6 Warning Signs of "Relationship Sabotage," Therapists Say
You or your partner could inadvertently be damaging your relationship.
You've probably heard of self-sabotage, a simplified term for those who tend to stand in their own way. But did you know that you or your partner can also commit relationship sabotage? These actions can be conscious or unconscious, causing detrimental ramifications to your romantic connection. Thankfully, therapists say that there are a few warning signs of relationship sabotage that you should be on the lookout for.
"These are self-defeating attitudes or behaviors that happen in the relationship and outside of the relationship that go directly to damaging the relationship," explains David Tzall, PsyD, licensed psychologist. "The goal of these behaviors is to end the relationship, as they drive a wedge between the couple or make the other's behavior unattractive and unappealing."
Tzall further asserts that this form of sabotage is used as a way to leave a relationship without conflict or an "uncomfortable conversation." Speaking to this, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy found that relationship sabotage occurs when we want to protect ourselves, primarily due to defensiveness, difficulty trusting others, or a lack of relationship skills.
The catch is that you might not even realize you or your partner are doing this, making it that much more important to understand and recognize key indicators before it's too late. Read on to find out what therapists say are signs your relationship is being sabotaged.
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Avoiding physical touch and intimacy
For many couples, the physical aspect of a relationship is equally as important as an emotional one. According to Megan Harrison, LMFT of Couples Candy, a change in how you and your partner interact in this regard could signal something is amiss.
"If your partner is pulling away sexually, it's time to step up and talk about what's going on," she says. "It's important to be direct about what you need and what you don't. If your partner is not willing to have sex, it is healthy for both of you to talk about the reasons why." Also, take note if you notice this aversion coming from your end.
On a related (but equally concerning) note, a relationship saboteur may avoid touch in general. "An easy way to know if your partner is pulling away from you is if they are withdrawing from physical affection," Harrison explains. "If your partner shows less interest in touching, kissing, and sex, it's time to sit down and talk about what's going on in the relationship."
Tricky conversations are never fun, and they're not something that we want to have every day. Still, if there's a sticking point in your relationship that's being dodged, it could be a sign of relationship sabotage.
"Difficult conversations can often seem overwhelming and intimidating, but they are an essential part of a healthy relationship," Kalley Hartman, LMFT and clinical director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, California, tells Best Life. "If you are avoiding discussing important topics, it is time to prioritize communicating your thoughts and feelings in a respectful manner. It may also be beneficial to seek professional guidance if needed."
If you're not communicating at all, both Harrison and Hartman warn that you should take note. "When communication between partners begins to break down, it can be a sign of trouble," Hartman says. "Feelings that were once shared become guarded and resentful, leading to further distance and emotional isolation."
In this situation, set aside time to talk about your relationship or ask your partner directly if something is up.
"Partners should always feel safe enough to open up with their feelings without fear or judgment or rejection from their significant other," Harrison explains. "If you notice your partner pulling away and becoming less responsive, it's important to ask them how they are feeling. Give them a chance to open up and talk about what's going on."
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Yet another warning sign of relationship sabotage is if you or your partner are actively choosing to argue. "When partners start picking fights over small issues or things that do not really matter, it can be a sign that deep-seated feelings of insecurity are present," Hartman says.
To combat this, Hartman says you need to get to the root of the problem. "It's important to identify what is really causing the tension and work together on resolving the underlying issue so you can move forward in your relationship," she explains.
Increased judgment and criticism
Being on the receiving end of judgmental comments or criticism is not generally enjoyable, and it can be particularly harmful when coming from a loved one.
"Criticism is an easy form of communication that most people engage in without considering the effects it can have on a relationship," she says. "When you criticize your partner, you are attacking their character and value as a person because how they act or think is wrong according to your standards."
A relationship saboteur might also make comments intended to insult or belittle as a way to effectively ruin a relationship. "If either partner notices this happening, it's important to take action right away by having an honest conversation with your partner about boundaries and expectations within the relationship."
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Engaging in destructive behavior
If you or your partner are making decisions that could harm your relationship, it's an indicator of sabotage. This may include more serious problems like addiction or infidelity, Hartman says. "When one or both partners routinely engage in behavior that is harmful to the relationship, it is crucial to identify the underlying issues driving these behaviors and work together on finding healthier ways of coping," she explains.
Harrison adds that there are other questionable behaviors that put your relationship at stake, namely snooping through a partner's phone or email.
"This behavior demonstrates a breach of trust as well as insecurity about where their relationship stands," she says. "Snooping usually leads to feelings of mistrust and betrayal from both sides, and can result in further hurtful actions like accusing each other or lying."
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Relationships are complex, and everyone has their reasons for why they decide to stay or leave. But if your partnership is making one or both of you miserable, take it as a warning sign.
"Sabotage can be more open if one partner wants out but refuses to just say so and take action, but rather makes life so miserable for the other partner that the other partner eventually makes the choice to leave," Nancy Landrum, MA, author, relationship coach, and creator of the Millionaire Marriage Club, says.
If you're not satisfied with your relationship, Angela Sitka, LMFT with a private practice in Santa Rosa, California, explains that you should also make the right call for yourself.
"Know when to walk away if your needs are not being met in this relationship dynamic," she explains. "It might be that this person does some boundary-testing initially to check in with where your standards lie, and how you will communicate together about problems. However, if this type of behavior continues over time, you might want to reconsider if this is going to be a healthy and happy relationship for you."