone wears, who their friends are, and even what they can and can’t say is a form of control freakery. If they have terrible habits then, okay, we might help them out of those. But otherwise we need to help them fulfil their life on their terms and be who they are.

This shouldn’t be hard. After all, why did your client fall for them if they are so flawed?

Constantly criticizing may be another manifestation of the desire to colonize your partner, as it were, by turning them into a version of yourself rather than letting them be themselves.

Frequent criticism has been shown to be one of the most toxic behaviours in relationships and is a big predictor of relationship breakdown.6

Some partners feel they’re trying to ‘improve’ their spouse by constantly pointing out what’s wrong with them. But even if the intentions are good, the consequences certainly aren’t. And criticizing partners publicly can be especially humiliating (for both partners) and can signal not just the beginning of the end but the end of the end for many people not prepared to put up with that any more.

So our clients need to avoid excessive criticism… but there’s another side to that coin, too.

Rule seven: Don’t be defensive

No one likes to feel that they are treading on eggshells – that they can’t relax with you for fear that they may say the ‘wrong’ thing or that you may take something they said in a different way to how it was intended.

Davina said that when she was in a relationship she would get really defensive and feel as if she was being attacked even though later, when she was calm, she could often see clearly that she hadn’t been.

This was a case of “once bitten, twice shy”. She had been so excessively criticized by her parents and her former husband that she had gotten used to defending herself, and now she was doing it even when she didn’t need to.

If someone is defensive and fires back strongly at you when you were just trying to be nice or saying something pretty neutral, you will feel misunderstood. And feeling misunderstood drives away a sense of connection. Intimacy can certainly disappear when someone is overly critical, but it also dissolves when someone is chronically defensive.

We can help our clients relax more and stop assuming the worst, and stop biting their lover’s head off when all they want is to talk normally.

Frequent defensiveness is poison to a relationship.

And penultimately…

Rule eight: Don’t get complacent

An oft-missed aspect of relationship sabotage is the tendency to take people for granted.

It’s easy to stop seeing the person we are with. Not literally, of course, but familiarity breeds indifference if we are not careful. When you sense someone has started taking you for granted, it’s easy to feel like the relationship has lost its heart.

This had never been an issue for Davina. Quite the opposite in fact – her relationships tended to fill the horizons of her mind to the extent that nothing else seemed to matter. But it certainly can be a factor in relationship destruction.

If your client loves their partner and wants to be with them, they need to regularly remember that, and focus on what they can be grateful for in the relationship. Too many good relationships rot and crumble through a lack of expressed appreciation.

Okay, so complacency can be damaging. But what about emotional factors that your client might bring to a relationship?

Rule nine: Don’t let low self-esteem affect your relationship

Having really low self-esteem can, inadvertently, damage a relationship.

If your client tends towards low self-esteem, they may start to feel contemptuous or distrustful of the person who has chosen to be with them. It’s as if they must have something wrong with them for choosing such ‘damaged goods’.

Or they may be pathetically grateful to their partner, as if their partner is doing them a massive favour just by being with them. This may be accompanied by a sense that if their partner were to leave, they would never find anyone else. If this is the case, their self-esteem needs to improve in order to stabilize the relationship.

Now all this may seem complicated, but once the client generally calms down, learns to challenge some of their own automatic thinking, and starts to love with their partner, not at them as though their partner were a target of some sort, then there is hope.

Reasons to be hopeful

Here we’ve looked at some of the most common ways we sabotage our relationships. If you spot some of these relationship corroders in your clients then gently bringing those to their attention and looking for examples, if they exist, within their own relationships might be really useful as a first step to changing these patterns.

And of course there’s no shame in having engaged in some or even all of these behaviours. Perhaps most people have at one point or another.

People can and do change, and so can their relationships. There is plenty of reason for hope, even if your client has had dozens of ‘disastrous’ relationships.

Davina had been engaging in many of these relationship-sabotaging behaviours at different points in her relationships. Over time we worked on the very worst ones – insecurity, clinginess, jealousy, trying too hard – and each time I saw her she seemed happier.

Her relationship was, and still is, going from strength to strength.

Integrate Indirect, Conversational Hypnosis into Your Therapeutic Work

No matter what your form of therapy, counselling or coaching, knowing the principles of indirect hypnosis can greatly improve your efficacy. At the simplest level, knowing how to relax someone deeply can be wonderfully therapeutic for anxious clients. And understanding the subtle art of influence adds a whole new dimension to your work. Read more about Mark’s online course Uncommon Hypnotherapy here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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