Maybe in the past you brushed it off as a bad spell or put it down to the fact that you keep choosing the wrong partners. But as time goes on, and you keep falling into the same ‘trap’ it gets harder to pass off these relationships as simply bad luck. Perhaps you’ve started to realise that the common dominator in all of this might actually be… you.
Not everyone we enter into a relationship with is going to end up being our life partner. And breakups and failed relationships are part and parcel of the human experience. In fact, although they might not feel like it at the time, breakups can be healthy experiences, teaching us something about ourselves so we get clearer on what we’re looking for next time around.
But if you find yourself constantly entering into relationships that are very intense or dramatic and with a lot of conflict, then it’s good that you’re here digging a bit deeper. You could be playing more of a role than you think.
We rarely set out to self-sabotage. Whilst we might express it in different ways – some more obvious than others – most of us crave love and intimacy above anything else. But past experiences can sometimes set us off on the wrong footing.
Let’s take a closer look at some of reasons you might be having difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship.
String of failed relationships: what holds us back from maintaining healthy relationships
- You grew up in a dysfunctional family
Our relationships in adult life are usually tied closely to our relationships from the past. In other words, we go with what we know. Our relationship with our primary caregiver/s growing up is what generally sets the tone for our understanding of what intimacy looks and feels like. That’s all well and good if it’s a happy one but we run into trouble if something is amiss.
Dysfunctional might sound like an extreme word – but it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as growing up in an environment where our needs or feelings were not met. This might cause issues with low self-esteem and self-worth where we grow up believing that our needs are somehow not as important as other people’s. Or perhaps we become defeatist in the sense that we believe they will never be met (remember: you reap what you sow).
Below are some of the ways a dysfunctional family might present:
- Growing up with a single parent who over-relied on you.
- Overbearing, intrusive or controlling parents who didn’t respect your privacy.
- Supporting or acting as carer to a parent with chronic illness e.g. A depressed, needy mother who sought emotional support from you.
- There was preferential treatment in your household – whether it was you, or one of your siblings.
- One or both of your parents were either physically or emotionally absent.
When we feel like the rug could be pulled from under our feet at every turn as a child, it puts us in a state of high alert. We’re going to grow up lacking a sense of trust, whether that be in others, the world – or worse, ourselves. This might give us issues with our identity (shape-shifting), cause us anxiety or paranoia and more often than not, lacking in self-worth.
2. You struggle to communicate your feelings
Lots of people struggle with expressing their feelings. Particularly in the UK, society has taught us that expressing our feelings makes us appear weak or vulnerable. But if we are unable to communicate what we need or how we truly feel, any relationship we enter into is going to be doomed from the offset. Good communication is an essential component of a healthy relationship.
If talking about your feelings is something you try to avoid at all costs, therapy is a good place to start accessing your emotions and working with them. Over time, you’ll start to feel much more comfortable sitting in your emotions. Both your relationships and your mind/body will thank you for it.
3. You self-sabotage and are addicted to drama
When we’ve had a string of failed relationships, we might find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle. When we’re used to the feeling of intense and toxic relationships, a normal, healthy one is going to feel unfamiliar. So when that lovely, stable partner does come around you might end up subconsciously sabotaging it by picking arguments or causing drama. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with the odd disagreement, if this becomes your default way of communicating alarm bells should start ringing.
4. Trauma or abuse
Physical, sexual or emotional abuse in childhood can have a heavy impact on how we relate in later life. Sometimes abuse is obvious, but other times it’s less clearcut. Emotional abuse, for instance, might not appear as anything to an outsider but these kinds of wounds run deep and frequently carry through into adult life.
Suffering abuse at a young ago can cause someone to respond – or cope – in different ways. At one extreme, a person might end up subconsciously keeping the cycle alive, entering into a string of abusive relationships. On the other, someone might shutdown completely and struggle to let anyone in at all. Either way, the impact of abuse can be devastating to the way we learn to trust, attach and choose our personal relationships.
If you suffered abuse growing up – whether that was physical, sexual or emotional – it’s really important to acknowledge what happened to you and also to seek the right support. You can heal and recover. We all can.
5. You have unrelenting standards
Having standards – or boundaries – is a good thing. The alternative is a dangerous place to be. But there’s a difference between knowing what’s good for you, and being rigid and unrelenting in your standards. We all need to have a bit of leeway and give people the benefit of the doubt from time to time. If you’re constantly cutting people out of your life because you think they don’t live up to your standards, you might also want to check that you’re not subconsciously putting up barriers.
Dating used to be more of a long-term game. With so much choice at our fingertips it’s now easy to flit from one to the next in the belief that there’s always someone or something better out there. Take a moment to check-in and make sure you’re not cutting chords as a means of distraction or chasing an unachievable idea of perfection.
6. Mental illness
Experiencing a dip in our mental health can takes its toll on our relationships. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, the waves of emotion you experience are challenging enough to move through by yourself let alone having to explain them to a partner. This can put a strain on any relationship. In these cases, open communication is key. However difficult it may seem, try expressing how you feel rather than bottling it all up.
Sometimes an inability to maintain healthy, stable relationships indicates something more ingrained. One of the key indicators for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is relationship difficulties. It is much more than everyday difficulties with intimacy though – it is a persistent personality trait that can cause a great deal of distress.
When it comes to relationships, BPD is marked by a seesawing between love and hate. You can idolise your partner but this can just as easily switch to hate when things go wrong or if you sense impending rejection. There tends to be very little middle ground. This is because someone with BPD struggles with their sense of identity meaning they shape-shift according to the person they’re with or who they love.
BPD has a lot of misconceptions but really what rests at the heart of it is empathy. Extremes in behaviour are often based around an anxiety stemming from traumatic experiences in childhood, such as abandonment. Because of this, someone with BPD becomes extremely sensitive to picking up emotional cues from others or ‘sensing’ or trying to predict when they might be about to experience rejection. This can lead them to cutting a relationship short when there was little to worry about in the first place.
The most effective treatment for BPD is Dialectic Behavioural Therapy (DBT). Seeking the right treatment is especially important as it can help open up ways for you to help both yourself and your relationships.
How to form healthy relationships
We might hope that we leave our childhood problems where they belong – firmly in the past. But unfortunately, most of us will end up playing out familiar feelings and relationships patterns long after we move into adulthood.
If you think there’s a chance that you are self-sabotaging your relationships, the first important thing to say is this: don’t be hard on yourself. How can you be expected to create a feeling or a dynamic you never experienced?
Also, it takes two to tango. Digging a bit deeper you might well find that both you and your past partners have been playing out your own patterns on each other.
Just remember that nothing is ever wasted when you’ve learnt something. Accept it as part of the journey, and resolve now as the moment to move into a new, healthier way of being and relating.
The one thing that all of the above points have in common is this: they all come down to you. It just takes a bit of work on the inside.
Breaking a pattern can take a while so don’t be discouraged if you slip up along the way. It’s about identifying past hurts, and feeling all the feelings that come alongside them. Understanding that although our coping mechanisms might have protected us when we were young, they are hindering us now – and that it is time to decide new, healthier ways of relating. Only when we identify the source of what happened and where things went amiss, can we set about creating something that is right – and most importantly, truly fulfilling.