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Are You Projecting Perfectionism on Your Relationship?

Written by Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

It may seem obvious that life can't be perfect, so your relationships can't be perfect either. However, I often notice, in my work, that people project perfectionism on their relationships. It shows up as expecting your partner to do things just as you do them, assuming that you and your partner will always have the same opinion or very similar libidos, to name a few. This leaves you feeling disappointed when your partner does not perform the way that you think they should. It leaves them frustrated that they can never get things right for you and they may even feel confused about what you’re wanting from them. Long story short, it leads to disconnection in your relationship.

I created a post on IG about this topic and ever since, I have known that I wanted to go deeper into this topic. There are a lot of reasons why this pattern can exist and it can be tricky to untangle.

Causes of Projecting Perfectionism

While there are a lot of reasons why you might project perfectionism, I see most of these reasons coming from childhood or early adulthood. Though it certainly is possible that this way of thinking can come from events that occur later in life or a combination of these scenarios.

It is understandable that these patterns of perfectionism arise. We are primed our whole life to strive for perfectionism. It is communicated in school by being graded by percentages, in giving awards for perfect attendance, being rewarded for being the quietest in class and competing for valedictorian.

Early in life, you may have been taught that it is really important to follow the rules and achieve as much as you can. That attention is only given by caregivers when you're reaching outstanding goals or peace only exists in the household when you were perfectly well behaved. Maybe some people in your early life expected that your experience and choices should make them happy. So they put the FULL weight of their emotions and life satisfaction on you. That is a burden and it is okay for you to say so now.

Later in life, we're expected to have perfectly fit bodies, be kind, but not be a push-over, be ambitious, but not bossy or boastful. Be very feminine or very masculine but not too feminine or masculine. If you're not enough you're a loser, if you're too much you're clingy or complicated or unstable or too much work. Once you become parents or leaders you must always make the "right" choice (which is subjective) or your choices will come under fire. This may be less obvious perfectionism, but it is perfectionism. It is communicated in such a way that let's us know that we will not survive socially, academically or in life more generally if we can't perform in the perfect way.

For those with oppressed identities (Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latino, women, differently abled and the LGBTQIA+, etc), the consequences of imperfection can be bodily harm or death. Simple sentences on a page are a vast understatement of the tragic consequences that await when unwritten social rules are not followed with perfection. The anxiety, panic, terror, depression and impeccable attention to detail that is evoked from such experiences is impossible to fully capture on a page.

Perfectionism then becomes more than competition or accomplishment but literal survival. Honing perfectionism and expecting it in all circumstances can feel like the cheat code to life.

I shared all of this to paint a picture that goes beyond labels. It is so easy to say that someone is a perfectionist, annoying, a jerk, a procrastinator, but such labels completely miss the experience that leads to the behaviors that we label. If we want a pattern to change, we need to understand where and why it began. As you can see, the answers are not simple, so compassion and gentle curiosity are necessary. They are your best tools for approaching this work because it allows you to be unassuming and flexible as you navigate the roller coaster that is the human experience.

So, you see now that if perfectionism is expected of you as a means of survival, it would make sense that you would project this in on other areas of your life, including relationships because the need to survive has not gone away. I would also like to point out that the level of perfectionism expected/projected/experienced can be correlated to the privilege experienced. For instance, there may be more perfectionism expected in your life if you are Black/woman/LGBTQIA+ and therefore you may project that in your relationships because it may feel critical to survival.

Ways to Untangle Perfectionism

Identify The Problematic Patterns

If you are projecting perfectionism and you would like to stop, you need to start untangling this by identifying the perfectionism based behaviors that are contributing to problematic cycles in your relationship. It could be that you always expect laundry folded in a very particular way and if it isn't done that way you get cranky and critical with your partner, which leads to disconnection in the relationship. Or maybe you don't like the way that your partner manages your kids' schedules, so you take it over transporting your kids, handling communication with teachers and coaches and planning play dates. This then causes you to feel exhausted and resentful. These are the types of behaviors that you will need to go deeper with. If you are having a hard time identifying your problematic patterns ask your partner for gentle feedback about where they might see perfectionism arising in your relationship patterns. I encourage you to listen with an open mind and an open heart. Do your very best to stay out of defensiveness by taking responsibility for your actions. This can be hard when you're prone to perfectionism. Remember, your partner doesn't want or need a perfect partner, but one that takes responsibility and does the work necessary for a healthy relationship. You can learn more about staying out of defensiveness here.

Working With Thoughts That Keep You Stuck

After you identify the problematic behaviors, next you identify the thinking that keeps these behaviors in motion. For instance, if you're thinking, "I can't let my partner manage this task because if they do it wrong, it will throw off the whole day" this thought is strengthening your belief that there is no room for error, your partner is not capable, there is no opportunity for resilience in your partnership/schedule and adds to your feelings of resentment for managing all of the tasks. What I mean by "no opportunity for resilience" is that you don't believe that it is possible you or your partner could problem-solve an issue if it arose, or that your day or emotions could be managed in such a way that it wouldn't feel like your whole day is off even if something didn't go as planned. You're accidentally assuming that there is no room for growth in your partner's abilities, so then you accidentally prevent opportunities for growth by taking on all of the responsibilities. This is largely due to the fact that you don't like sitting with the uncomfortable emotions or outcomes associated with imperfection. So what do you do with this? Three things:

  • Change Your Thoughts - stop the thought, then dialogue with the thought ("My partner is trying and this can get better" or "I can tolerate discomfort", "This doesn't have to ruin the day"), practice positive affirmations and gratitude outside of these moments this can make affirmations and gratitude easier to access in tough moments. You can practice affirmations and gratitude daily by writing or saying affirmations every morning or using a gratitude journal.

  • Strengthen Your Ability to Manage Your Emotions - If you are a perfectionist you may avoid emotions or manage situations in such a way to prevent certain emotions from arising. This can keep you stuck in situations that miss some of your other needs, like your need for rest, your need to have an equal partner or your need for fun, for example. Now for managing your emotions, if you increase your ability to manage your emotions using coping skills and grounding skills you may be able to try new behaviors and patterns in your relationship. Some coping skills and grounding skills to search online would be progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises and 5 senses grounding techniques. I also always suggest journal writing whenever possible because it can truly do wonders for self-reflections. If you would like to grow in your ability to manage your emotions, check out my free self-regulation and co-regulation guides.

  • Lean Into Discomfort - I'm not going to mince words here, this one sucks real bad. It is so difficult to lean into your fears because you believe you're keeping yourself safe. Acknowledge that for yourself by saying, "This might be hard, but I'm/we're worth the effort." Actually leaning into the effort looks like, deciding where you're willing to try. And you can use coping skills and grounding skills that I mentioned above to help you make progress.

Identifying Your Layered Emotions

Then, you identify the emotions that complicate the cycle that exists, these are often the secondary emotions that show up first to protect the more vulnerable primary emotions. The secondary emotions are often more externally focused and make you feel more justified, stronger and safer. These can complicate the cycle because they often are focused on our partner and can cause us to be critical of our partner. Some examples might be anger, annoyance, anxiety. Anger might help you feel more protected and strong. Annoyance can help you feel more justified by focusing on someone else rather than looking at your own emotions and behaviors. Anxiety can help you feel more in control because you're thinking ahead, in a way. These are not the only secondary emotions, just a few. Our goal, though, is to get to the primary emotions. The primary emotions are more vulnerable and closer to the heart of the issue. A few examples would be fear, loneliness, sadness. Again, these are just a few examples, many other emotions could fit here. Once we identify these primary emotions we can understand ourselves better. When you share these primary emotions your partner can understand you better and you can connect more deeply.

I suggest learning to identify your emotions by noticing the sensations in your body in particular situations and listening to what your body is telling you about your emotions. If this feels hard for you, I suggest trying the How We Feel App. It is a free app that helps you learn to identify your emotions and notice patterns in how you feel. Once you identify your emotions, it is important to give yourself the space to feel and explore them. Once you do this, you can start to identify the needs beneath them.

Identifying And Meeting Needs

It can be hard to identify needs beneath emotions. You can start to get a sense of your needs beneath your feelings by talking with someone you trust like a friend, family member or therapist. You can also journal about your feelings, needs and experiences. If it feels like this isn't helping move the needle, you likely need a therapist to help you identify your blind spot.

Once you identify these needs, it is important to advocate for your needs. This can look like having a conversation that starts with sharing your feelings to help you connect with your partner before sharing your needs. Using "I feel" statements can help. Those are compromised of "I feel _______ about ________ and I need ________." That can sound like,

"I have been feeling sad and resentful about how we break up responsibilities around the house. I take some responsibility in this because I haven't been fully understanding or advocating for my own needs. Now I know that I need us to revisit how we divide up household chores, so we can create a more equitable split."

As you see, you can start with the basic "I feel" statement, then add words and details that are specific to you.

If You Are With Someone Who Expects Perfection

It can be so difficult to live under the weight of impossible standards and feel like your partner just doesn't see or appreciate the effort that you put forth. It's exhausting to always be trying your best and feeling like it never makes a difference. It can make you wonder if you'll ever be enough for them. If you'll ever find connection in the midst of imperfection. Worse yet, it can feel like it creates a hierarchy in the relationship that can feel like a parent/child dynamic and lead to contempt.

This frustration in your relationship dynamic can lead you to paint your partner in a negative light. I want to remind you of what I said earlier about how these patterns can develop in a person and then impact the relationship. I want you to see the hurt younger version of your partner, so that you have enough compassion to communicate with them gently when you share your feelings and needs. This doesn't mean that you need to minimize your pain or needs. I would never want you to do that. It only means that you leave space for two realities in how you communicate. It means that you would communicate with emotion and compassion, so that there is still room for connection in the midst of difficult conversations. You can use this post to help you communicate in a way that will allow you to be heard.

If you communicate your needs and emotions time and again, but it doesn't seem to work, you can work on these concerns in therapy. If that still doesn't work, it is fair that you might end the relationship. I am not saying that you should, or you must. I only want to give you permission (if you need it) to make the choices that take care of you.

If this feels like too much to untangle on your own and you would like to work with me to do this work, contact me using the contact buttons at the top of this page. I would love to be your therapist! However or wherever you begin you work....

I'm wishing you the best on your healing journey! :)

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This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, Therapy Intensives, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy and EMDR Intensives and Couples Intensives. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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