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.
MInd you, I think the entire obsession in todays culture with “Perfection” is part of the reason why we are a nation of self -obessed, way over-stressed, anxiety ridden, depressed control freaks.
The message children are getting constantly is that they have to “achieve” highly, they must get “top marks” at everything they do and children are shoved into too many activities….this striving for perfection is causing us all such problems.
Slow down and chill out!
Ah…no wonder my relationship is sound. I get frustrated that my husband is a “near enough is good enough” sorta bloke, but at least he can’t demand any more from me!
But quite seriously? I know what you mean.Controlling critical men always did my head in. If I went out with someone and they showed the slightest inclination to be like this? I’d ditch them in a flash.
I firmly believe it is a LOT to do with your own parents and how you were taught to value yourself, for women, mostly from their father.
I was lucky in that I had a wonderful father who taught me of my own value and never critisised my mum…far from it. Even on his deathbed he was saying she was the most wonderful woman on earth and he still couldn’t believe she’d married him. Oh how he loved her, but she adored him too and nearly 10 years after his death, she still says he was the most wonderful man on the planet. 🙂
I read somewhere that the happiest homes are those which support each other getting the most out of their lives. The least happy are those beset with rules. It was a light-bulb moment.
Don’t. It brings back memories. People who want to change you to suit their needs? Run, run as fast as you can, they will destroy you, then move on to the next victim. Just be glad you escaped the life from hell, and count yourself lucky. You deserve better then one of these sicko’s.
@arlys Yes. That’s the message we need to get out to young females. It seems to me, that women who end up in these awful DV relationships, don’t know when to “run”at the very beginning. When you read their stories, almost uniformly, the signs that he was controlling and nasty were there from the very beginning…just that the woman didn’t see them or ignored them or somehow thought it was proof of his love and devotion 🙁
It feels like in another three columns I will know every relationship the author has ever had….
It’s very simple. If it, the relationship, doesn’t feel right then get out… and fast. Don’t ever look back.
@Charles J Very simplistic advice in my honest opinion…some relationships are worth fighting for, some arent…if you just advise people to give up as soon as they dislike something thats not really helping the couple is it…its just rewarding perfectionism. That is afterall the point of the article.
There are simple scenarios though…if your husband hits you or tortures you…then thats a very good indication that its time to get help and ultimately end the relationship. If youre just sick of your husband watching the footy and not giving you enough attention every 2nd night of the working week…then that could be worth negotiating and overcoming as partners.
@Charles J I basically agree with you Charles, but unfortunately, some people don’t seem to have the skill to know the difference between what feels right and what is just the uncertainty of not knowing someone that well.
I firmly believe it’s all about our own parents. How we are parented is the framework for our adult relationships. And too many people do come from quite dysfunctional parenting, so don’t really know how to make sound judgements and what to expect in a good relationship.
Girls especially get this from our dads. How our dad treats our mother and what our fathers show us, defines our entire life. And boys see this too and learn how to treat women based on what their dad is like with their mum. In single parent families, these roles CAN be filled by significant others of that sex. For sure. But women need to value themselves and sadly, i do think that in this era of loads of single mums who are constantly dating and their kids are seeing a succession of men come and go and often treating their mum like crap….it’s a worrying thing for the children to witness.
such people are a nightmare
sorry for your pain
assuredly many women have the same issue including mothers
Too much information.
It’s good to see you have some sympathy for the RP. After all, it is a genetic disorder.
““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,” ”
This is actually interesting because a remember reading about voice dialogue therapy and they talked about the so called ‘heavyweight sub personalities’ and one of those is the ‘the perfectionist’…others were ‘the protector’ and ‘the pusher’.
If any of those took control of someones personality, then it tended to involved repression of ‘the weakers selves’ like the ‘playful child’ or ‘the feminine/masculine side’ respectively.
Everything in the end ultimately comes back to trying to create ‘an aware ego’ where the person is in balance and no one personality is repressing and blocking the others.
If you believe in this, which some people might find completely ridiculous, then that would agree with your advice about having more balanced standards and being more aware of your stronger traits that might be in effect displacing or bullying the other aspects of your personality that you need.
He wasn’t bothered by the number of times you used “I, me and my”? Pretty laid back, I’d say.
You thought he was too controlling. Aren’t you just doing the same thing? Are you being a relationship perfectionist? I’d be interested in his side of the same story.
@Paul It would be nice if he got the right of reply!
No women are controlling!
@John I think she was implying that this was just as common in women. “He never … she always … she can’t … he should.” It’s just that her example was a man since she was in a relationship with one. Women are just as likely to have this obsessional perfectionistic personality type. Unfortunately platitudes don’t help.
Part of the problem seems to be that men aren’t allowed or aren’t interested in writing these relationship pieces so it always sounds one sided.