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The Relationship Sabotage Scale: Quantifying Why We Undermine Ourselves in Love

Article By Janet Stone

“How is it that we are protecting ourselves? That was the key to what I called relationship sabotage,” says Dr Raquel Peel . Illustration: Clemens Habicht/The Guardian

~ October 2021 ~ Do you feel constantly criticised by your partner? Do you sometimes check their social media profiles? Will you admit to them if you know you’re wrong about something?

If you strongly agree or disagree with some of these statements, you might find yourself with a high score on the Relationship Sabotage Scale.

Developed by a team led by Dr Raquel Peel, a psychology researcher and lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland, the Relationship Sabotage Scale, published on 19 September in BMC Psychology, a peer-reviewed academic journal, aims to empirically measure self-sabotage (a term more often bandied about in popular culture) in romantic relationships.

The scale was developed in the wake of two preliminary, qualitative studies led by Peel. After interviewing both psychologists specialising in romantic relationships, and people with lived experiences, she described three types of relationship self-saboteur: serial daters who hastily move from one relationship to another, and make quick assessments while looking for “the one”; those who stay in a long-term relationship but check out emotionally; and those who decide to cease engaging in relationships entirely.

These types were the “whats” of self-sabotage, while the scale is intended to measure the “how”. As for the why, Peel found “that the motivation [behind] why people weren’t successful in relationships was fear”.

“That sounds so simple and, of course, it is to be expected,” she says. The scale was developed not to measure this fear, but the ways in which people respond to fears and insecurities in love.

“How is it that we are protecting ourselves? That was the key to what I called relationship sabotage,’’ she says.

To build the scale, Peel and her colleagues started with an initial list of 60 “items” (“I” statements such as “I often get jealous of my partner”) derived from her two previous studies that people rate on a scale from one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree). “The items actually come from direct quotes from interviews,” she says. “Those quotes and experiences helped us formulate the items.”

Over the course of three more studies, 1,365 people were surveyed to test and refine the list for the final structure of the scale: 12 items that broadly classify three behaviours or attitudes leading to self-sabotage. Those behaviours are defensiveness, trust difficulty and a lack of relationship skills, each of which is measured by four items.

The Relationship Sabotage Scale

1. I get blamed unfairly for issues in my relationship.
2. I often feel misunderstood by my partner.
3. I constantly feel criticised by my partner.
4. My partner makes me feel a lesser person.
5. I get upset about how much time my partner spends with their friends.
6. I believe that to keep my partner safe I need to know where my partner is.
7. I often get jealous of my partner.
8. I sometimes check my partner’s social media profiles
9. When I notice that my partner is upset, I try to put myself in their shoes so I can understand where they are coming from.
10. I am open to finding solutions and working out issues in the relationship.
11. I will admit to my partner if I know I am wrong about something.
12. I am open to my partner telling me about things I should do to improve our relationship.

  • Items should be randomised.
  • The scale is a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), is employed where high scores indicate high levels of the measured dimensions.
  • Defensiveness subscale = 1, 2, 3, 4.
  • Trust difficulty subscale = 5, 6, 7, 8.
  • Relationship skills subscale = 9, 10, 11, 12.
  • Reverse questions 9, 10, 11, and 12 to represent ‘Lack of relationship skills’.
  • Subscale scores between 4-11 (low)
  • Subscale scores between 12-20 (moderate)
  • Subscale scores between 21-28 (high)

The scale gives an overall score as either low, moderate or high and indicates separate scores for each of the three key behaviours and attitudes. Across all the studies Peel conducted, defensiveness was found to be the strongest self-sabotaging behaviour.

“The scale is not a clinical measure,” says Peel. “It does not provide a diagnosis.’’

Yet scale is designed to be used both clinically and by individuals. “It can be used by anyone – it’s just a way of understanding the types of things you might be doing in a relationship. In a clinical setting, a psychologists would … be doing all sorts of assessments with their clients, so this could be an additional assessment that they do.’’

Professor Kim Halford, a clinical psychologist and researcher specialising in relationships at the University of Queensland who did not collaborate with Peel on the scale, believes the scale’s value in clinical settings is uncertain and will require further research.

“When you develop scales like this, the real value added is when they predict something new that other scales don’t. At this stage they haven’t tested that. So it may or may not work out to be useful,” Halford says.

“I’m not sure it measures what it claims to measure,” he says, adding that the scale makes some assumptions he feels are hard to justify. “It really seems to me to be a general measure of some dysfunctional things happening in a relationship. ‘I get upset about how much time my partner spends with friends’ is supposed to be measuring the extent you have difficulty trusting in your partner. And it might reflect that, but it also might reflect that your partner has never grown up, and expects … despite the fact that you have two kids and shared responsibilities, to be able to go and play golf all weekend.”

Peel concurs the scale’s value in a clinical setting is yet to be proven. “It would be interesting to know if practitioners think that this is useful. For people that are working with clients experiencing relationship issues, it would be a very interesting thing to know.’’

Peel says the scale is not intended to present a perfectly nuanced picture. “When it comes to relationships, there are many factors that combine. In the end it could be 50 things that lead us to act the way we do.

“But when we have an actual measure, we need to be able to narrow it down. I’ve narrowed it down to the three most prominent reasons why people do what they do.”

Halford says one of the common mistakes he has seen both therapists and people in relationships make is not paying “enough attention to what is going on in the world around the couple”.

“We know for example, that poverty puts a lot of strain on relationships,” he says. “But people rarely attribute problems in their relationship to economic stress.

“They are much more likely to say ‘my partner is selfish’ or ‘doesn’t listen to me’, rather than … ‘so exhausted from the long hours we work … the rushing around picking up kids, that when we get together we are tired and cranky’.’

“The broad question is why do so many psychologists, and probably a lot of people in relationships, feel that they do things that undermine their relationship?” he says. “And that I think is an interesting question.”

Peel hopes the scale will give people some insight into themselves and their relationships in order to forge stronger bonds. “We need to know what’s happening, we need to acknowledge that it’s fear, that there may be some self-esteem issues, we need to acknowledge that we are vulnerable,” she says.

“If we are in love, we are vulnerable. There is the potential for things not to work out, and for us to get hurt, and that’s what love is. I don’t think you can take that out of the equation.”

For her, the scale “is just step one” on a path to exploring these issues, “but it doesn’t have to stop there”.

A version of this article originally appeared here on

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