4 Things to Do When Your Spouse Self-Sabotages

Whether your spouse is pursuing a career promotion, a job change, or a personal goal, it’s incredibly painful to watch them set themselves up for failure. We want to help, so we throw ourselves into offering advice and assistance…only to realize we can’t change the situation. While we all self-sabotage at one time or another, some individuals seem to be caught in a pattern. If this sounds like your spouse, you’re not alone.

Self-sabotage is easiest to identify when your expectations (or in this case, your spouse’s) don’t align with your efforts—or the outcome. At the core, self-sabotage is rooted in fear, low expectations of yourself or others, and low confidence in your own abilities. In light of that, it’s important to understand that when your spouse self-sabotages, what you’re really seeing is fear in action.

You may have already pointed out the patterns you’ve noticed to your spouse, but that’s often not enough to influence the ongoing cycle he or she is trapped in. So while you can’t necessarily make your spouse stop self-sabotaging, there are things you can do to cope with the situation. Let’s dive in.

1. Realize the outcome isn’t your responsibility.

As married couples, we naturally become emotionally invested in seeing one another succeed in all areas. You love your spouse, so you want good things for him or her. You want to see her succeed in her business, or to celebrate with him when he finished his novel. So it’s hard to let go of that emotional investment when it’s clear that your spouse is creating a dire, self-fulfilling prophecy that will ultimately end in delay or failure of their dream.

When you want so badly to see your spouse succeed, failure affects you almost as profoundly as it does them. The fear of watching your spouse fail drives you to offer external motivation—which your spouse may or may not appreciate. If that’s the case, all you can do is reevaluate the situation to see what you can do to make things easier on yourself. And that begins by relinquishing any responsibility or ownership you might feel over the outcome.

2. Don’t be an enabler.

Let’s say your spouse has been talking for years about getting a better job with better pay, but her expectations aren’t proportional to her efforts. So you’ve taken it upon yourself to help her search online databases and fill out job applications…but you’ve noticed that she doesn’t do a thorough job with her applications, or lets them fall by the wayside completely. When you try to mention the problems you’re seeing in her follow-through—which lead to one rejection after another—she gets angry and accuses you of being picky and demanding.

By continuing to conduct your spouse’s job search for her, you’re enabling her to keep self-sabotaging. On top of that, you’re giving her a chance to blame you for her difficulties. Rather than continuing to “help,” it may be time to step back and stop doing the work for her. By acting as an enabler, you’ve made it comfortable for your spouse to continue her destructive pattern.

Sometimes, we have to learn lessons the hard way. In some ways, failure can be a great motivator; if you’ve found that your spouse won’t allow you to be a motivator, it may be time to step back and let things play out. It’s possible your spouse needs to feel the discomfort of rejection.

Recognize the situation for what it is, and don’t make excuses for your spouse’s actions. Ending your own enabling cycle will give you a chance to focus on your own goals while your spouse sorts things out for herself.

3. Reinforce and validate positive attitudes and actions when you observe them.

When your spouse takes positive steps toward accomplishing a goal (like completing a book), that’s the time to give him positive reinforcement. Praise him for his accomplishments, however “small” they may seem. Always be receptive and engage in active listening, but really lean in to those positive moments when you sense he’s feeling good about the steps he’s taking toward his goal.

Rather than continuing to feed negative attention into those patterns you don’t want to see, pour your energy into your spouse when he’s taking constructive action. Be vocal, encourage, and celebrate when he rejects self-sabotaging behavior in favor of healthier behaviors. Let him see and feel how happy it makes you to see him taking positive action and displaying a can-do, persevering attitude as he pursues his dream.

4. Get to the root of the fear.

If you think your spouse might be open to talking with you about his or her fears, get vulnerable yourself. You could say something like, “It makes me sad to see you struggling to achieve your dream. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”

There’s no guarantee your spouse will open up, but if they do, it may present an opportunity to drill down into the fears that might be holding them back and causing them to self-sabotage. If you’re able to dig deep together, it may open the door for a breakthrough.

Not everyone is receptive to the idea of talking with a professional counselor or therapist, but if your spouse’s fears are deeply rooted and destructive, therapy could also provide your spouse with the tools he or she needs to cope with the fear—and succeed in spite of it.

Bonus: Pray for your spouse.

It’s easy to forget that the power of prayer is healing and transformative. Don’t underestimate what praying for your spouse can do to improve the situation you’ve found yourselves in. While it’s hard to not take an active role in helping your spouse break the cycle, prayer is a great way to work on his or her behalf behind the scenes. Through prayer, ask for your spouse’s patterns of self-sabotage be healed, and ask for him or her to be given a healthier perspective on the situation they’re facing.

Don’t neglect to pray for yourself, either. It can be particularly helpful to ask for patience, perspective on the patterns you’ve observed in your spouse, and opportunities to take constructive action for yourself while you wait for the situation to resolve.

Have you or your spouse dealt with self-sabotage patterns? What was it like to watch yours spouse sabotage a dream? How did you overcome it? Share your stories in the comments below.


  • Amudha Prabakaran says:

    Hi Les and Leslie,
    Thank you very much for the article where you have pointed out “the root of fear” needs to be dealt that the sabotage can be stopped.
    However, your statement “Not everyone is receptive to the idea of talking with a professional counselor or therapist, but if your spouse’s fears are deeply rooted and destructive, therapy could also provide your spouse with the tools he or she needs to cope with the fear—and succeed in spite of it.” makes me to think that the therapy gives tools to cope with the fear but not to be replaced with the spirit of love,power and sound mind as mentioned in 2 Timothy 1:7. Just want to know whether my understanding is correct?
    Thank you!

  • Amy koehn says:

    Right on!!!!!

  • Patrick says:

    The self sabotaging behavior in my wife of 41 years is her dependence on smoking pot every evening. I am helpless to over power the insecurity it has created in her life.

  • Rosie says:

    After I pray for my spouse this morning for guidance I opened my email and saw this email. Thanks for the reminder. Keeping on praying and believing that God is in control. He takes care is His children. His Holy Spirit only knows how to deal with us!

  • Kyle says:

    I wish that this could be applied to my wife who is divorcing me! The ultimate self-sabotage. Unfortunately, she only sees it as a positive change in her life, despite the obvious and painful results to herself, her husband and her children. Any advice on how to speak the truth in love when I am unable to speak to her about it would be welcome.

  • Mark says:

    Dear Kyle,
    Having watched a number of couples go through a divorce, I think I can offer some advice. Your spouse has likely been thinking about a divorce for a long time. Now that she has “finally” (in her mind) made a decision, she is likely strongly resolved to follow it through. I would recommend moving away from trying to change something you likely cannot (her mind), and towards acceptance of this new, albeit painful, reality. Sorry for your loss. I will say a prayer for all of you.

  • Val says:

    So, true! I have a tendancy to self-sabbotage because of feelings unworthy. Even though I know God’s truth and feelings are fickle.

  • Tami says:

    Dearest Kyle,
    Jesus in near to the broken hearted! Draw near to Him and He will not disappoint ever!!! God has eternity in mind and while we live here, walking in our imperfections, He still has a plan through our broken lives…We have a adversary who rules those in the world… The enemy is lying to your spouse…Fight him not her… . You can’t change her… But you can fight for her unselfishly giving her up to Almighty God. He paid the price on Calvary for every believer to be reconciled to Him. Marriage is not about our happiness, the bible teaches it is to demonstrate Christ (Groom) and we the church as His (Bride) . Study the cross of Christ, all He did to save a lost and dying world…He forgave us…and emptied out His rights to save us. He didn’t deserve to dye…but loved us that much to sacrifice Himself that we could live for all eternity with God. God gave man their own free will, a choice…that’s perfect love. God fore knew mans choice to do it his own way…so the whole gospel message is God sent His one and only son as a sacrifice to pay the penalty of mans sin by dying on the cross. You can trust love like that. Cry it all out to Jesus, trust all your heart to Him , He made it and knows how to heal it. Let Him be enough in your life Keeping eternity in mind, so you fight unselfishly for your wife. Fight for her soul…If she is already a believer, but sin and the enemy has a grip, God is bigger than all that!!!
    I’m fighting on my knees for your marriage!!! Our family witnessed Gods redemption in our Son and daughter in-loves marriage, when it looked hopeless! He saved it for His Glory! What is certain is God is our redeemer and He has a eternal plan , trust Him with all your heart and soul and strength🙏

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