How to Deal With Perfectionism in a Relationship

young woman looking upset after an argument with her partner at home

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When seeking a relationship, it is common for people to make a comment about looking for the perfect partner. Usually when people use that term, they are referring to someone who exhibits certain desirable traits in a relationship such as trustworthiness, humor, and attractiveness, among other things. Looking for certain traits in a partner is one thing, being in a relationship with a true perfectionist is another.

What Is a Perfectionist?

A perfectionist is one who holds an expectation of self to be perfect, constantly striving to live in a way that could be viewed as flawless, and has difficulty accepting any other standard than perfectionism.

Perfectionism can be adaptive in the sense that the motivation to be the best can allow us to experience new things, challenge ourselves and grow as a person. Maladaptive perfectionism is the darker side to this constant striving and can significantly impact our relationships with family members, colleagues, and especially our partners.

A perfectionist will often exhibit certain patterns of behavior and interactions with others that look quite different from another person who may simply be growth-oriented and striving for self-improvement.

Traits of Perfectionism

A person can demonstrate a variety of traits of perfectionism at work or within their relationships. Although most of us might relate to a few of these traits as well, it is important to remember that a perfectionist will experience these traits to an extreme. A perfectionist will often demonstrate them to such a degree that it may significantly negatively impact their work, their personal life, and relationships with family and friends.

Overthinking

Being careful in our decision-making can be a good thing and show others that we are responsible, take calculated risks, and try not to harm others. Overthinking, however, means that someone is often ruminating over a decision or situation to the point of becoming unable to make a choice. The decision-making process moves from careful to paralyzing, sometimes referred to as analysis paralysis.

When people are overthinking, they might withdraw from their partner as they go into their head and analyze a situation. They may also continually ask others for their opinion or perspective, looking for reassurance or someone else to eventually decide for them.

Doubting Decisions

The heavy analyzation does not stop after a perfectionist has come to a decision. Often their minds may show them a variety of reasons it may not have been the right choice. Fear is often driving these moments and you may see the person continuing to ask others for reassurance that they have made the right or correct choice.

Heavily Concerned Over Mistakes

A primary goal of perfectionism is to avoid emotional pain. So in cases where a mistake has been made, a perfectionist may feel a deeper sense of pain or rejection than most. A mistake, even one that would be commonly made, can create a sense of vulnerability that feels unbearable for a perfectionist.

Rejection, especially by those we care about, is very painful and a mistake being made can feel threatening to their longing to be accepted, approved, loved, and connected.

Critical of Self

It is no surprise that a perfectionist would be critical of themselves. Unfortunately, their self-narrative can be quite negative and run on a near-constant loop throughout the day. Self-monitoring and impression management are often seen in perfectionism, so as to not become vulnerable to judgment or rejection by others.

Unfortunately, in attempting to avoid the pain of judgment by others, a perfectionist can easily find themselves in constant judgment of self as they monitor their own decision-making and behavior.

Procrastination and Avoidance

Although not often thought of with perfectionism, procrastination can often be an observable trait of a perfectionist. Being in a state of constant monitoring and doubt, a perfectionist can find themselves emotionally exhausted and avoidant of tasks. This can be the case, particularly when they have to perform in a way that may be evaluated, such as a graded project in school or a presentation at work.

The pressure of feeling the need to perform perfectly and the fear of failure can take an emotional toll on a perfectionist. It can feel easier for them to avoid working on the project or presentation until it is absolutely necessary. This can resemble self-sabotaging behavior.

Defensiveness/Reactivity

Because the self-talk of a perfectionist is so often critical, it is common for people with perfectionist tendencies to respond reactively or defensively to feedback from others. Keep in mind that one of the goals of perfectionist behavior is an attempt to avoid pain, including emotional hurt. Even healthy and constructive feedback can be received as rejection by a perfectionist and hurt deeply. The pain then activates defensive tendencies to protect themselves.

Depression

Being a perfectionist can feel draining. The constant pressures that are often felt, although many times self-induced, can leave a perfectionist feeling hopeless. Some people recognize healthy expectations of self and have an understanding of personal limitations, understanding that goals for self should be reasonable, attainable, and sustainable.

Perfectionists often struggle to know where that line is and their expectations of self can be unreasonable and unattainable. Not meeting expectations of self can leave the perfectionist feeling as if they have failed, even though the goal itself would be the issue, not their ability or effort.

Because of their all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionists are often operating in a deficit in terms of the view of self. Lacking a sense of self-efficacy, combined with unreasonable expectations of self, is a recipe for feelings of failure and possibly worthlessness. This emotional loop that a perfectionist might find themself in can bring about feelings of hopelessness and depression.

How Perfectionism Shows Up in Relationships

Being in a relationship with a perfectionist can feel challenging. Not because your perfectionist partner is unlovable, but because the rigidity of their mindset and their ultra-high expectations of self can have a rippling impact on your relationship.

For example, you may begin to feel pressure to perform in similar ways or find yourself lonely in moments when your partner is consumed with perfectionist behaviors and rigid thinking. There are a variety of ways that perfectionism can impact relationships.

Critical of Partner

When a perfectionist has lived with a critical inner voice for much of their lives, constantly monitoring themself, it is understandable that they can also become critical of their partner. The perfectionist has learned to mitigate their fears of emotional hurt by performing well and doing their best to avoid mistakes.

Particularly in public, where there is vulnerability to judgment by others, a partner may become hyperaware of your behavior and their own. Quick to point out a mistake or commenting on how you should behave can be signs of their fear of vulnerability showing up. This can show up as agitation, frustration, anger, and even demands.

Fear of Intimacy

When someone is critical of self, the way a perfectionist often is, they can become less aware of their needs and inner emotional world. Their focus can become rigidly set on the avoidance of pain to the degree that a perfectionist loses a sense of what actually creates and sustains emotional connection.

This can leave a partner feeling lonely in the relationship with a sense of mystery to their partner's inner world and emotional experiences. When the perfectionist is out of touch with their emotional experiences it is understandable to think it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to have the language to share their emotional experiences with their partner.

Perfectionists try to avoid feeling vulnerable by controlling their behaviors and performance. Being close to someone, emotionally or physically, can present a significant threat to their emotional safety. For them, the idea of letting someone close can feel almost unbearable, even when they deeply love their partner.

The narrative that they have often come to live in is that they are worthy of love when they perform well, that love is earned or won. This can make it difficult for someone to experience intimacy with their perfectionist partner.

Reactivity

Perfectionists are so critical of themselves that any feedback, particularly regarding a mistake or a correction in their performance with a task or skill, can be felt deeply as rejection. Understanding that a perfectionist is often operating from a narrative that they are worthy of love and connection only when they behave or perform perfectly, it is understandable that sharing feedback with a perfectionist partner might result in defensiveness and reactivity.

Feedback or a challenging opinion can signal rejection, unworthiness, disconnection, and isolation. This can make it difficult for partners of perfectionists to share hurt feelings, suggestions, or even uncomfortable opinions.

A perfectionist partner's reactivity can be intimidating and unpleasant for their partner. In an effort to avoid those kinds of painful moments in the relationship, the partner of a perfectionist might find themselves sharing less of their emotional experiences, harboring hurts, holding back on sharing opinions, and not feeling as if they can contribute equally in conversation. Resentment and loneliness can result and present quite the challenge for a couple where perfectionism is present.

How to Help Perfectionist Partners

When you consider the often critical inner world that a perfectionist experiences every day, and likely has experienced for years, it is understandable why and how perfectionists struggle in their romantic relationships. Their world and perspective can feel so rigid, there is no room for mistakes, and threats of emotional pain or feelings of unworthiness are around every corner. A partner can feel resentful, controlled, stifled, and alone, even when they love their perfectionist partner.

So, what are some helpful things partners can do when they are in a relationship with a perfectionist?

Become Curious

The inner world of a perfectionist is complicated in that it can feel rigid yet disorganized. As you observe your partner, can you become curious to know their world? Likely, your perfectionist partner has not allowed many people close. Or, if they have tried to let someone in close, it left them hurting and potentially strengthening their desire to perform perfectly to avoid that kind of pain again.

Becoming curious to know their inner world is a good first step to untangling some of the rigidity that can block connection.

Have Compassion

We have all experienced pain and, likewise, we have all adopted certain ways of navigating the world in hopes of not experiencing that kind of pain ever again. Perfectionists have often learned that performing well and doing their best to avoid mistakes helps them to experience less pain in the world.

It might be helpful to share with your perfectionist partner that they don't need to perform to earn a connection with you. Conveying a sense of emotional safety can be quite helpful for a perfectionist partner to learn that it is okay to let the performing part of them rest.

Emotional safety suggests that a partner can be their most authentic self and still feel a sense of love, connection, and belonging.

Establish Boundaries

Because perfectionists can be critical of themselves, you may have been on the receiving end of their criticism as well. It is important for you to be clear regarding what is okay or not okay in your patterns of interacting with one another.

Share with your partner when it feels as if an emotional boundary has been crossed. There are times when your perfectionist partner may be so consumed with their own experience that they don't realize when they have been rude or overstepped.

Help Them Celebrate

As much as perfectionists constantly strive and focus on performing, they can often find it difficult to celebrate when things go well. Rather than enjoying the moment, they may experience a brief sense of relief from the pressures of their critical voice. Unfortunately, their inner critic often returns quickly.

In addition, because perfectionists can be competitive with their partners, it may be quite difficult for them to celebrate their partner's accomplishments or joyful moments.

Remind your partner that it is okay to celebrate themselves, and you, for a little while. This reminder can help your partner slow down a bit and learn, over time, that the need to perform doesn't need to be a continual part of the relationship.

Invite Them to Take a Risk

Perfectionists are pros at scanning for threats and are not often emotional risk-takers. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult for them to experience closeness and a sense of intimacy with a partner. What you might find is that they strive to stay in control of their emotions and are a bit closed off.

Invite them to take an emotional risk with you, to share their longings, desires, and fears. Reassure them that you are a safe person to take an emotional risk with and let them know you would like to be able to do the same with them.

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