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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Perfectionism: A Marriage Killer

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2010 13 Jul
Perfectionism: A Marriage Killer

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She leaves her dirty toothbrush laying on the bathroom counter," Cal said in earnest during a recent counseling session.

"Yes?" I questioned, wondering about his concern.

"I've asked her not to do it, and I think she does it now just to spite me. Why else would she keep doing something she knows bugs me?"

"I don't know," I said, wondering why he was being serious about this trivial matter.

"She also smacks her food," he continued. "I bring it to her attention and that seems to just make her angrier. I think she's being passive-aggressive."

"Don't you think she's eaten that way for most of her life, Cal?" I questioned. "Isn't it likely this is simply a habit and it doesn't need to be that big of a deal?"

"But it is a big deal to me!" he said emphatically. "No one seems to get that."

"I'm getting it," I reassured him. "I can clearly see that these things bother you and you'd like your wife to show she cares by changing these things."

"Yes, yes!" he said.

"Your struggle with your wife over these behaviors has caused you a lot of anguish, hasn't it?" I asked Cal.

"You wouldn't believe the power struggles we've had," he said, appearing dejected.

"I can't help but wonder, however, if these issues are part of a pattern of perfectionism in you? Have you considered that possibility?"

"She certainly seems to think so," he said slowly. "I don't see the big deal in what I'm asking for."

A woman voiced similar issues of perfectionism in a recent email:

Dear Dr. David. I can't seem to do anything right for my husband. I'm always failing to meet the standard he sets for me. He doesn't like the way I cook, the way I clean the house, the way I let my car get dirty, and even the way I fold the laundry. It's gotten ridiculous. I've now become so bitter that he's right when he senses I don't want to do these things for him. He criticizes me for things he would never criticize others for, or even himself. I am not critical of him, but he won't let off me. It's beginning to affect our marriage. What can I do to get him to back off? Please help.

It is well understood that perfectionism is a primary killer of relationships. The perfectionist often expects more from others than they expect from themselves. At the very least perfectionists see faults in another, amplifies them, while minimizing their own weaknesses. This combination is lethal to a marriage.

Scripture says, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves." (Romans 15:1)  Notice not only that we are to bear with the weaknesses of others, but the last part of the verse emphasizes "… not to please ourselves."  I suspect when we focus on the weaknesses of others we may indeed be pleasing ourselves. We want the world to be the precise way we want it to be!

Consider the many detrimental aspects of perfectionism:

  • We become obsessed with relatively trivial matters.
  • We make a trivial matter of utmost importance.
  • We declare these matters to be moral (right and wrong) in nature, when they are not.
  • We become militaristic in pursuing them.
  • We allow division to creep in, with the matter becoming more important than the relationship.
  • The matter becomes wrapped in anger, criticism and resentment.

I've seen time and again where something as ridiculous as a collection of old newspapers becomes the lightning rod around which countless arguments occur. While the collection of newspapers may indeed by annoying—as is the toothbrush on the counter, or the dirty shoes worn on the carpet—are these issues really the sword we choose to die on?

Having raised two sons, I had ample opportunities to "choose my battles." They were always testing my patience and pushing the limits. I discovered the hard way that their taking my sports socks was hardly reason to have a bad day. I've found the same to be true in marriage: something not going the way I think it "ought" to go is hardly reason for a fight I can never win. 

So, let me offer a few simple suggestions:

First, waiting for your mate to be perfect is like waiting for a train that will never arrive. It is not going to happen. When you said, "I do," you agreed in principle to bear with their weaknesses. Don't let small matters become large.

Second, these shortcomings are what make us unique people. They add texture to our relationships. Step back and see if you can smile at some of the things that bug you, remembering when those same foibles were endearing, and rediscover those fond emotions. Remember you have them too!

Third, choose your battles. If something really is important enough to bring to their attention, then do so. But, choose carefully. You cannot make every issue something of importance, and doing so may say more about you then it does about them. Also, note that a marriage fraught with battles is soon a marriage in trouble.

Fourth, remember that their shortcomings are not likely to be passive-aggressive maneuvers or attempts to hurt you. They are simply old habits and patterns of behavior they had long before they met you. Don't take them personally. It's not all about you.

Finally, these shortcomings must be kept in perspective. They aren't that big a deal. They are seldom reason to cause tension and conflict in your marriage. Let them go. Don't allow these minor issues to crowd out the many positive elements of your marriage.

I'd like to hear your opinions about perfectionism in marriage.  

July 13, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.