Loving a Person With Self-Destructive Behavior

If you love someone who's self-destructive, don't forget to safeguard your own well-being. That's because it's only if you're well that you can help them without judging and guide them toward seeking resources and professional help.
Loving a Person With Self-Destructive Behavior
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Loving a person with self-destructive behavior means living in a spiral of suffering. You feel the persistent need to rescue, repair, and help them to change. However, there are few things more frustrating than seeing how this harmful behavior, far from disappearing, persists and even intensifies.

You must understand that their reality is governed by impulses that are extremely difficult for them to control. It’s also due to thought patterns and cognitive biases that constitute an approach that only looks at the negative and catastrophic. Furthermore, their self-esteem fails. As a matter of fact, they may also be suffering from psychological trauma.

Addictions, self-harm, lack of self-confidence, a tendency to isolation, jealousy, self-indulgence, and the persistent obsession that everything goes wrong for them. Self-destruction manifests itself in many ways. Nevertheless, the result is always the same: unhappiness and suffering.

Loving someone like this is a form of slow suffocation that can affect you badly. Therefore, knowing how to understand and handle these kinds of situations is key. Let’s take a look at how to do it.

Self-destructive people share one thing in common. They all hate themselves. However, when people despise themselves, they assume that they don’t deserve any help.

sad girl symbolizing what it is to love a person with self-destructive behaviors

Self-destructive behavior

A person manifests self-destructive behavior when they demonstrate actions and decisions that go against their own interests and their physical and psychological well-being. Harvard Medical School conducted research that suggested that, often, the origin of this behavior lies in childhood traumas.

As a matter of fact, f actors such as abuse, emotional detachment, or the loss of a parent could well be behind this reality. Nevertheless, biological and contextual factors also can’t be ruled out. However, what’s always seen is an inability to maintain a stable life and enjoy pleasurable experiences. In addition, sufferers are unaware of the love that surrounds them.

Here are some examples of the behaviors and reactions of these kinds of people:

  • Low self-confidence.
  • Tendency to negativity.
  • Self-pity. In other words, insisting that everything’s going wrong for them, to the extent that they seem to enjoy their feelings of uselessness or bad luck
  • Inability to cope with problems, no matter how small.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Constant interpersonal problems. For example, the tendency to argue and the inability to commit to anything either in the short or long term.
  • Eating behavioral problems and a tendency to self-harm.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Social isolation.
  • Refusal to accept any help.
  • Emotional blackmail and victimhood.

Behind self-destructive behavior often lies borderline personality disorder (BPD).

scene to represent what it is to love a person with self-destructive behaviors

Loving a person with self-destructive behavior: how can you help?

Loving a person with self-destructive behaviors means constantly wondering why your affection isn’t enough for them to want to change. You ask them things like”Why don’t you stop drinking for my sake?” or “If you love me and you know that I’m always by your side, why are you thinking about suicide?” 

Having a relationship with someone who doesn’t love themselves, who doesn’t seek help, and who doesn’t even try to change makes you eventually sink under the weight of your feelings of frustration and rejection. Also of abandonment. That’s because if they don’t respect themselves, they certainly don’t know how to love you as you deserve.

How should you act in these situations?  Here’s some advice.

1. Understand the psychopathological reality of your partner

A self-destructive person underestimates or is unaware of the impact of their actions on themselves or others. They’re stuck in denial and a spiral of shame. Indeed, it’s never easy to become aware of one’s own impulses and behaviors. You should bear in mind that these clinical realities are always a symptom of an underlying disorder, of a mental problem that must be treated.

For instance, they may be facing trauma, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorders, or depression, etc. However, you can’t force anyone to change if they don’t understand the need to do so.

2. Safeguard your own psychological health

Loving a person with self-destructive behaviors can lead you to the brink of an abyss. You sacrifice yourself and end up neglecting your own basic needs, sometimes to the point of emotional and psychological exhaustion. However, if you really want to be of help, you must set boundaries and understand that your mission as a partner is not to ‘save’ them.

As a matter of fact, your task is to be with them, to support them in everything, but to always safeguard your integrity.

3. Be aware of what NOT to do

There are a number of things you should never do. They’re as follows:

  • Obsessing over your partner’s behaviors and taking them personally.
  • Blackmailing them. For example. saying things like ” If you really loved me, you wouldn’t do this.”
  • Making use of shame or humiliation to urge them to change.  For instance, telling them“I’m ashamed of how you behave.”
  • Telling them that they’re sick or crazy and need urgent help. These kinds of words only put them on the defensive and they become even more distant from you.

Some strategies that can help

Loving a person with self-destructive behavior means having to deal with someone who’s vulnerable, who avoids external support, and who also assumes that they don’t deserve any help. For this reason, you have to temper what you say and what you do. Here are a few ideas:

  • Remind them that you love them and that you’re by their side. Don’t judge them.
  • Show compassion. Let them know that you understand how complicated and challenging such a situation must be for them.
  • Tell them that they deserve to feel good, to be happy, and that there’s always help available to them whenever they want.
  • Communicate the fact that you trust in their strength to get involved in a psychotherapeutic process and overcome their situation with professional help.

Last but not least, let’s consider one more aspect. Sometimes, self-destructive people behave in a way that’s harmful to others. For instance, violent behaviors can arise. If you’re in an abusive relationship, it’s perfectly normal and advisable to choose to end the relationship. 

However, sometimes, in an obsession to save another you put yourself at risk. Therefore, you must always keep your own boundaries in mind.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Beck, Aaron T.; Kovacs, Maria; Weissman, Arlene (1979). “Assessment of suicidal intention: The Scale for Suicide Ideation”. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 47 (2): 343–352. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.47.2.34
  • Gvion, Yari (2015). “Traumatic Experiences and Their Relationship to Self-Destructive Behavior in Adolescents”. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy. 14 (4): 406–422. doi:10.1080/15289168.2015.1090863
  • van der Kolk, Bessel (December 1991). “Childhood Origins of Self-Destructive Behavior”. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 12: 1665–1671.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.