what your therapist really thinks

‘Did I Sabotage My Relationship?’

Dear Therapist,

I am divorced with two kids, and trying to date in the age of “swiping.” It’s hard. But for the first time in years I fell for someone … hard. The feelings had been intense from the beginning but also very recognizably mutual. All the basics you could hope to check off in the list of desirable dating traits were checked. Prior to this guy I had “dated” guys that would really just consist of a month or so of texting with about three dates total. None of them ignited an emotional connection like this last guy. But with the other guys, I could always tell when the guy was about to call it quits. I learn people and read people’s behaviors so I can tell when something is off and the level of interest has dissolved. My gut has never failed me when it comes to this stuff.

With the most recent guy, I started getting a bad feeling about a friend that he used to date, but he swore they were just buddies. He was forthcoming about his friendship with this girl, but I found it very strange that he would talk all the time to this person and hang out quite frequently. It made me uneasy. I have severe trust issues. He knew this. And he put a lot of effort into reassuring me that there’s nothing going on between them. I tried very hard to trust him. I wanted to trust him.

But I couldn’t shake my suspicions about their friendship. And so I became (secretly) obsessive about trying to figure out if they’re hanging out and how often they’re talking. It was like I knew deep down that maybe there was unfinished business between them and I was looking for any evidence to prove myself right. It caused me so much stress and anxiety. There very well could have been nothing going on, but my gut was telling me otherwise. I had that feeling you just can’t shake that something isn’t adding up. I think ultimately he sensed that this would probably be an ongoing issue, so he ended things, stating that feelings weren’t mutual, which is contradictory to everything he had been saying to me and how he treated me until that moment he broke up with me. 

I think my biggest concern is that I don’t know how to get over the urge to read into everything to “prove myself right” when I think I’m being wronged. It worries me that I will self-sabotage any future relationship.

Sincerely,

Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

A while back I saw a woman in my office who finally got promoted to her “dream job.” Initially she was thrilled, but soon, she uncharacteristically began to mess up: She missed her flight to an important conference, accidentally deleted a PowerPoint, and got the wrong time for a meeting. Despite having proven herself remarkably capable for over a decade, she couldn’t understand why suddenly she was floundering. Maybe, she mused, her heart just wasn’t in it. After all, she said, the job was disappointing, not what she imagined it would be. I found this curious. Despite having auditioned for the job for the past year, and therefore knowing exactly what it entailed, each week she would come in, complain about work, and strategize next steps: Should she ask for her old job back? Apply to another company?

Around the same time, a man in his 30s came to therapy because the day after he proposed to his girlfriend, he had gone out for drinks with his colleagues and found himself powerfully drawn to a new co-worker, hooking up with her before the night’s end. Now he was tormented. Should he tell his fiancée? Was this a sign that he was marrying the wrong person? His previous engagement five years earlier had ended after a strikingly similar incident. Why would he screw up not just one — but two — fantastic relationships with women he loved and wanted a future with, especially since he had never been unfaithful in any other circumstance?

Both of these situations are classic cases of what you mentioned in your letter, self-sabotage, which is what happens when we say we want something but then do everything we can to ensure we won’t have it. Of course, we aren’t consciously trying to screw things up. “Why did I do that?” most people end up asking as they look back at the wreckage. Often they have justifications — my Uber driver took the long way to the airport; my co-worker came onto me — but until they become aware of the deeper forces driving their behaviors — fear of being a fraud at work; fear of engulfment in marriage — they’ll continue doing everything possible to get in their own way.

Your letter is interesting, Frustrated, because you make the case that your instincts are accurate (“my gut has never failed me”) yet ask, in essence, whether they may not be (“I don’t know how to get over the urge to read into everything”).  Since you’re concerned that this urge might sabotage future relationships, let’s take a closer look at what might be behind it.

Self-sabotage is essentially a stress response to emotional danger, much the way that our bodies have a stress response to physical danger (Run! Fight!). If adrenaline shoots through our systems and our hearts pump faster when chased by a proverbial bear, our emotional defense systems spring into action when faced with possible emotional pain. But — and here’s the key — just as we don’t consciously control the surge in adrenaline when we see a bear, we don’t consciously control our behaviors when faced with a primal fear (fear of engulfment, fear of rejection, fear of failure, etc.).

Instead, we do what we can to protect ourselves from the perceived threat. We might do this passively by procrastinating, “being lazy,” doing a half-assed job, or not taking steps to achieve a goal such as meeting good people to date. We might do this actively by sending a drunken email to our boss, plagiarizing a paper we’re perfectly capable of writing, turning down a promising opportunity for flimsy reasons, overeating to avoid intimacy, messing up on a project, acting irresponsibly, or dooming a relationship through any number of get-me-out-of-here behaviors: cheating, picking fights, repeatedly asking for reassurance then rejecting it.

You get the gist.

The thing is, though, the “threat” that you’re protecting yourself from is based on a false belief that you likely acquired long ago. It might be: I’m unlovable. Or: I will lose myself if I get married. Or: I will be abandoned, like I always am. Or: If I succeed in my parents’ profession, they will take all the credit. Or: If I take a conventional job, my boss will control me. Or: If I fail, everyone will know I’m a fraud.

Therapists pay attention not just to what people say they want, but to what they actually do.  If what they’re saying and what they’re doing don’t jibe, they’re likely in self-sabotage mode (which is to say, self-protection mode).

Here’s what you do, Frustrated: You fall for someone, feel something in your gut, and get dumped. Each time, you’re convinced that you’re “right” about “being wronged,” only to be left hurt and confused. Your gut is likely telling you something important, but it may not be what you think. With your recent boyfriend, your gut was saying, I really like him. It was saying, This is scary. It was saying, I might get hurt. Initially, your gut was saying all the things people’s guts say when they get excited about somebody new and are going to have to open themselves up and take a risk with their hearts. But then your gut took these anxieties a step further.

It said, “He must be in love with and/or fucking his ex-girlfriend.”

That’s not a sixth sense. That’s a relational issue. And there are many ways to deal with a relational issue, like setting boundaries; working on your own trust issues; and making an assessment about your compatibility if, after doing the hard work of negotiating those boundaries in good faith, you two can’t come to a mutually satisfying agreement on exes and their place in your respective lives (which, by the way, can differ greatly from couple to couple).

Instead, your self-sabotaging behaviors kicked in.

Is something going on with the ex? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe one way you self-sabotage is by choosing untrustworthy partners. But another possibility is that you self-sabotage by driving your partners away.

Why did your boyfriend break up with you? Because you didn’t trust him. Because he told you nothing was going on, and you chose not to believe him. Because you obsessively searched for “evidence” — evidence you freely acknowledge you never found — for a crime he repeatedly told you he wasn’t committing. The only “evidence” you had was your infallible gut — despite his telling you about this friend and his history with her upfront; despite his efforts to reassure you. I can’t tell you how many relationships I’ve seen implode simply because one person was terrified of being abandoned, then did everything in his or her power to make the other person break up with them.

What makes self-sabotage so tricky is that it attempts to solve one problem (alleviate your abandonment anxiety) by creating another (making your partner want to leave).  You get so wrapped up in proving your theory, in the “stress and anxiety,” in some outdated story about how good things won’t last for you, that there’s no room left for the relationship to take place.

You aren’t telepathic, Frustrated. Maybe what you’re hearing isn’t your gut but your fear. Your gut needs to recalibrate, and that can only happen when you can better manage your fear — a process that will require a combination of clear-eyed insight, self-observation, and self-compassion. When you aren’t ruled by fear, your compass will reset, and you won’t be turning in circles, searching for an elusive North Star. Because yours is the ultimate self-sabotage: In trying not to lose another person, you end up losing yourself.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘Did I Sabotage My Relationship?’