One of my favorite things to do with clients is explore attachment patterns. As we know, our attachment patterning begins very early in our lives. Changing these patterns requires focus, information, and processing—and it’s totally possible to shift them to a more secure way of operating.
In my work with clients (and ahem, personally), I’ve discovered a common relationship pattern: self-sabotage. There is this thing that happens when people are in relationships that feel happy, fulfilling, and possibly life-long—we get in our own way, jump back into our old patterns, and totally screw it up in the moment. It feels so terrible, but also kind of good in a strange way—because it proves that we were “right” about the relationship, that we knew we couldn’t be truly happy, and that we are destined to be alone and sad. Self-sabotage can happen with any of the insecure attachment patterns (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized).
But here’s the thing: none of those beliefs about you in relationships are actually true. You are not meant to be alone. You are meant to be content in a relationship. We are wired to connect with each other. Our brains are designed to communicate, interact, and connect deeply with others. If we’ve had relationships in the past (in our family of origin, early friendships, dating relationships, previous partnerships, etc.) that taught us otherwise, those lessons tend to trigger the old pattern of relating and get in our way of really connecting with our new person. It’s incredibly frustrating, sad, and challenging.
We can change old relationship patterns. Change requires awareness, persistence, and accountability.
We’ve talked a bit about being emotionally hijacked before, but let’s look at it more thoroughly (but simply) today. Human brains have multiple parts that help keep us safe in various situations. Our logical brain (cortex) helps us understand the consequences of our actions—for example, my logical brain lets me know that if I walk out in front of a car, it’s entirely possible that I will get hit by that car so I probably shouldn’t do it. If I’m not paying attention and I’m looking at my phone or daydreaming and I start to walk out in front of a car, the part of my brain that triggers the fight/flight/freeze/survival response (amygdala) will hop in and remind my body that I need to get out of the way before I get hurt.
This is a simplified version of how our brains work, but I want to use it to illustrate how quickly we can shift gears without even being aware that we’re doing it.
The "walking out in front of a car" analogy in relationships looks like being on the brink of more intimacy, having a vulnerable conversation, or navigating a challenging dynamic in your partnership. Your brain becomes activated in the same way. Sometimes we are in the middle of engaging in these activities when red flags fly up for our brain and we move into a panic. All of a sudden, our survival brain is in charge and doing everything possible to dodge the scary relationship obstacle and stay out of harm's way. We say things we don't mean, we ARE mean, and we can create attachment wounds that are difficult to heal.
In relationships with partners, when we are triggered in a similar way we were in a previous relationship, our brains can revert to the old patterns and all of a sudden we are doing something we used to do all the time in the old relationship that no longer applies. Our new partner is stunned as we are talking about things that are not at all relevant to this relationship or don’t seem to warrant the emotional response we are having.
Here are some strategies I have found to be effective to increase awareness and reduce self-sabotage:
- Be really honest with your partner about ways you have sabotaged before. It can feel uncomfortable to share this because we don’t want our partners to get freaked out by something that hasn’t even happened. But if we are working toward security in relationships and we can tell our partner is invested and engaged in the relationship, slowly sharing our vulnerabilities is a good way to continue to build safety together. Your partner can hold you accountable when they know what to expect. If I say “when I get nervous in relationships, I tend to make a big deal about things that aren’t really important to me” or “when I need alone time I end up cancelling important plans and binge-watch reality TV on Netflix”, my partner can look out for those signs and call me out of my hijacking and back into our relationship in a gentle way.
- Take a look at your previous patterns. Now that you have some knowledge of attachment and your early behaviors in relationships, you can use them to get a better idea of what happens for you when you feel scared or overwhelmed. What are your triggers? How do you respond when you are hijacked? What calms your nervous system? Create a plan for yourself (maybe with the help of a therapist) to identify the patterns and adjust as needed.
- Develop common language together to explore what's going on. In the moment you may not be able to say, "you know, I'm realizing that I might be doing that self-sabotaging thing. What I'm really upset about is..." but you may be able to say "I need a few breaths", "let's pause", or "hold on."
- Recognize that this behavior typically occurs when intimacy increases or you're on the brink of the next big step in your relationship. Use this information to check in with yourself about whether you are ready for the next level with your partner, whatever that may be. And if not, that's okay too--but it should be a conversation you have together.
- Know that the way you've responded in the past may have felt out of control, but you are actively taking steps to change your behavior and increase your emotional safety. You are on your way to a different outcome, and that's really awesome.
Have you self-sabotaged in relationships? How do you navigate that dynamic with your partner? I would love to hear your responses in the comments, or you can send me an email!
Here's to more safety, honesty, and teamwork in relationships!
Are you ready to work on your relationship? I created a free guide to help you understand 5 ways you're likely stressing your relationship and how to heal it. I write about healthy relationships each week and would love to keep you in the loop.
I am also launching a Virtual Attachment Group on April 30th to support folks in learning about their attachment and relationship patterns in a way that will foster both immediate and long-term change. It's going to be AMAZING. I would love for you to join us.
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