Is a Messy Relationship Better Than No Relationship?

New research examines the role of perfectionism in romantic relationships.

Posted Aug 15, 2020

Do you have in mind what the perfect relationship should be like? Would you and your partner never argue, would you share similar life goals, and would you both feel equally committed to your relationship? Now, think about what your actual relationships look like. There are daily sources of irritation that can’t be avoided, even your vacations create fodder for arguments, and your partner keeps forgetting your anniversary. Relationships, in other words, are messy.

The desire to have a perfect relationship may be one that you don’t even realize you have. Yet, as you think about the reason your tiffs with your partner are so disturbing perhaps it's because you're constantly comparing the real with the ideal. 

According to Sapienza University of Rome’s Mariacarolina Vacca and colleagues (2020), previous research suggests three types of perfectionism that can negatively affect your relationship. One involves holding too fast to the potentially unrealistic standards of what the perfect partner should be like. In what they refer to as "other-oriented perfectionism," you start to become angry, domineering, and even hostile toward the partner who you see as falling short of the mark. This contrasts with self-oriented perfectionism, in which you evaluate yourself harshly when you fail to live up to your own standards. There's also a third form of perfectionism, where you try to live up to unrealistically high standards based on what you think is expected of you by society.

According to what the Italian authors cite as the Social Disconnection Model (SDM), it's the other-oriented perfectionism that can become the kiss of death in relationships. SDM proposes that “perfectionism leads to social disconnection and isolation, through its influence on increased hostility and oversensitivity to criticism.”

Thus, holding onto the belief that your partner needs to meet your own high expectations and, in turn, so should your relationship, can ultimately hamper your ability to hold onto a partner. Someone who doesn’t want to be judged by your high standards or who is fed up with your constant criticism and dominating behaviors will eventually try to escape. 

To test the role of perfectionism on relationship status, the Italian researchers recruited two samples, with nearly 100 participants in each, who differed in whether they were single or in a relationship. The participants were 30 years of age, on average, with most between 20 and 40. The measures of perfectionism were adapted to the relationship status of the participant, with those not currently with a partner asked to respond based on their most recent relationship.

The questions measuring other-oriented, or in this case, partner-oriented perfectionism (POP) tapped into the tendency to hold overly high expectations as exemplified by this item: “If I ask my partner to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly.” Participants also rated whether their own partners had overly high expectations of them, with items such as “My partner readily accepts that I can make mistakes too.” To assess self-oriented perfectionism, participants rated themselves on items such as “I strive to be the best at everything I do.”

As you can see from the one POP item listed above, being a person who expects your partner to do things “flawlessly” could cause tension in your relationship. Agreeing with all five items on the scale would almost undoubtedly be a red flag for the future of that relationship. Indeed, as the results revealed, other than age (older individuals were more likely to be in a relationship) POP stood out as the key predictor, in this study, of an individual’s odds of being single. The Italian researchers additionally controlled for other possible contributors to relationship status, such as anxiety and depression. Neither these nor the two other perfectionism scales predicted relationship status.

In explaining their findings, Vacca and her fellow researchers note that, as the theoretical model predicts, POP may effect relationship status due to “irrational relationship beliefs, such as blame proneness and overanxious concern.” People who show these characteristics may drive others away from them.

A second factor to consider, note the Italian researchers, may have to do with the personalities of people high in POP. Literature based on previous studies suggests that these individuals tend to be low in agreeableness (i.e., aren’t very nice) and could also be behaviorally rigid, meaning that they don’t show the kind of flexibility needed to live with someone they perceive as falling short of their ideal. Over time, furthermore, people who are highly perfectionistic may be likely to get out of a relationship that seems not to be working. Thus, not only might they be more likely to be left, these individuals may be likely to be the leavers when things get messy.

As the authors point out, there were several limitations associated with the design of the study. Most importantly, individuals were tested at a single time point, allowing only correlations to be used in analyzing the data (although several controls could still be instituted). Secondly, the self-report nature of the questionnaires meant that people could be responding in ways intended to make them look good. However, even with this potential bias, there were enough people agreeing with the POP questions to allow the scores to surface as predictors of relationship status. Finally, though, the authors didn’t evaluate whether those who were single actually preferred this status, so that not being in a relationship was a deliberate, life-affirming choice.

To sum up, the Vacca et al. findings suggest that being able to accept that a partner isn’t perfect may help a relationship endure. Finding long-term fulfillment with your partner may very well be a matter of being OK with the fact that even the best relationship can have its good days and its less than perfect days.

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Vacca, M., Terrasi, M., Esposito, R. M., & Lombardo, C. (2020). To be or not to be in a couple: Perfectionism as a predictor. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. doi: 10.1007/s12144-020-00846-6