Perfectionism is not too far from any of our hearts. Certainly, anyone who is on Facebook or Instagram knows that we, just like everybody else, tend to present the perfect image of ourselves on these channels. But: we want to ask the question, how does this affect our marriage?
The topic of perfectionism was suggested by one of our readers, and it’s certainly an interesting one. What is perfectionism? Is it a good thing? How can it impact marriage when one spouse is only satisfied with perfection and the other finds it hard to live up to their standards?
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism usually comes in one of three flavors[i]:
- Self-oriented perfectionism: requiring yourself to be perfect
- Other-oriented perfectionism: requiring other people to be perfect
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: belief that others hold unrealistic expectations about you: believing that others require you to be perfect.
A related concept is perfectionistic self-presentation, which is the desire to be seen as perfect by others[ii]. This includes actions such as self-promotion, desire to hide imperfections, and reluctance to talk about your own imperfections. Obviously needing to be seen as perfect is going to impact a marriage in quite a big way, especially if you’re afraid to be vulnerable around your spouse.
I think it’s helpful to take a step back from the role that perfectionism plays in your marriage and ask, “What kind of perfectionism do we each struggle with?” You’ll want to nuance your response based on whether it is self or other-oriented, or if it socially prescribed.
Is Perfectionism a Good Thing?
There are mixed thoughts on this.
When you have these perfectionistic traits, it is inevitable that you would feel unsatisfied or stressed if you do not meet the standards set on you (by yourself or by perceived others).
Some may argue that it is useful or essential for a high-achieving life while others argue that it is unhelpful or detrimental to your wellbeing.
Some researchers have differentiated between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism, in which adaptive perfectionism is seen as a form of motivation and hard-working attitude, and so is linked to positive outcomes.
Adaptive perfectionism is correlated with higher achievement but neither perfectionism nor achievement are correlated with life satisfaction[iii]. However, both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism are linked to highly negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, as well as a variety of interpersonal problems, which we’ll get to in just a moment[iv]. So even if perfectionism helps drive you to succeed it comes at a steep cost.
So the bottom line is it may help you achieve more but it will cost you. For me, I think perfectionism is contrary to the gospel. Those of us who are born again are all valuable, fallible children of God. So our worth is something instilled in us and given to us but we also acknowledge that we have an innate, undeniable potential to fail.
Perfectionism is incapable of helping with either point, although it attempts to. It cannot provide worth because when is perfect ever perfect enough? And it cannot preserve us from proving that we have a fallen nature: that we sin, we act in ways that are not congruent with our values or with God’s values, we let our spouses down from time to time.
So in my mind, perfectionism just becomes a breeding ground for shame. For that reason, it is unhelpful.
The Effect of Perfectionism on Marriage
So let’s look at how this touches marriage specifically.
The reality is that perfectionism in marriage is more likely to help us get our ugly on than anything else. Let’s break this down according to the three kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed.
The fear of being seen as imperfect may prompt you to hide parts of yourself from your spouse. Physically, yes, but I’m thinking mainly in terms of psychologically. This really then becomes a fear of intimacy: you can’t present a perfect version of yourself, so now you must conceal parts of yourself[v].
In so doing you create a barrier towards getting to know each other more deeply. But more importantly, you also miss out on the opportunity of disarming the perfectionism. If your spouse is a safe person, it is a profound experience to let someone see parts of you that you are ashamed about and to have them still accept and love and embrace you.
Also this touches your sex life. The belief that you have to be the perfect sexual partner (one expression of self-oriented perfectionism) is significantly related to marital distress and sexual dysfunction, particularly for men but also for wives[vi].
Requiring other people to be perfect leads to a variety of unhelpful interpersonal behaviors. That’s a nice way of saying that it can make you nasty. These behaviors can include authoritarian, exploitative and dominant actions towards other people, as well as the increased likeliness of blaming other people for problems rather than blaming yourself[vii].
What you’re likely to see is more conflict or more avoidance, and you’re likely to see wives taking on more self-blame or more likely to act out of self-interest than for the benefit of the marriage. And you’re likely to see husbands launching into conflict more readily.
As with self-oriented perfectionism, it’s going to impact your sex life too. As a wife if you have a high level of other-oriented perfectionism towards your husband the research shows that the higher that level of perfectionism, the lower your husband’s sexual satisfaction is likely to be and also the lower your own sexual satisfaction[viii].
The issue here is that other-oriented perfectionism creates very high expectations which make it harder to adjust to being happily married.
This is also linked to bad behavior. This kind of perfectionism is often linked to hostile and dominant behaviors as well as higher levels of blame and outwardly directed anger. It’s also linked to acting in an overly controlling way in intimate relationships and not letting your guard down[ix] . If you think everyone around you is expecting perfection from you it’s going to be hard to open up, even to your spouse.
As researchers studied 76 couples with regards to this kind of perfectionism, they found that it was strongly linked to lower marital satisfaction for both the self and the spouse. So this kind of perfectionism reduced happiness for both spouses in the marriage.
Socially prescribed perfectionism can lead to biases in how spouses behavior is interpreted, eg the perfectionist spouse may see simple requests like “Could you help tidy the living room?” as threats or attacks along the lines of “you are not doing enough to tidy the house”[x]
Couples (both men and women) with high levels of this trait showed more blaming, sarcasm and demands for change. If you think about it, we all tend to react with hostility when we feel perfectionistic standards are being imposed on us.
Husbands and wives both experienced reduced sexual satisfaction when they though their spouse required them to be perfect. And that’s a key point. It’s the expression of those beliefs that’s more impactful than actually having them.
Bottom line: perfectionism probably is not helping your marriage at all.
We want to help your marriage so we created an exercise to go with today’s episode that steps you through some specific tasks to uncover and challenge your own beliefs. So this is for the perfectionist. However, if you are listening today and are married to the perfectionist, the last page has instructions for how to gently and courageously confront your spouse and give them the opportunity to see why they may want to change. You can get access to this and all our other bonus content by becoming a patron of the Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
How to Deal with Perfectionism
We’ve seen so far that perfectionism comes in three flavors, none of which are particularly conducive to a healthy, trusting marriage. So what can you do about it?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one great option and has been shown to be highly effective[xi] . The goal with this kind of work is to increase self-compassion and change unhelpful beliefs. The exercise for today’s episode uses these principles.
One way to challenge yourself is around avoidance.
Believing that you have to do things perfectly can often cause you to avoid doing them altogether, thinking it’s better not to try and complete a specific task than to try, and end up failing[xii]. This pattern of behavior means that your beliefs about the negative consequences of being imperfect are never disproved. You’re always avoiding things for fear of doing them imperfectly, so you never get to see that doing them imperfectly actually doesn’t have as many bad consequences as you’re imagining.
So exposing yourself to situations where you perform imperfectly allows you to see that nothing bad comes of it, removing the belief that you have to be perfect. So: that went imperfectly and I’m still OK. Seeing that helps undermine the belief that I have to do it perfectly in order to be OK.
Communication and Conflict
But I’d like to help with communication and conflict as this is how it often becomes a struggle in marriage.
Now if you are perfectionistic your challenge is that being in that frame of mind makes it really hard to hear how you’re impacting yourself or your marriage. So I want to be gentle here. But the research does show that self-oriented perfectionism leads to depression because it creates conflict and interpersonal problems, both of which lead to isolation[xiii].
And other-oriented perfectionism is linked to low relationship quality for both the perfectionist and the non-perfectionist[xiv]. We saw earlier how socially-prescribed perfectionism is also an issue.
On the upside, you can not only choose to address the perfectionism, but you can also mitigate its effects by developing new communication and new conflict skills.
Let’s talk about this first for the non-perfectionist spouse and then for the perfectionist spouse.
For the non-perfectionist spouse
- Conflict often arises when perfectionist views or standards are imposed upon you. Learning to respond to this without resorting to conflict will improve relationship quality[xv]. Can you find another way to respond that results in a better outcome for your marriage?
- Be aware of how you speak to your spouse. Make it clear that you love and value your spouse irrespective of how well they achieve. Perfectionism is often caused by expectations placed on a person by family members or friends. So it may not have been caused by you but you actions can still contribute[xvi]. It may be that you are unwittingly — even innocently — reinforcing those perfectionistic beliefs.
- Provide the motivation to change. Many perfectionists won’t see that they have a problem, thinking that everyone else just fails to meet their standards[xvii]. So try to help them see how their attitudes are affecting you.
- Also, make sure you look after your own self-esteem. Understand that the constant criticism you receive from your spouse is not a reflection on you, it’s a problem with your spouse and how they see things[xviii]. This is differentiation.
- When dealing with socially prescribed perfectionism, learn to interpret your spouse’s requests and actions in a less absolute way: try to stop seeing them as unreasonable or demanding perfection so as not to become distressed or angered by them[xix]. Learn to engage with your spouse more positively, rather than avoiding them or arguing whenever you perceive them as demanding perfection from you.
- Finally, stand your ground: trying to play a game of give and take with a very critical perfectionist doesn’t work because they want things 100% their way and aren’t satisfied with anything else. So if you come into conflict on issues that are important to you then you may need to stand your ground and let them know you aren’t going to give in, without being unpleasant about it[xx].
For the perfectionist spouse
- Learn to express yourself in a way that does not lead to conflict when you feel your spouse has fallen short of your expectations. Just be aware of how easily what you say can come across as criticism.
- Learn to accept your spouse falling short of expectations. Especially to do with sex, because their belief that they are falling short of your expectations is going to be very bad for their self-esteem, sexual enjoyment/ability, and for the marriage as a whole[xxi]. It’s easy to focus on the disappointments — and I’m not asking you to be blind — but if you’re not enjoying all of the good things your spouse brings to your marriage you’re really robbing yourself of so much joy, and think about how that impacts your spouse too.
- Try to avoid falling into demand-withdraw cycles when you feel criticized or that you are falling short.
I hope that as you go through this, from either perspective, you are able to move towards a more gracious, compassionate view of yourself and others. This can only bring more rest and joy to your experience of marriage and life. And as always, feel free to reach out if we can be of more help.
[i] Haring, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism, Coping, and Quality of Intimate Relationships.”
[ii] Habke, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism and Sexual Satisfaction in Intimate Relationships.”
[iii] Stoeber and Becker, “Perfectionism, Achievement Motives, and Attribution of Success and Failure in Female Soccer Players.”
[iv] Blasberg, “Perfectionism and Positive and Negative Outcomes.”
[v] Martin and Ashby, “Perfectionism and Fear of Intimacy.”
[vi] Habke, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism and Sexual Satisfaction in Intimate Relationships.”
[vii] Haring, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism, Coping, and Quality of Intimate Relationships.”
[viii] Habke, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism and Sexual Satisfaction in Intimate Relationships.”
[ix] Haring, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism, Coping, and Quality of Intimate Relationships.”
[xi] Steele et al., “Psycho-Education and Group Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for Clinical Perfectionism.”
[xii] Shafran, Egan, and Wade, Overcoming Perfectionism.
[xiii] Mackinnon et al., “Caught in a Bad Romance.”
[xiv] Arcuri, “Dyadic Perfectionism, Communication Patterns and Relationship Quality in Couples.”
[xvi] Shafran, Egan, and Wade, Overcoming Perfectionism.
[xvii] Lavender and Cavaiola, Impossible to Please.
[xix] Haring, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism, Coping, and Quality of Intimate Relationships.”
[xx] Lavender and Cavaiola, Impossible to Please.
[xxi] Habke, Hewitt, and Flett, “Perfectionism and Sexual Satisfaction in Intimate Relationships.”