Many years ago, I was briefly in a relationship with a man who was particularly controlling. The result was that I ended up sick because of emotional stress. When a friend came to see me, she was concerned enough at how tired and anxious I looked to help me move away from him.
When I think back now, I can see the picture more clearly. He did care for me, which is why I stayed, but the thing that made me so unhappy was the constant criticisms. Nothing I did was ever “right” or good enough.
It started with my cooking, which I have to say is pretty good. But it wasn’t the style he liked, so he sent me off to cooking classes at his expense, which was a lovely gift. But still my cooking wasn’t perfect. Then he was at me because I put on weight. Warning: It’s not a wise thing to teach a chocolate addict how to make chocolate desserts.
His criticism went all the way down to how I spoke. “You use too many adjectives,” he chastised.
“But I’m a writer. It comes with my nature, which is why I have a good editor,” I laughed.
He didn’t laugh. I was always “too” something.
After the relationship ended, I realised he was what I now term an RP — “relationship perfectionist”. He had to have people be perfect, had an extremely fixed mindset of what the “right” behaviour was, and tried to impose his values on every relationship he’d ever had. Relationship perfectionists destroy everything they love because of the enormous pressure they put on everybody — not just partners, but friends, family and employees: even his cleaning ladies never lasted.
Beware, it is impossible to be in a happy relationship with them.
There are telltale signs. When relationship perfectionists talk about the past, they rant on about the faults of each and every partner or friend. “She was too …”, or “not … (blah blah) enough”.
But in private they are just as brutal on themselves. I remember finding him scowling at himself in the mirror, muttering about how ugly he was becoming. Though he did often crow about his achievements, nothing he ever did was right enough for him either — climbing higher and higher up the greasy work pole yet always feeling disappointed in his own efforts.
In retrospect, my imperfections were a projection of his own internal shame and perhaps an unconscious sense that he wasn’t worthy enough himself to be happy.
This man was an extreme RP. But I see and hear the phenomenon everywhere around me. When I was a sex and relationships writer and radio presenter on Triple M, I always heard the same story: “He never … she always … she can’t … he should.”
Everyone wants their partner to be perfect and to rescue them from themselves: happy ever after in the suburbs. This is normal relationship argy-bargy. But there is a sliding scale of when such demands become dangerous and destructive. Hardcore relationship perfectionists can’t be satisfied and will undo you at every turn.
Even if partners do change to accommodate an RP’s standards, there are no rewards offered because only the negatives are highlighted. It’s as if the relationship perfectionist can’t settle into anything being right, needing to keep sabotaging and moving on towards that ever-elusive nirvana.
World-renowned relationships guru and professor of psychology John Gottman writes in his international bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Workto be aware of such perfectionism and nip it in the bud before it destroys your relationship.
“Too often, a marriage gets bogged down in ‘if onlies’,’’ he writes. “If only your spouse were taller, richer, smarter, neater, or sexier, all of your problems would vanish. As long as this attitude prevails, conflicts will be very difficult to resolve.
“Until you accept your partner’s flaws and foibles, you will not be able to compromise successfully. Instead, you will be on a relentless campaign to alter your spouse. Conflict negotiation is not about one person changing, it’s about negotiating, finding common ground and ways that you can accommodate each other.” The Centre for Clinical Interventions (a West Australian government initiative) has an online warning for perfectionists: that though having high standards and goals may help people achieve, often these standards get in the way of our happiness and can impair performance.
“This is the paradox of perfectionism … The relentless striving for extremely high standards for self and others … is at huge cost to you.”
The fact is, if having to live up to the standards of an RP makes partners like me sick — it makes them sick too.
Experts such as Danielle Molnar, a psychologist at Brock University in Canada, suggest perfectionism should be considered as a risk factor for disease in the same way as obesity and smoking. “We’re always promoting perfectionism … but it’s such a strong factor for so many illnesses that I think it should be considered by doctors as part of a patient’s long-term health,” says Dr Molnar. Studies have shown that perfectionists are more prone to irritable bowel disease, insomnia and chronic stress response, meaning the body is always in threat mode. This is toxic to the immune, digestive and cardiovascular systems. Conversely, people who feel loved in a relationship and are loving have less incidence of cardiac diseases.
Social media further encourages relationship perfectionism in today’s society, forcing people to raise the bar to compete with friends. Doctored images set up false expectations of beauty, and other people’s seemingly fabulous relationships are a trigger for those RPs terrified of their own failures.
US psychologist and anger expert Lynne Namka says the “need to be right” defence was probably learnt early in life when the RP didn’t have power and someone else was critical, angry or abusive towards them. But, she says: “What we all want down deep when we strip away the defences of control is to be loved. We want to feel safe. We want to be heard and understood.”
Her message to the perfectionist is this: “Ask yourself, ‘do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?’ ” I think those in tortured relationships with RPs might want to ask themselves the same questio
Reader comments from The Australian republished here.