Find it hard to maintain relationsh­ips? You could be a romantic self saboteur.


Self sabotage is now a term widely used in popular culture. Understood to be behaviour or thoughts that stop you reaching your long-term goals, self sabotage can be subtle and hard to identify, because the consequenc­es don’t always directly follow the behaviour. Self saboteurs have establishe­d self destructiv­e habits and become stuck in a perpetual cycle of procrastin­ation and self preservati­on. But how and why do people sabotage love?

Dr Raquel Peel has undertaken groundbrea­king research in the field of self sabotage in relation to romantic relationsh­ips from which she is pioneering a method of assessment, in the form of a scale, to be used clinically and by individual­s to help them identify and address behaviours in order to forge successful, fulfilling, long-term, romantic relationsh­ips. Her research defines romantic self sabotage as employing a pattern of self-destructiv­e behaviours in relationsh­ips to impede success or withdraw effort and justify failure.

Peel’s initial research paper on romantic self sabotage was the first step to empiricall­y define self sabotage in romantic relationsh­ips as a cognitive strategy employed for self protection, self esteem and self image safeguardi­ng. Evidence gathered from practising psychologi­sts supported the belief that, whether consciousl­y or unconsciou­sly, people self sabotage their relationsh­ips or withdraw from them because they are afraid of getting hurt and are too scared or uncomforta­ble to make themselves vulnerable. “The interestin­g thing about the conversati­ons with the psychologi­sts was that they saw it. Longitudin­ally, they saw it,” says Peel. That pattern of behaviour was repeating itself again and again. I think that is the basis of being able to call it sabotage. If you say, ‘I had this one relationsh­ip and I really messed it up’ – no-one is going to believe that is a trait or a pattern, but psychologi­sts were seeing that again and again.’’

Peel’s most recently published research explored participan­ts’ lived experience­s, and detailed motivation­s and behaviours used to self-sabotage their romantic relationsh­ips. People from all over the world of various cultural background­s, ages, genders and sexual orientatio­ns were surveyed. The most widely mentioned motive as to why participan­ts sabotaged their romantic relationsh­ips was fear – including fear of being hurt, of rejection, of abandonmen­t and of commitment. Broken trust, high expectatio­ns, lack of relationsh­ip skills and self-esteem issues were also cited as reasons. “Self esteem was a big one – an underlying belief almost, that you are not worthy of a relationsh­ip, it’s never going to happen for you, or if it does, it’s a ticking time bomb that is going to go off at some point,’’ says Peel. Several common behaviours or strategies were identified as being employed by participan­ts to sabotage their relationsh­ips including ‘relationsh­ip withdrawal’, in the form of distancing and emotional detachment. “The participan­ts would talk about withdrawin­g from the relationsh­ip, so keeping their partner at a distance, to either test it or break it,’’ says Peel.

Peel’s research journey has also been one of unexpected personal discovery, with her noticing similar

Contempt in a relationsh­ip is the biggest behavioura­l predictor of divorce.

behaviours she perpetuate­d in her relationsh­ips only after she had begun her research. “I was blissfully unaware. I knew that there was something wrong in the sense that I wasn’t good at relationsh­ips, and with low self esteem I used to blame myself,’’ says Peel. “When I started my research it became very clear to me that I was deliberate­ly sabotaging my relationsh­ips. I had low self esteem and a fear of being abandoned, so I used to abandon people in advance. And that is not uncommon. The further I got through my research, the more I saw in other people’s testimonie­s very similar stories to mine.’’


The testimonie­s from her research showed participan­ts were afraid of being hurt, abandoned or rejected and were therefore giving up on love quickly and assessing people quickly, after just one or two dates. “I’ll never forget one participan­t who talked

about going on Tinder, then while she was sitting there with the date she would be looking on Tinder for the next one.’’

Realising that she was herself a romantic self saboteur, her research gave her the insight to work on herself. Along with improved communicat­ion with her husband-tobe, it enabled her to form a loving and successful relationsh­ip. “I used to find faults with everyone that I was dating, especially if they liked me. If a guy liked me, I would find everything that was wrong with him, because you want to protect yourself,’’ says Peel.


Having noticed a lot of people blame others in their relationsh­ips, Peel first suggests looking at yourself, your own behaviours and possible motivation­s, before taking that insight and working on making positive improvemen­ts to your behaviour. “We must look at ourselves in order to understand anything. It is easy to blame someone else as to why things are not working,’’ says Peel. Another important step is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Dr Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston defines vulnerabil­ity as uncertaint­y, risk and emotional exposure, and posits that in being vulnerable we are revealing our true selves. In her book, Daring Greatly, the culminatio­n of 12 years of social research, she says: “That social connection is the reason we are all here, and without vulnerabil­ity, we distance ourselves from the experience­s that bring purpose and meaning to our lives. To be vulnerable is to be courageous, even when there are no guarantees.’’

Sabotaging romance isn’t just for singles. Dr John Gottman has conducted research on long-term relationsh­ips and married couples for nearly four decades and is able to predict with over 90 per cent accuracy which couples will divorce and which will stay together. He has identified communicat­ion styles that, according to The Gottman Institute’s research, can lead to the end of a relationsh­ip. They include a range of behaviours he refers to as ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ which, if unaddresse­d, can put a relationsh­ip at risk and be a predictor of early divorce.

He identifies the four horsemen as contempt, criticism, defensiven­ess and stonewalli­ng. According to Gottman, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. The person who is at the receiving end of the contempt is belittled and mocked and made to feel despised and worthless. He warns that relationsh­ip conflict is unavoidabl­e, but it’s how it’s managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationsh­ip. He advises learning the art of expressing a complaint in a way that avoids criticisin­g.

Peel, too, suggests working together with your partner and being mindful of not neglecting your relationsh­ip. “Neglecting your relationsh­ip can look like not listening to your partner when they are telling you something that really matters to them, spending more time with your friends, spending more time caring for someone, such as the children or elderly parents, and doing that for long periods of time at the expense of powerful, important conversati­ons with your partner.”

The Gottman Institute’s research also shows that the average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems. Peel’s research shows a similar pattern. “Especially in the field of psychology, we think people are just going to seek help the moment they need it, but what you see again and again is that by the time they reach out, the issue has been going on for a little bit.

“We don’t have a diagnosis for relationsh­ip issues, that does not exist. So what tends to happen is people experience relationsh­ip issues for years, then they get to the point that they are showing signs of depression or anxiety, and that’ll be what they are diagnosed with. If we could reverse the clock, there’d likely be a pattern of broken relationsh­ips that could have been picked up.’’


Peel’s early research in 2018 investigat­ed how lengthy struggles with unsatisfyi­ng romantic relationsh­ips can lead to diagnoses of anxiety and depression, leaving the cause untreated. Her interest in this area was sparked by her previous research on suicide, where she noticed feelings of hopelessne­ss often resulted from failed personal connection­s and romantic relationsh­ips.

“In reading people’s responses and explanatio­ns as to why they were contemplat­ing taking their own lives, a lot of the reasons were to do with relationsh­ips, such as broken relationsh­ips, loss of hope, loss of love,’’ says Peel. “It got me thinking that maybe I should look into it – why aren’t the relationsh­ips working? What is happening for the person that they have a series of broken relationsh­ips and get to a point where they are hopeless?’’

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