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Sunday, January 21, 2024

Coping with Perfectionism in Your Relationship

Perfectionism can take its toll on a relationship because it often leads to criticism, conflict and lack of emotional and sexual intimacy (see my article: Overcoming Perfectionism).

Coping with Perfectionism in Your Relationship

Just like most other tendencies, perfectionism is on a continuum with some people being more perfectionistic than others.  

People who are perfectionists can be harder on themselves than they are on other people. 

Coping with Perfectionism in Your Relationship

Nevertheless, it can be challenging to be in relationship with someone who is a perfectionist, so it's helpful to know
  • The typical signs of perfectionism
  • The cause of perfectionism
  • How to cope in a compassionate way if your partner is a perfectionist
  • When to get help in therapy
I'll be addressing these issues in this article along with a clinical vignette as an illustration.

What Are the Signs of Perfectionism?
Some of the following signs can indicate a tendency towards perfectionism:
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Obsessiveness around details
  • Defensiveness around your own mistakes because making a mistake can be scary for you
  • A fear of criticism or disapproval from others
  • Equating self worth with accomplishments
  • Low self esteem
  • A need to control
  • Overthinking decisions or situations
  • Lack of flexibility
What Causes Perfectionism?
There are degrees of perfectionism with some people having worse problems than others.

Perfectionism is often caused by early childhood experiences with parents who had unrealistic expectations.  

Perfectionism and Childhood Trauma

Children who grow up in this environment usually try to avoid their parents' harsh criticism and judgment by trying to be perfect. But since there's no such thing as being perfect, they feel they are falling short of their parents' standards. This results in shame for them.

This creates a cycle where there is an internal push to strive to meet their parents' unrealistic expectations, but they feel they fall short again and again, which is traumatic for a child.

Having internalized their parents' disapproval for not being perfect, these individuals often grow up fearing the judgment and disapproval of others and seek to avoid those experiences by imposing unrealistic standards on themselves.  

In many cases parents who impose perfectionism on their children had parents who did the same to them.

What Are the Different Types of Perfectionists?
There are different types of perfectionists, which are described below.  People can be one of these types or a combination of types.

    Self Oriented Perfectionism
There are some perfectionists who only impose their unrealistic standards on themselves and they are more compassionate towards others.  

Self Oriented Perfectionism

Since they have internalized their parents' unrealistic standards and judgment, they have a hard time feeling the same compassion for themselves--even when it's pointed out to them.  Logically, they understand that they deserve the same compassion as they would give to someone else but, on an emotional level, they don't feel it.

    Other Oriented Perfectionism
People with other oriented perfectionism tend to impose unrealistic standards on others.  Sometimes this is with little or no awareness. In other cases people are aware but it's difficult for them to stop.

Other Oriented Perfectionism

    Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
People with this tendency feel perfectionism is being imposed on them by others.  In many cases, this is a projection of their own tendency towards perfectionism. In other cases, it's a realistic assessment of what's actually happening.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism

Clinical Vignette
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases to protect confidentiality, illustrates how perfectionism can impact a relationship and how therapy can help:

Tom and Anna
After five years of marriage, Tom and Anna, who were both in their early 40s, sought help in couples therapy to deal with the impact of perfectionism in their relationship.

Anna felt she was at her wit's end with Tom's perfectionism. She felt constantly criticized by Tom for almost everything she did, including how she stacked the dishwasher, folded the laundry, cleaned the apartment and in many other areas.

She was frustrated by Tom's procrastination when they were trying to make decisions.  She told their therapist they had been considering changing their insurance policy for a few years, but they were stalled in the process because Tom was obsessively comparing plans, weighing the pros and cons repeatedly but unable to make a decision (see my article: Overcoming Fear of Making Decisions).

Tom and Anna both agreed that his perfectionism had taken a toll on their emotional and sexual intimacy because Anna felt so much resentment towards Tom. Even though she still loved him, she didn't feel close to him.

Similar to many other people who struggle with perfectionism, Tom spoke about having parents who had unrealistic standards. His father was especially punitive when Tom made a mistake.  

This created a lot of anxiety for Tom which he tried to mitigate by getting exceptional grades, being good at sports and trying to be perfect in every way.  Inevitably, since no one can be perfect, he fell short and had to endure his father's criticism and emotional withdrawal.  

Reaching over and taking Anna's hand, Tom said he wanted to overcome his perfectionism because he didn't want to ruin their and he knew it was harmful for him as well.  So, he agreed to attend individual therapy to deal with his unresolved childhood trauma while he and Anna worked together in couples therapy to save their relationship (see my article: How Unresolved Trauma Can Affect Your Adult Relationship).

Using EMDR therapy, Tom's individual therapist helped him to work through his childhood trauma of feeling unlovable and inadequate.  Although EMDR therapy tends to be faster than regular talk therapy, the work wasn't fast because these traumatic experiences were so longstanding and entrenched.

He also worked on his procrastination related to his perfectionism. For instance, instead of obsessively going over insurance plans, he sought help from an independent insurance navigator who helped Tom and Anna to pick a plan that was right for them. The navigator emphasized they could change the insurance by the next month if they weren't happy with it, so this made the decision-making less daunting for Tom.

Both Tom and Anna learned to do mindfulness meditation and a breathing exercise to cope with stress in their relationship.

Their couples therapist helped each of them to get curious about their dynamic rather than getting reactive with each other (see my article: 5 Tips For Reducing Emotional Reactivity and Arguments in Your Relationship).

In addition to helping Tom to be more self aware, the couples therapist helped Anna to set boundaries with Tom when he got too picky about things (see my article: Setting Boundaries in Your Relationship).

For instance, instead of getting annoyed with his criticism about how she folded the laundry, she told him she would do it her way or he could do it (or redo it) himself.  This was challenging for Tom but, over time, he developed a tolerance for things being less than his standard of perfection.  He also stopped criticizing Anna.

Since Tom had a hard time acknowledging his successes, their couples therapist also encouraged Anna to acknowledge and celebrate Tom's successes and for Tom to learn to take that in.

For example, when he won the Salesperson of the Year Award at his company, he wanted to brush it off, but Anna took him out for a dinner to celebrate.  At first, it was hard for Tom to take in Anna's praise but, over time, he learned to get comfortable with it and feel proud of himself.

As they worked on these issues, over time, Tom and Anna gradually revived their emotional and sexual intimacy.  

There were bumps in the road, but even though progress in individual and couples therapy wasn't linear, they made progress and their relationship improved (see my article: Progress in Therapy Isn't Linear).

Coping With Perfectionism in Your Relationship
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this problem because each couple is unique, but here are some steps you might find useful:
  • Acknowledge the problem and make an agreement to work on it together as a team.
  • Be aware that this problem is probably rooted in early experiences that need to get worked through in therapy.
  • Develop compassion for yourself and your partner.
  • Develop stress management skills, like mindfulness and breathing exercises, to cope with the stress.
  • Think in terms of progress instead of perfection.
Get Help in Therapy
Perfectionism is challenging to change on your own, especially since it's usually rooted in childhood trauma.

Depending upon the problem, you might need to work individually with a trauma therapist as well as a couples therapist.

So, rather than struggling on your own seek help from a licensed mental health professional so you can have a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

As a trauma therapist, I have helped many individual adults and couples to overcome their problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.