Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Burden of The Perfect Partner: A Closer Look

If you are looking for the perfect partner or trying to be one – think twice. Perfection is painfully unrealistic for individuals and emotionally costly for couples.

While there is no doubt that striving to be your personal best and feeling good about your efforts is healthy as well as relationship enhancing – perfectionism is something else.

Perfectionism is the belief that a state of completeness and flawlessness can and should be attained. The literature on perfectionism underscores that there is an important difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. It is a difference worth considering.

Adaptive Perfectionism

  • Adaptive perfectionism involves striving for high standards as motivational and encouraging but there is choice in the pursuit. Everything does not have to be perfect.
  • There is emotional resiliency to stay with the training, the studying, the belief in one’s partner despite human error – mistakes are allowed.
  • Failure can be tolerated without threatening self-worth.
  • Those with adaptive perfectionism can still feel positive about themselves, their partner and other aspects of their life – even if they don’t get the raise, score the highest or have the perfect home.

 Maladaptive Perfectionism

  • Maladaptive perfectionism is different. Those with maladaptive perfectionism don’t really have a choice to  strive or excel. They have a pervasive need to achieve an unrealistic standard of perfection as a proof of self-worth.

This is the woman who can’t invite friends for dinner because she demands that she cook complicated gourmet recipes and fears failure.

 This is the partner who avoids sexuality because she is not yet the perfect weight.

This is the man who can never enjoy a family vacation because nothing is ever perfect – the way he planned it would be.

  • Often the standards for a person caught up in maladaptive perfectionism are so high that success is impossible and as such final decisions are avoided, tasks are procrastinated and shame and guilt result.

They never buy dining room furniture – the perfect set can never be found.

 She never goes back to school because she fears she will not be at the top of her class. 

  • Frequently those with maladaptive perfectionism have unrealistic expectations of the significant others in their lives. If their partner is not the most successful, the center of the party, the most desirable, the most intelligent etc., their fragile self-worth is compromised.
  • Feeling that they need to live up to some unrealistic standards imposed by others, those with maladaptive perfectionism tend to be highly anxious, self-deprecating and often demanding and critical of their partners.

Partners Can Help Each Other

Given that both partners suffer in a relationship colored by maladaptive perfectionism, it is crucial to consider ways that partners may work together on recognizing the pattern, utilizing couple self-help strategies and seeking professional help if needed.

Just reading the definitions above may be an important first step in identification of a pattern.

Create a Secure Attachment

There has been considerable evidence that the way we relate to our partner, regulate are feelings, perceive ourselves in the eyes of others and maintain a secure sense of self is related to our earliest attachment bonds.

It is particularly interesting that studies have found a relationship between early attachment patterns and perfectionism.

Adaptive perfectionism is associated with secure parental attachments, promotion of self-soothing and positive self-esteem. Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with insecure attachments with high parental criticism, attachment anxiety and avoidance.

Couple relationships can replay or replace early attachment patterns. As such they can exacerbate the maladaptive need to be perfect with critique, competitive demands and unrealistic expectations or offer an attachment pattern that facilitates healthy striving and affirming choices.

Couples Strategies

If you recognize that maladaptive perfectionism is something that is interfering with the happiness between you two – and agree to work together – it may reduce blame and double chances of success.

You can build a secure attachment as you work together using some techniques for reducing perfectionism.

Lower anxiety by recognizing that addressing perfectionism does not equate to accepting mediocrity – it equates to striving without suffering.

Agree to risk trying just a few new things. Agree to risk making mistakes together.

  • We have never had anyone over for dinner – how about we just have a couple over for pizza and dessert? If it is great – we will be surprised – if it is a bust – we will have our first “ lesson learned together.”

 Support each other to increase self-acceptance vs. perfectionism.

“ I want you to know that no matter what you say I know how smart my wife is.”

Be generous with compliments, be honest if you feel criticized.

  • “I forgot to tell you how good you looked this morning.”
  • “ I know you are trying, but lets talk about clothes rather than scrutinizing everything I wear.”

Rigid beliefs drive perfectionism. Talk together about “all or none” beliefs. Work on replacing the belief with a more flexible one. Act on the new one together.

  • Toys on the floor of the living room in the middle of the day mean that the children are playing – not that the house is a mess.
  • Dreading a partner’s return with anxiety because toys are out or keeping the children playing in a small area are high emotional costs for a perfect living room.
  • Picking up the toys each night so that the living room looks beautiful is a viable solution when you have small children.

 Clarify expectations – Whose Are They?

  • So much of maladaptive perfectionism involves self-expectations and presumed expectations by others that take away growth and reduce self-worth.
  • Consider identifying and clarifying expectations. An important part of a good relationship is that it offers the opportunity to strive for expectations that each of you have. If these expectations feel like they might fit – be curious,  reach together, adjust them, support each other on them, and let them be your choice.

Strengthen Your Caregiving Bond

Giving or receiving care from each other in big and little ways, strengthens a secure attachment, improves the sense of feeling safe and valued and reduces the desperate need to be perfect in order to be loved. It makes the really important things possible…

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

  (Anna Quindlen)

Slender woman photo available from Shutterstock.