How Perfectionism Hurts Relationships
Perfectionist traits usually prevent healthy relationship formation.
Posted Sep 29, 2012
I would argue that the will to become a better person and a better partner may be the most desirable asset anyone can bring to a marriage. However, starting out as or striving to become the "perfect" partner is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, strong perfectionist traits usually prevent healthy relationship formation.
Rather than experiencing a full and healthy range of emotions, a perfectionist often vacillates between two primary emotions—dread and relief. The roller-coaster pattern of dread and relief endlessly repeats itself in the life of a non-recovered perfectionist, and spouses and children are often the unhappy passengers of this not-so-thrilling ride.
In fact, perfectionists spend most of their time dreading the next potential failure, and successes are met with a feeling of temporary relief, rather than with a feeling of satisfaction in having done a thing well. Self-esteem does not build from feelings of relief or the temporary reprieve of having succeeded at something. Lacking a deep and consistent source of self-esteem, failures hit especially hard for perfectionists and may lead to long bouts of depression and withdrawal in some individuals.
Further, perfectionist individuals are often hypersensitive to perceived rejection or possible evidence of failure, and there is a fundamental rigidity in the relentless stance of bracing for failure. Unfortunately, when an individual is caught up in the bondage of perfectionist striving, that person is likely to be less interested in developing a healthy, mutually satisfying marriage and more interested in chasing the elusive rabbit in his or her own head.
Along these lines, partners of perfectionist individuals often comment on their partner's emotional unavailability. It is very hard for a perfectionist to share his or her internal experience with a partner. Perfectionists often feel that they must always be strong and in control of their emotions.
A perfectionist may avoid talking about personal fears, inadequacies, insecurities, and disappointments with others, even to those with whom they are closest. Naturally, this greatly limits emotional intimacy in a marriage.
Perfectionist individuals can also be fiercely competitive, even with their partners. Feelings of inadequacy may set the stage for downward social comparison within their own homes ("At least I'm more successful than my wife is"). Celebrating the victories of a spouse may be especially hard if such success threatens a perfectionist partner's sense of being "the more competent partner" in the relationship.
The exhaustion that comes from striving to be perfect can also lead a perfectionistic individual to give up in the face of obstacles. Related to this, I’ve worked with a number of patients who classify themselves as perfectionists. At the same time, pictures they’ve shown me of their home environments sometimes look like the homes of hoarders.
At first, it may seem puzzling that a person who lives in squalor could identify him or herself as a “perfectionist.” However, if a driving factor in an individual’s psyche is the thought, “If I can’t do it perfectly, I don’t even want to do it at all,” then the living conditions of such perfectionists make sense.
Perfectionism and Marriage for Equals
A marriage of equals is hard to create when one (or both) partner(s) are perfectionists. A marriage of equals is a partnership between two people who see each other as true equals. Not only must they be true equals, but both must be open to influencing each other continuously in order to become perfect for, and irreplaceable to, each other.
As I have argued in my book, Marriage for Equals, the way to partner with a soul mate is not to arrive as the perfect match for each other, but to become this over time. The key is how you will shape each other in the marriage as your life together unfolds. Mutual growth towards this end requires each partner to express a full range of emotions, including feelings associated with a sense of personal vulnerability.
Giving and receiving feedback about the impact we have on each other calls for unconditional self-esteem that does not over-depend on others' evaluations of us. The self-esteem we derive from living a life consistent with our deepest values gives us the emotional freedom to learn and grow without fearing the shame of rejection. Striving for perfection leaves us empty and unstable, foundering like ships without anchors in a turbulent ocean.
What If You Are a Perfectionist?
Perfectionism can be treated in therapy. Some of the same treatments that work for individuals with obsessive-compulsive personality features have equal potency in the treatment of perfectionism. Any treatment that works requires you to initially tolerate significant anxiety and ultimately befriend the awareness of personal imperfection.
When perfectionism has been conquered, healthy self-esteem can flower, and when it does, you are much more likely to attract someone with the potential and desire to work at becoming the perfect partner for you (as opposed to the perfect human being).