Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

If you've ever been close to a Type A person (or are one yourself), it may seem impossible that the tendencies that create this impatient, driven, and competitive collection of behaviors are consistent with relationship harmony. The common view of Type A individuals is that they're so preoccupied with getting ahead that they will be demanding and uncaring. They will impose their values on everyone else, including and especially the people close to them. If you should fall short of the Type A's unrealistic ideals, you can guarantee, according to this view, that you’ll be unceremoniously dumped, or at least made to feel bad about yourself.

If you believe that part of the Type A pattern involves meeting perfectionistic standards, you can take heart from research showing that not all perfectionists are alike: In fact, they may be great friends and lovers, as long as their demands for perfection are focused on themselves. The social disconnection model (PSDM) proposed by Hewitt et al. (2006) states that an individual seeking to be above all reproach is destined to become socially isolated or downright hostile toward others. However, it’s also possible to argue that a person obsessed with achieving perfection could also be obsessed with becoming the perfect relationship partner. Consider the possibility that an individual who shows the Type A behavior pattern is a type of perfectionist, always seeking to be better than everyone else. (This guide to telling if you’re Type A suggests that, in fact, valuing friendship is one of its 14 hallmark traits.)

On one hand, the Type A person would seem to be too impatient and concerned about winning to have particularly high empathic potential. However, the Type A person might be a great person to be close with if you need help organizing your life or getting things done, and they can be counted on to be on time, if not early, for get-togethers. Perfectionists, similarly, might value relationships, because they can then check the “Be in a relationship” box on their own list of life accomplishments.

As pointed out by University of Kent’s (England) Joachim Stoeber and colleagues (2017), not all perfectionists are created alike when it comes to the potential to be true friends and partners. Those who are “self-oriented” strive for perfection in themselves and are critical only of themselves if they fail to achieve their high standards. These individuals should have no problem forming true friendships and, if anything, should appreciate friends who can calm them down. It's "other-oriented” perfectionists who could be difficult to have as friends. They’re going to criticize you if you’re not up to whatever their ideals are, whether in appearance, personal habits, or social status. Finally, the "socially prescribed" form of perfectionists believes that other people expect them to have no weaknesses, and are hard on themselves as a result of what they perceive to be their flaws in the eyes of real or imagined others.

A Type A individual, it would seem, could come from any of these categories. If perfectionists are constantly striving to be the best, then, wouldn’t they also be more likely to step on other people in order to advance their own interests? Stoeber et al. consider this possibility, but, from their review of the literature, conclude that it's only the other- and socially-oriented types who would make poor friends. People in these two groups show, in their words, “behaviors indicative of social disconnection and interpersonal hostility” (p. 113). Their traits range from disagreeable to mean-spirited. Other-oriented perfectionists lack interest in other people’s well-being and, worse, display the “dark triad” traits of callousness, deceitfulness, an aggressive form of humor, and Machiavellianism, or being cold and manipulative. Socially prescribed perfectionists are, additionally, avoidant of close relationships, suspicious, and outright hostile and hurtful. These two types of perfectionists want to be the best and will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

By contrast, there are far more charitable features of the self-oriented perfectionist’s personality and relationships with others. According to the research Stoeber et al. cite, they are altruistic, interested in others, and likely to use humor to connect with people; in short, they may feel “more socially connected and less hostile than people low in self-oriented perfectionism” (p. 113). You might want to form a relationship with someone who's characterized by this variety of perfectionism.

The hostility factor, then, is the deal-breaker when it comes to the perfectionistic individual’s relationship with others. By definition, this would seem to warrant excluding a Type A person from your circle of close friends or relationship partners, because this individual is likely to undercut you or use you to further his or her self-interests.

The goal of the British team’s study was to expand on the range of possible personality traits that could be linked to the three types of perfectionism. Toward this end, they recruited three sets of undergraduates who completed questionnaire measures of perfectionism, trust/distrust, empathy, aggression, and spitefulness. Self-oriented perfectionism was measured by questions such as “I demand nothing less than perfection of myself”; other-oriented perfectionism by questions such as “If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly”; and socially-oriented perfectionism by items such as “People expect nothing less than perfection of me.”

The one other measure worth describing in more detail is spitefulness, a measure rarely used in personality research. This unpleasant quality was assessed by questions such as “If I am checking out at a store and feel like the person behind is rushing me, then I will sometimes slow down and take extra time to pay.” We’ve probably all felt this way from time to time, but the highly spiteful person seems to revel in the opportunity to act on that feeling.

In line with the researchers' predictions, the findings are consistent with previous research showing the more hostile tendencies to be related to other- and socially oriented perfectionism. Statistical controls used by the authors to take into account overlap among the three types of perfectionists led them to conclude that only purely self-oriented perfectionists have traits that would make them good friends. Any overlap of socially- or other-oriented perfectionism would detract from this. In the words of the authors, only self-oriented perfectionists will “play nicely with others” (p. 116).

To sum up: We now know that not all perfectionists are created equal. People with high standards who strive to live up to those standards would, from this research, appear to hold standards that include being nice to others, showing commitment to friends and loved ones, and refraining from spiteful back-stabbing to get ahead. Who wouldn’t want a friend or lover like that?

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., 2017

References

Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L., Sherry, S. B., & Caelian, C. (2006). Trait perfectionism dimensions and suicidal behavior. In T. E. Ellis (Ed.), Cognition and suicide (pp. 215–235). Washington,DC: APA.

Stoeber, J., Noland, A. B., Mawenu, T. N., Henderson, T. M., & Kent, D. P. (2017). Perfectionism, social disconnection, and interpersonal hostility: Not all perfectionists don't play nicely with others. Personality and Individual Differences, 119112-117. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.07.008

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