How to Know If You Are Living With a Perfectionist

May 26, 2010
Are the standards that your partner (or parent, sibling or friend) has for herself, and for you, too high, or do you not appreciate the need to do a better job of what needs to be done?

NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles on Living With a Perfectionist.

Circle MandalaTwo years ago, I received an e-mail that said, “I love my wife, but she is a perfectionist and it makes life difficult for me sometimes. Any advice?” I said, “Yes. As a recovering perfectionist, I have several observations that can help you both survive, and even enjoy the journey along the way!”

Then I wrote a chapter about it in The Law of Attraction in Action, Volume 2, published by Wonderful Web Women, and now I’ve decided to include that in this blog as a five-part posting, and also print it in Support4Change’s section on perfectionism. I hope it will help those of you who may be driven crazy by partners, parents, siblings, children, neighbors, co-workers, and bosses who seem to have impossibly high standards for themselves, and for you. Are they asking too much?

By the way, my comments can be valuable for both men and women who haven’t yet learned that life is a lot more fun and a whole lot easier when they can distinguish between those things that are important to do well — and those that are not. However, I find that females are more likely to strive for perfectionism than their partners for a variety of reasons, so I will use female pronouns when referring to the perfectionist spouse, although many women are married to men who make them feel inferior because they don’t live up to their husband’s standards.

Okay, with those introductions out of the way, let me share with you a few examples of what life was like before I learned how to tone down my need to always be right and to do everything as well as I possibly could. That is, before I became a recovering perfectionist.

Typical would be a decision to invite a few friends for a simple dinner party. Before I knew it, I would include twice as many guests and three times the number of dishes I had originally planned. When guests offered to bring something, I’d politely let them know I could handle it all myself.

However, I’d make certain my husband knew how much work I had put into the evening and I expected compliments for my efforts. Though I enjoyed having responsible positions within organizations and in my work, and when doing many projects around the house, from refinishing floors to refinishing the piano, I was sure to tell others of my efforts and would almost always do more than necessary.

One job that particularly sticks in my memory was the time I painted the inside of the garage and put two coats of paint on the wall behind the power saw. The saw never gets moved! Never! No one will ever see that wall unless we sell the house. But I had to make certain it was well painted!

People who don’t live with a perfectionist may think there are worse things than having a spouse who does a pretty good job with almost everything she does. And while you realize you may feel a little less talented in comparison, it is useful to have someone who always remembers the details of bringing salt and mosquito repellent on a camping trip.

As you can imagine, one of the reasons people are attracted to perfectionists is that we do what we say we’ll do and finish tasks when others quit. With us around, the other person doesn’t have to do as much work. However, ask someone who has lived with a perfectionist for several years and you will learn that it is hard to continually be the cheerleader for someone with low self-esteem.

The very traits that attracted you to her in the beginning can drive you apart, or at least cause conflict. For example, when we were newly married, I would wrap presents so elaborately that people would take pictures before they opened them. Yet I would resent it when my husband didn’t share the job. Had I thought about it more, I would have realized that he isn’t at all artistic and doesn’t feel that much effort is necessary. It just wasn’t his thing. Besides, the love he presents with a gift in a brown paper bag is no less sincere than love in a fancy box.

Today, as a recovering perfectionist, I know I have been extraordinarily blessed to be married to someone for fifty years with the strength to put up with me. Fortunately, I got into therapy a little about thirty years ago and worked very hard on my control issues. However, I wish I had started therapy sooner. It would have made our lives, and the lives of our children, much easier. And if my husband had known how to deal with my perfectionism, it would have saved many years of feeling I wouldn’t be loved unless I worked harder. And he would not have needed to wait (usually patiently) while I took twice as long to do a job as I should have.

Take the Is-My-Partner-a-Perfectionist? Quiz

If you suspect your mate is a perfectionist whose traits are damaging your relationship, take the following quiz.

  1. Does your mate often enhance her position at work or in social situations by pursuing jobs that are difficult to do and making certain others know how well she has done?
  2. Does she tend to assume that you have high standards for her even if you don’t say so?
  3. Does she generally hear any comments that counter her opinions as criticism of her as a person?
  4. Is she often impatient with her imperfections and do images of past failures plague her?
  5. Do others frequently complain that the standards she sets for them are too high?
  6. Has she often postponed a job because she hadn’t laid out all the steps needed to do it “correctly,” then become paralyzed at the prospect of not doing it well enough, and end up not doing it at all?
  7. Does she frequently behave as though everything she does is going to be inscribed on her tombstone?
  8. If you start to tell a story about something you recently learned, does she often make certain that you know that she is also aware of what happened?
  9. Does she frequently complain about the incompetence of others, including you?
  10. Does she seem to feel guilty about many things that other people wouldn’t feel guilty about doing?
  11. Does she usually react to a simple statement of disagreement as though she has been seriously attacked, even when the criticism is not rude, angry, or demanding?

Notice that the questions above include words like “always,” “often,” and “usually,” because there are times when doing things well works out fine for everyone. No one wants to fail. Striving for excellence is fine and it’s natural to sometimes want others to share in our pride of a job well done.

However, striving for perfection is something else entirely. It can get tiresome having to continually praise a perfectionist spouse who lets you know that admiration is required for all her efforts, who wants you to have as high of standards as she, and who wants to control every situation. So if you answered yes to half of these questions, the chances are you’re living with a perfectionist.

In the next article in the Living With a Perfectionist series, you will begin to understand the inner struggles of a perfectionist.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read the rest of
the Living With a Perfectionist series.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

21 thoughts on “How to Know If You Are Living With a Perfectionist

  1. Hi Arlene,

    A perfectionist–describes my ex-wife to a “T.” It was an odd pairing–I’m a “big picture” man and a perfectionist in only a few things that really matter to me. She had to have perfection in every detail of every task she tackled. It must have been quite a strain living with me!

    Regards,

    Bob

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  2. Bob,

    I would guess that as much as it was a strain for her, her perfectionism was a strain for you as well, seeing as how she is your ex. Hope you know something you didn’t before and can go into another relationship (if that’s what you want) with a bit more knowledge about this personality style.

    Arlene

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  3. My boyfriend is most definitely a perfectionist. I have learned to just tell him to do something himself because I know I will not do it to his standards. Just about everything deserves a comment – whether it’s me, his boss, coworkers etc… I have tried to explain that just because we do some things different ways doesn’t mean anyone is wrong – just different. Eventually I either stop listening or just change the way I do something – like loading the laundry – just so I don’t have to listen to it anymore. I wish that I did the extra mile because I wanted to, but really it’s because I don’t feel like listening to it anymore.

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  4. Jessica,

    How about you going the extra mile and deciding that you won’t turn yourself inside out just to please him? Yes, I know. Pleasing our partner is part of the bargain of being with someone we love. But it goes both ways. He needs to also please you and decide that he won’t (and can’t) control your life.

    Do you want to spend the rest of your life not being yourself because you are afraid he will make a negative comment about it?

    I recommend you read the rest of my blog posts about living with a perfectionist. The first step is recognizing the other person is a perfectionist. The second step is understanding why perfectionists are the way they are. The third step is gently giving them the love they need, while not allowing them to control the relationship.

    Good luck!

    Arlene

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  5. I also live with a person like that and I am 1 inch away from filling for divorce for my sake and the sake of the kids. Any inputs?
    Thank’s.

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    1. Michel,

      We’re getting ready for a two-week vacation, but I don’t want to leave without giving you a short response.

      To respond more fully, I would need to know how the perfectionism is expressed. However, the important (and difficult) thing to know is that you are the one who is responsible for whether – and how – you respond to your spouse’s perfectionism.

      In my own case, my husband tolerated my perfectionism because he didn’t allow it to affect him. If I was critical about an action of his, he let it go over his head. Eventually we learned to talk it out, but if he knew he was doing the best he could, he didn’t left my criticism annoy him (well, not too much anyway).

      There are, of course, times when a spouse has a good reason to be critical but if it seems that everything you do is not good enough, it’s easy to dismiss all criticism as simply perfectionism. Then you never get down to what can – and should – be changed.

      Good luck.

      Arlene

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  6. My husband is a perfectionist and an extremely intelligent person. He works out and eats well compulsively. He exhausts me. I love him so much but I am so tired of trying to keep up. I actually suffer from anxiety now, and take medication for it.
    He has told me that “no one deserves a gold star for doing things correctly” when I have asked for positive reinforcement, like saying “thank you” for little things. He really is a sweetheart in the end but the little criticisms wear me down. Now, he is trying to reform but I am so sensitive to the slights that all he has to say is ONE tiny correction and I lose my cool. It is affecting my desire for him as well. When we were first married, he actually told me I was orgasm-ing wrong! It has lead to years of pent up frustration. He doesn’t know why I react so sensitively to his criticisms, as he is always interested in how to be BETTER. I say, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? He is sad that he is seen as the cop in the house. But didn’t he put himself there? How do I help correct this dynamic?
    Thank you,
    Stefanie

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    1. Stefanie, I dont have a lot of advice other than to let u know im in the same boat. My husband of 8 yrs is a perfectionist as well – just today im putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher and he jumps in and begins wiping water spots off of the faucet (he cant stand water spots, among many other things). I was like why would u bother when its clear im in the middle of the task and far from done? There will likely b more water spots in about 5 minutes. Plus, theyre just water spots!!!! He thinks unless everything is spotless and tidied up the way HE thinks it ought to b then we live in a pig sty! OMG. This is just one example – and it drives me bonkers. Its super frustrating to feel like NOTHING i do will evet b good enough. Then he doesnt understand why i then let him take over many of the house chores, etc.

      Wanted to reply so u know youre not alone! K

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      1. Btw, stefanie if u figure out how/what to do to improve things, i would love to know! I too have had to take anxiety medicine, though im not sure if its due to the effects of his perfectionism or if i would have needed to start taking it anyway. Can anyone provide insight/research into perfectionism & anxiety effects on spouse??

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  7. Without time to respond individually to both Stefanie and Koco, here are some suggestions from my own experience as the recovering perfectionist in a 52-year-old marriage and from work with clients.

    First, try reading the “Introduction to Perfectionism” on Support4Change — http://bit.ly/IjIE8T. It gives some information that goes beyond what I write in the blog.

    Then, I think you should ask yourself a very important question: Why do I feel the need to defend myself when my husband criticizes me?

    He is able to push your button that says “I am not good enough” in order to feel better about himself. However, if you are satisfied with the job you have done (even if it isn’t up to his standards), then his lack of enthusiasm for your efforts isn’t important. Yes, it would be nice if you likes what you do and says so, but if you absolutely hate what you have done and consider your efforts a failure, his telling you that you’ve done a good job won’t have much effect on you.

    Always remember that your husband is not responsible for your reaction to his perfectionism; that is your job. It won’t be easy to step back and let him be himself while you set about accepting yourself, but that’s about the only way I know how to make changes in a relationship if he isn’t interested in changing.

    To the degree that he sees himself as the “cop in the house,” he has created that dynamic. On the other hand, to the degree that you see him as the cop, you have helped your relationship become organized in that way. Cop and miscreant can’t exist without agreement from both of you to play your roles. Who decided that the house needs a cop?

    In fact, taking time to explore a “cop and offender” relationship (that has likely been created unconsciously) may be a way for you to consciously explore and renegotiate your roles. Here is one way you can do that.

    Sit down sometime when you are not in the middle of a criticism/disagreement conflict and acknowledge that your relationship has a problem toward which both of you have contributed.

    Decide what jobs need to be done: Cleaning the kitchen. Vacuuming the living room. Paying the bills. Keeping in touch with relatives. Making meals (which ones and how complex do they need to be). Etc.

    Decide which one of you is responsible for what job and how often it needs to be done.

    Decide who gets to determine whether the job has been done sufficiently well. Is it the one doing the job or the other person?

    One of the agreements you might make is that no comments may be made about how a job is being done before the job is finished, or maybe no comments at all. The consequence of someone breaking that agreement could be that he (or she) would have to do another task, or take you out to dinner, or finish the job himself, or do something else that might break the cycle of criticism and resentment.

    Remember, if he is trying to be less critical and you lose your cool with just ONE comment, you may want to decide that one comment isn’t so bad. You can handle it; after all, it’s just his belief on how close to perfection you need to come. You can let him have his opinion even when he is pushing your buttons. But how many critical comments might justify “losing it”? The answer to that is something that you two might make a game out of.

    For example, you can decide that if he absolutely can’t keep from making one comment (although he says he is trying to be less critical) that you will agree not to lose your temper. Two critical comments gives you permission to raise your voice. Three comments gives you permission to throw something. Four comments allows you to leave the house and have him finish the job. Etc. This kind of agreement can go a long way toward raising awareness of what is happening to both of you. Making a game out of it might be fun as you raise awareness of how criticisms are affecting your relationship.

    There is always some payoff in the roles we choose in a relationship. What do you gain by what you do and what does he gain by criticizing you?

    It may be true that we don’t necessarily deserve “a gold star for doing things correctly.” But small compliments and thank-you’s are common behaviors that help grease the wheels of relationships. It’s nice to know you are appreciated. But until your husband knows how to make those positive comments (rather than the negative ones he thinks are important to help you meet his standards), you will need to say kind words to yourself. If you know you’ve done as well as you can, let your own appreciation of your work be enough.

    By the way, I thought the comment about “orgasm-ing wrong” a kick. How in the world would he know how your particular body is supposed to have an orgasm? People are funny, aren’t they? And perfectionists can be particularly funny when they are trying hard to create a world in which everything is perfect.

    Hope this helps.

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  8. My question is this, when the perfectionist is letting the world know, though subtly perhaps, about their hardwork and good deeds, do they not at least on some level understand what they are doing? That they are vampires that will never be satisfied and their hard work is a means to an end vs a thankless task done in altruism? We all want to be recognized but we don’t all live to be recognized. When i’m fishing for compliments I know it and feel a little illegitimate about it but not the perfectionist I live with.

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  9. Hey, my best friend is a perfectionist and I am a messy artist. She is starting to drive me INSANE. Can you please give me ways to deal with her?

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    1. Glad you asked for a way to “deal with her” rather than to change her. The first goal is possible, the second is not likely to happen.

      What do you like about her? There must be something that overrides her comments about your messiness. At least I am assuming that that is what she does that annoys you (just as your untidiness must bother her).

      First, focus on that.

      Next, look carefully at how YOU feel about your “messy” style. If you are completely comfortable with it, her comments won’t bother you. After you, you can’t be made to feel guilty about a criticism without your permission.

      However, if your style bothers you, do something about it; not because it bothers HER but because YOU want to straighten things up a little. If you are afraid a clean work area will ruin your artistic creativity, then leave your work messy.

      Remember, you aren’t likely to change her. She isn’t likely to change you. Accepting that both of you see the world differently is the first step toward getting along better.

      If you want more ideas on how to live with a perfectionist, read “How to Love a Perfectionist Without Going Crazy.”

      Arlene

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  10. Bob,

    A strain living with you? How about the strain of LIVING WITH HER !!! Perfectionism kills relationships over time. It is a destroyer. Its abusive. Anyone experienced in this behavior will realize you will never measure up to the perfectionist. Thus,showing a lack over love and understanding. I was married to one for 30 yrs. She demoralized me over time and made me literally sick. It killed our marriage over time.

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    1. I am sorry you were not able to resolve the perfectionism issue during 30 years of what must have been a very difficult marriage.

      There were undoubtedly good reasons why you stayed in the relationship for so long, but it’s too bad you didn’t find a way to either exit earlier or help her become less of a perfectionist.

      However, as I say in How to Love a Perfectionist Without Going Crazy, when the cause of a person’s perfectionism is very deep, it can be extremely hard for them to even see that their high standards are the cause for problems in their relationship.

      I hope you are finding peace and are able to discover some self-confidence that got destroyed in those 30 years.

      Good luck on you and any future relationships.

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  11. I have started a relationship with a guy 9 months ago, though I know he is a perfectionist, I decided I will give it a go and thought I will be compatible. Now we are engaged, and I have 1 child. Sometimes we have conversations about my way of learning a child how to behave and to do things. She is just 6. She must be quiet in the house otherwise she disturbs him. He told her one time to sit and be quiet. Kids are kids, they want to play. Before she stopped playing her game he already tells her, pick this up, throw this away, put this away. Does perfectionistic means that he wants a child also to be perfect. Life isn’t perfect, and that is what makes it interesting. Not this boring everything must be 100% fine and clean and everything must be on it’s place. If the husband keeps his part in the house clean but he doesn’t want to help in the house, how can the wife be a perfectionist if she doesn’t get help from her husband. Sorry for jumping around the points, I am just getting nervous about doing anything, because nothing seems 100 % to him.

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    1. Katelyn,

      Unfortunately, your situation doesn’t bode well for a healthy relationship. Whatever the positive qualities of your fiancée, are they enough to compensate for the kind of adult your child is likely to become with the regiment he offers? Do you love him enough to sacrifice the creativity of a child because she will need to constantly look to others for validation of her choices?

      Unfortunately, that is exactly what will happen unless your future husband can recognize how much his perfectionism deprives him of living more peacefully within himself — and with others. If you go ahead and marry this guy, you will have a hard row ahead.

      Consider the consequence of being a child who must be quiet because an adult doesn’t understand her need to laugh and make “noise” as she interacts with the world. This doesn’t mean your child can’t learn to respect reasonable requests for quiet. But when she is stifled in acting like a child, I strongly suspect she will be an unhappy adult. Always looking to others for validation does not enable one to live with confidence, self-assurance, resilience and compassion.

      If your future partner is willing to look at himself and lighten up, you may be able to make progress for the sake of your daughter. If not, I’m afraid I can’t offer a happy prognosis. I may be wrong, of course, but that’s what it seems to be like from my perspective.

      I recommend you read two pages on the Support4Change website. One gives the affirmations that all children (and adults) need to have self-confidence and creativity. It can be found at: http://bit.ly/1Ex9EOo. Maybe your fiancée would do well to look at that video.

      When you say you are “nervous about doing anything,” that seems like a good reason to take an inventory of whether you two could be a good fit for each other and for your daughter.

      You might find some help in reading my book “How to Love a Perfectionist Without Going Crazy.” Learn about it at:
      http://bit.ly/18Vdju1.

      I also recommend couple counseling before you formally tie the knot.

      This has turned out to be a much longer answer than I had expected when I started, but I really want to encourage you to take a good look at the important decision of marrying this man.

      Arlene

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  12. I am married with two kids with special needs, one with autism. My spouse had ADHD that has gone untreated most of his life. I also have late stage lyme disease and autoimmune disease that affected my functioning for years. I think our marriage is possibly the worst combo ever., a sick wife trying to recover and a spouse with untreated ADHD who grew up in a culture that taught him men are entitled. Most days I have to deal with either or both children being difficult, highly emotional or defiant, though its slowly getting better much of the time. I work while they are in school and during summers and in the past worked full time and even 7 days a week, multiple jobs, to provide for their medical costs. My husband has a good paying job but that’s about where it ends. For years he has been “chronically busy” with Masonic activities, teaching martial arts classes, and just about any reason he can find to not be home. That leaves about 85% of the work on me. Here is all I want of him: come home after work a few times a week so I can go work out and feel less stressed. Don’t blast the TV at bedtime or come home late and make a bunch of noise, which keeps the kids up. (Last week he came home at 10pm and declared he had to make Lasagna for a potluck the next day at work.). Let me cook dinner a few times a week and don’t complain about it. Help out a little with the kids, with bedtime and enforcing rules or even homework or taking them to the park (just do something rather than nothing), try to work with me a little. I can’t even get that from him alot of the time. I am constantly defied and chewed out by him, called a perfectionist because my kids were fighting sleeping together in one room and I took the office and turned it into the younger child’s room. He leaves messes everywhere, (food, clothes, toys and trash in the garage, receipts piled up in our room and the bathroom , never ever compliments me even though I’ve done a great job with getting our kids and family in better order (oldest son went from being on track to residential treatment a few years back to going to a charter school with inclusion), mentions something in passing and expects me to remember it a week later (I have damage from mini strokes so can’t remember everything). In the mornings he kicks back on his cellphone or computer while I rush back and forth getting the kids ready and dealing with their tantrums, drama, trying to get them breakfast and their meds/supplements and out the door on time The most he will do is fill a water bottle up, and then he drives them to school. I don’t understand how I am the perfectionist here if I just want things to run smoothly and everybody to go to bed at a decent hour and the children to do a few chores during the week or even their homework?

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