8 Ways to Avoid Sabotaging Relationships

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Dear Terry,

I’ve been feeling very discouraged about my ability to keep a relationship together and notice that all of mine end badly. I’ve recently started counseling and my therapist recommended that I begin to look at my own behaviors and to stop focusing so much on what my partners do wrong.

Since I first started dating in high school, I’ve been mistrustful and fearful of ending up like my parents who divorced when I was young. I definitely have trust issues and seem to undermine my own happiness by finding fault in others. For example, when I was engaged last year to Michael, I’d blow small things out of proportion when he did something even slightly suspicious such as texting a former girlfriend or female co-worker. I usually didn’t give him a chance to explain and would issue an ultimatum such as “I’m done with you and breaking off our engagement.”

The final straw for me was when Michael said he was unwilling to stop going out for drinks with co-workers some Friday nights. I just didn’t see a need for it yet Michael said I was controlling and suspicious. He said that my mistrust was ruining our relationship and he ended up breaking off our engagement during one of our heated arguments. I realize now that he was only gone a few hours and we’d always spend time together afterwards (and most of the weekend) so it probably wasn’t a deal breaker.

Now that I’m on my own, I recognize that Michael was the love of my life and I’m devastated that I’ve lost him. I hope you can help me to stop sabotaging my relationships because I’m at the breaking point and know I need to make some changes.


Hi Alicia,

Most people who sabotage relationships are not intentionally self-destructive. Most likely, they begin all of their relationships with the expectation that they will do well and yet they watch them slowly fall apart. Like you, most relationship saboteurs are distressed and don’t really understand why their relationships are not working out.

In your case, there appear to be many ways your baggage is getting in the way of how you relate to intimate partners. Is it possible that you have not come to terms with your tendency to create self-defeating relationships that match your negative view of yourself and love and commitment? As you grow and learn about yourself, it’s important to look at the choices you make and to see what lessons can be learned from your experiences.

In order to stop sabotaging relationships, you are wise to examine how your trust issues are getting in the way of creating a loving partnership. For instance, as you describe your trust issue with Michael, it sounds like it was a remnant from your parents’ divorce and that you never really gave him a chance to explain himself when you noticed him contacting a former girlfriend or co-worker. Sometimes people’s actions are not intentionally hurtful and it’s possible that he wasn’t aware that this was a hot-button issue for you. Since you were convinced that your mistrustful feelings were because of his behavior, you spent too much time analyzing him rather examining ways you could have extended trust to him and worked on communication.

The good news is that trust is a skill that can be practiced in the context of a relationship with a partner who is dependable and shows consistency between his or her words and actions. The first step in building trust in relationships is to work on your fear of being vulnerable and not holding in your feelings with partners – allowing you to reach a deeper level of intimacy.

One of the hardest things about trusting someone is learning to have confidence in your own judgment. Trust is about much more than catching your partner in a truth or lie. It’s about believing that he or she has your best interests at heart. Every person is born with the propensity to trust others but through life experiences, you may have become less trusting as a form of self-protection.

Many relationships are sabotaged by self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe your partner will hurt you, you can unconsciously encourage hurts to emerge in your relationship. But day by day, if you learn to operate from a viewpoint that your partner loves you and wants the best for you, you can enjoy trust in your life. For instance, you seem to have unrealistic or rigid expectations of how others should treat you and so you are easily disappointed. Then when a partner treats you badly, your suspicions are confirmed. Yet you failed to set healthy boundaries from the beginning.

People who enjoy healthy relationships have learned from their mistakes and have treated their setbacks with compassion. With an empathic attitude, you can start to connect to the rest of the world, as you remember that we are all flawed in some way. And you start to realize that the wonderful thing about behavior is that it can be improved. You might not get a second chance at your relationship, but there is still a chance for recovery for those who have made mistakes.

8 Ways to Avoid Sabotaging Relationships:

1. Gain awareness of your history – dating back to childhood. For instance, if you are a people pleaser you may be drawn to partners who you attempt to fix or repair. Learn more about how your parents’ unhealthy patterns have impacted your choices in partners.
2. Accept your part in the dynamic. For example, if you’re experiencing mistrust try to figure out how much your feelings are based on the present and how much on the past. It’s natural for one person to see their style as preferred and to be convinced that their partner needs to change – neglecting to see their part in the struggle.
3. Let go of being a victim and positive things will start to happen. When you see yourself as a victim, your actions will confirm a negative view of yourself. Instead, focus on the strengths that helped you cope so far in life. Don’t obsess about past choices in partners but learn from them.
4. Examine your expectations about intimate relationships. You might be focused on your dream of how a relationship should be rather than the reality of how it is – leading to disappointment. There is no such thing as a soul mate or perfect partner. If your partner lets you down, don’t always assume that a failure in competence is intentional – sometimes people simply make a mistake.
5. Take your time getting to know a new partner before making a commitment. Make sure you’ve dated someone for at least two years and are at least in your late 20s before you make a life-long commitment to reduce your chance of divorce.
6. Make sure that you have common values and beliefs with people you date. Pinpoint destructive traits in some of the partners you are attractive to. Finding a good match may require that you choose a new “type” in the future, according to dating expert Cija Black.
7. Use positive intentions such as “I am capable of creating loving, trusting relationships.” Recognize the newness in each day and that you have the power to make positive things happen.
8. Write a new narrative or story for your life– one that includes taking your time picking partners who are trustworthy and willing to work on a committed relationship if that’s your desire.

With time and patience, you can begin to visualize the kind of life you need to thrive. You don’t have to let your past dictate the decisions you make today. You have an opportunity to learn from your experience and build the kind of relationship that eluded you in the past. Remember to be gentle with yourself and others on your journey.



Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook.  She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be pre-ordered here.