How to Manage Perfectionism in a Relationship

Perfectionism is a personality trait defined by the pursuit of perfection and the placing of unreasonable expectations on oneself and others. Perfectionism can be harmful when it causes high levels of stress and dissatisfaction, gets in the way of everyday life, and damages relationships. In relationships, perfectionism may manifest itself through high expectations, incessant criticism, difficulty compromising, and persistent stress.

Key takeaways:
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    Perfectionism in relationships can cause unrealistic expectations and an inability to accept flaws in oneself and others.
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    Perfectionism can lead to difficulties in communication, trust, and can cause problems in building and maintaining healthy relationships.
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    Maladaptive perfectionism can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including procrastination, avoidance of new tasks, burnout, and self-sabotage, and it can contribute to depression and anxiety.
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    To overcome perfectionism in relationships, it is important to work on self-compassion, open communication, and acceptance of imperfections.

Is perfectionism always bad?

What is so bad about wanting to try to be perfect? Surely, in this competitive world, we need to be striving for perfection in order to be successful?

That's all well and good, but if you always try to be perfect, you will always fall short. This puts you at risk for depression, stress, anger problems, and addictions, among other things. When this trait is prevalent in relationships and projected onto a partner, who is also expected to be flawless, the relationship will collapse, your career will be a constant torment, even if it is successful, and what is even more tragic is that your life will constantly disappoint you.

Types of perfectionism

There are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. We discuss them in greater detail below.

Adaptive perfectionism

Adaptive perfectionism is the belief that setting and pursuing high standards is advantageous and can result in success. This sort of perfectionism is generally accompanied by a strong work ethic and a readiness to exert high levels of effort in order to achieve goals.

Adaptive perfectionism can be beneficial when coupled with a healthy mindset that allows for flexibility and the capacity to learn from setbacks. This form of perfectionism can lead to academic and professional achievement, as well as help people develop the skills and self-discipline necessary to attain their goals.

Maladaptive perfectionism

Maladaptive perfectionism is the conviction that perfection must be attained at all costs and that anything less than perfect is intolerable. It is generally accompanied by an obsessive drive for control, a fear of failure, and a tendency to procrastinate.

A person's mental and physical health can be negatively affected by maladaptive perfectionism. It can cause significant amounts of tension and self-criticism, in addition to depression and other mental health issues. People with maladaptive perfectionism may have difficulties finishing projects, be highly self-critical, and find it difficult to take criticism or feedback. They could also be susceptible to burnout, and self-sabotage.

Perfectionism can be multidimensional, with different components such as “self-oriented” (the tendency to hold oneself to unrealistic standards), “socially prescribed" (the belief that others expect perfection of you), and “other-oriented” (the tendency to hold others to impossibly high standards), each of which has a different level of maladaptiveness.

How it manifests in relationships

There are several ways in which perfectionism in relationships may be harmful. Here are a few examples:

  • High expectations for themselves and their partners. It can lead to unhappiness and disappointment in their relationships. These expectations can also place a great deal of stress on the spouse, leading to feelings of inadequacy or anger.
  • Excessively critical of themselves and their partners. It results in a lack of emotional closeness and trust in the relationship. Constant criticism can also damage a person's sense of self-esteem and lead to feelings of worthlessness.
  • Find it difficult to compromise. Perfectionists may also be intolerant, which can lead to tension and anger in their relationships.
  • Have trouble relaxing. That also includes inability to enjoy leisure activities, which can negatively affect their relationships.
  • Avoid being vulnerable. That's because it might reveal their flaws or weaknesses. This can make it difficult to build emotional intimacy in the relationship.

A short case study on perfectionism

The following case study on Andrew will provide insight into how maladaptive perfectionism can destroy a relationship.

Andrew, a renowned engineer, has always strived for excellence and has exceedingly high expectations for himself and others. Despite his professional achievements, his need to be perfect has always caused him emotional difficulties.

Andrew and his girlfriend, Sarah, had been together for three years. He continuously criticized her and demanded that she be perfect in every way. He believed that she should always look immaculate, have the house spotless, and agree with all his opinions. Sarah did her best to meet his expectations, but she always came up short in his eyes.

Because of the relentless pressure he put on himself, Andrew was never able to be truly emotionally present for Sarah. She felt as if she was constantly walking on eggshells around him, and she started to feel that her self-esteem was deteriorating.

As their relationship evolved, Sarah grew increasingly angry with Andrew. She was unable to tolerate the frequent criticism and unreasonable expectations. She attempted to discuss it with him, but he became defensive and argumentative. Eventually, Sarah decided to end the relationship, as she could not be with someone who could not accept her for who she was.

Andrew was devastated by the breakup, but he could not comprehend why Sarah did not realize that he only wanted the best for her. He was unaware that his perfectionism had alienated her and ruined the relationship.

Following the breakup, Andrew started to see a therapist who specialized in this field, and he began the journey of self discovery to gain insight into his behaviors.

The cure is self-compassion

Self-compassion is the act of treating oneself with the same kindness, understanding, and support that one would offer to a good friend. Accepting your human imperfections and vulnerabilities means letting go of the need to be perfect and instead accepting that mistakes and flaws are inevitable. To be able to forgive yourself, you have to let go of perfectionism and embrace a new way of thinking and feeling about yourself, namely, that life is meant to be a learning process, and learning from mistakes can bring about growth and self-improvement.

Tips to manage perfectionism

  • The first step is to recognize and accept that there is a problem. Be aware of when you are setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and your partner. Keep in mind that no one is flawless, and it is essential to maintain reasonable expectations.
  • Share your problems and emotions with your partner in a non defensive manner. Communicate your needs and expectations for the relationship. Acknowledge your partner's feelings and views and show empathy.
  • Everyone has flaws and shortcomings, and you must learn to accept them in yourself and your partner. Focus on your partner's strengths and positive qualities instead of focusing on what you think are their flaws and weaknesses.
  • Practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with the same care and understanding as you would a close friend. Instead of berating yourself for being imperfect, allow yourself to make mistakes.
  • When establishing expectations for your relationship, be sure that they are attainable and reasonable. Avoid creating unreasonable expectations that will inevitably result in disappointment.
  • Practice flexibility and learn to let go of control. Recognize that sometimes things won't go as planned and that it's important to be able to adapt to change.
  • Learn to accept constructive feedback and criticism without taking it personally. Remember that feedback is an opportunity to grow and improve.

If you identify with any of the above characteristics and feel that it has reached a stage where it is causing low self-esteem or toxic relationships, it might be a good time to consider attending a therapist who will assist you in identifying aspects of your life that are governed by perfectionism, as well as how to make adjustments and adopt a new perspective.


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