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Love Sabotage: Why Do We Set Fire to Our Romantic Relationships?

~ September 2021 ~ As our many explorations of love and relationships suggest, romance is rarely simple. People are complicated and messy and confusing – and oftentimes, they’re scared as hell of getting hurt. Throw that all together, and it’s only natural that things will go awry from time to time. But what about the times where relationships are more or less fine and we sabotage them anyway?

Raquel Peel – a lecturer at James Cook University – recently spoke about the tendency for people to set their love lives alight, for no apparent reason, in a TEDx Talk titled Why Do We Sabotage Love? In it, she explained why many of us sabotage our romantic relationships and how to work towards healthier habits in love.

Here are a few of the most significant learnings from her talk:

There isn’t much available insight into why we sabotage love

Peel explained that she decided to begin her PhD on the topic of romantic self-sabotage because of the lack of knowledge in this space.

“As it stands, there is a distinct lack of knowledge to explain why some people having successfully initiated a relationship, embark upon what appears to be a path to destruction,” she explained.

So, to gain a better understanding of this behaviour, Peel embarked on two pieces of study. She interviewed psychologists who specialise in romantic relationships and surveyed 600 people worldwide about their relationship histories.

“After months of interviews, I came to one conclusion:people do tend to behave in similar ways or patterns as they move from one relationship to the next,” she said.

Using these surveys, Peel was able to come up with a list of behaviours that are “destructive” to relationships, she explained during her talk.

Which behaviours are most destructive in relationships?

Well, there are a few. But Peel pointed out that there are four in particular that appear to stand out.

These behaviours, she said, “have been previously identified by a well-known psychologist and researcher, John Gottman. These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. He calls this ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’. How fitting.”

Folks often turn to these behaviours when they’re seeking to sabotage a romantic relationship (consciously or not). And they’ll probably be successful with them, she explained.

In terms of why we do this, the reasons that came up in Peel’s surveys varied from low self-esteem to “impossible” standards. But the key trend that came through was people sabotage love as a way to protect themselves. Fears of being abandoned, worries about incompatibility and an inability to trust people with your heart all break down to the same thing: self-preservation.

Peel went on to share that through her own experience, however, she learnt that protecting yourself in this way only leads to a different kind of pain. “We do what we do to protect ourselves, but we get hurt anyway. Maybe in a less public or obvious way, but we get hurt nevertheless. This whole dynamic is like living inside Sam Smith’s song ‘Too Good at Goodbyes’. ‘I’m never gonna let you close to me Even though you mean the most to me, Because every time I open up, it hurts’.”

How to stop the romance sabotage

When explaining how to break these habits, Peel shared that part of the solution is working towards seeing your partner as a place of safety for you (in circumstances that are genuinely safe, of course).

She then shared three tips to help break the sabotage habit. After stressing that you shouldn’t be pursuing just any relationship – but if you meet someone who may be a great addition to your life, she recommends you use insight, reflect on your expectations and think about collaboration to hopefully start your next relationship in a healthy way.

If you’d like to listen to Peel’s complete TEDx Talk on sabotaging love, you can check it out below.

A version of this article originally appeared here on


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