HOW TO STOP SELF-SABOTAGING YOUR RELATIONSHIP
by Annie Gurton, Imago Couples Counsellor from Sydney’s northern Beaches
If you go into a relationship convinced that its not going to last, its hardly surprising that you ensure that it fails. No-one can be positive how things will work out, but working from a place of certaintyof success rather than a certainty of failure is more likely to see a happy outcome.
If you are sure that it’s going to fail, you will find that all kinds of negative thinking prevail. You pick faults in your partner, and choose behaviours which you know will upset them. Sometimes this is unconscious and you are left asking ‘Why did I do or say that?’ as much as your partner is.
Of course not all relationships are good enough, and some are downright bad for us. In that case its right to end it and if you can’t face ending it with a clear conversation about your unhappiness or fears, the way we often choose to end it is by behaving in such a way that our partner finds it untenable and is forced to finish it.
But often a pattern emerges with certain people, of them deliberately doing or saying things that doom the relationship to ending when in fact it was good for them.
There is a certain feeling we get when a relationship is good for us – perhaps that we have met our ‘other half’, or we have met someone that makes us feel whole, or competent. That is the beginning of a healthy relationship and in Imago Relationship Theory it is called ‘The Romantic Phase’. The attraction is strong, there is infatuation and deep feelings, and for a while everything feels wonderful.
Sooner or later, however, conflict arises. In Imago we say that conflict is growth trying to happen, but when you are in the middle of niggles and bickering, or full-blown arguments, it can be scary and exhausting. Nevertheless, it is normal, natural and healthy – provided that each feels heard and is able to express themselves, and the conflict leads to a resolution.
However with some individuals, conflict and arguments feel too comfortable. This is where they like to be – usually because their history is one of conflict and strife, and they are just finding an environment which feels normal to them. If they are partnered with someone for whom conflict and arguments are to be avoided because it makes them feel very unsafe, we have an immediate problem. One will be pushing for a row while the other is desperately avoiding one – perhaps because they fear the consequences, or they find them too uncomfortable.
Some people just can’t help themselves when it comes to relationship destruction. Maybe they start using the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ of a relationship, and start to criticise, blame, shame or stonewall, or they deliberately pick a fight so that they create a sense of danger which makes them feel alive.
Others can observe themselves and what they are doing but just can’t stop. They may start nit-picking, nagging, being judgmental and downright argumentative and mean, but however much they are aware of what they are doing they are powerless to contain themselves.
How they all wish that they could be amiable and pleasant, amusing and fun, and supportive and non-judgmental but it always just comes out wrong. Its time to have a look at your early and formative years, and see if there is anything there that may have made your self-esteem low and given you low self-worth.
For someone with a good self-image who is healthy in their emotional world, who feels safe and secure in their relationships, this kind of behaviour doesn’t arise. They are able to be confident in expressing themselves and don’t need to resort to behaviour which is hurtful to their partner in order to feel safe and in control.
However someone whose sense of self-worth is fragile is liable to get an internal voice telling them that this relationship is no good, and anyway it’s going to end soon. They can act rude and childish without understanding why. They may fear intimacy and try and avoid it, or fear abandonment and behave in an overwhelmingly clinging way.
If the relationship promises to be really good it is even harder for these people to relax into it because it is so difficult for them to be authentic and vulnerable – essentials for a sustained deep connection with your partner. If you are with someone who is letting you be you, and does not play games, and clearly loves and honours you, its hard to relax and trust if you don’t have a good sense of self worth. Your internal messaging tells you that it must be a mistake, that your wonderful partner will leave you sooner or later (because everyone else has), and that they are not really to be trusted.
As you can see this is deep and complex work – going back to childhood and identifying the things, which are casting a long shadow over your adult relationships. Its painful, it can take time and you need a skilled helper to do it.
The first thing is to give yourself space to relax and breathe. For some people this is a euphemism for separating, but in fact the best place for growth and healing is within the relationship, provided it feels safe. Just cut yourself some slack and recognise that this is common and it can be resolved so the relationship can survive.
The second thing to do is to find a good couples therapist – preferably one trained and authorised in Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT). They will be able to create a safe and calm space where you and your partner can discuss what’s happened that’s made you interact in this way.
The work can be tough. Its painful to go back to those times when you felt abandoned or abused. Many people chose to forgive their parents for any failings in the parenting they received, but the damage has been done. We don’t aim to hurt or blame the parents who were usually doing what they thought was best in imperfect circumstances – we just aim to realise that situation as it is, and move on by growing those parts of us which were wounded.
The results can be impressive. I have many ex-clients who have come in full of despair because of their repeated pattern of sabotaging their relationships, who have learned to recognise their hurt and heal it.
So if you reflect on your relationship history and realise that you have a pattern of self-sabotaging, or you are in a relationship and you are fearful that you are unconsciously turning your partner against you because you cant face being vulnerable, seek out a professional to help you. It could be the first step towards a new pattern in your relationships, one that enables you to keep and treasure someone who is perfect for you, who is kind, sweet and generous.