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Relationships • Conflicts • Perfectionism, Expectations & Messing up

The Demand for Perfection in Love

There is a certain sort of person who seems – on the surface – a great friend of love. Before they are in a relationship, they may spend a lot of time imagining what love should be like and will bring the highest expectations to bear upon a union; they have an intense yearning for closeness and understanding, which – when someone does eventually come along – they deploy with uncommon kindness and energy. Those who are with them will tend to marvel at how lucky they are to have found, at last, a truly attentive lover, who might cook them meals, help them out with practical tasks and bring thoughtful attention to bear on their varied challenges.

The difficulty emerges when something arrives – as it always will – to cloud the picture. Perhaps one day the partner of this perfectionist lover has to be away for work, or they have to field demands from family or friends. Or else the partner just feels tired, a bit ratty and fed up – not in the mood for too much closeness – and says something a little rough, somewhat hurtful and not ideally gentle. 

And here, the response of the perfectionist lover has a tendency to grow properly volcanic. They may accuse the partner of being hideously unkind, they may sulk for hours or days, they may walk out of the house calling their partner a betrayer and insisting that they never, ever want to see them again. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover, 1887-9

What is going on? The partner may accept that their behaviour has been a little off – but why this intense reaction? Why has the drawbridge gone up so fast and why is the lover now firing twelve machine guns simultaneously in their direction, all because of what was ultimately just a slip or a bit of inattention? The partner may bend every sinew to assure their lover that they do care for them, they may apologise profusely, but the perfectionist lover cannot bring themselves to forgive easily. It might be a full week before order is restored and the lover once again feels in a position to trust – and all because of an argument about a missing phone charger or a slightly delayed meal.

Here we need to explore the likely background of the uncommonly attentive but then also hugely sensitive, reactive and challenging lover. There’s a certain irony that almost certainly they have had very little experience of a loving, good, kind relationship in their childhoods. Their Romanticism springs not from an actual encounter with love, but from its marked absence. They have become perfectionists in love not because they have had perfection, but because they have – alas and here we might feel a burst of genuine pity – had so much exposure to suffering and loneliness. It’s the scale of their deprivation that powers their idealism. They seek perfection because they have never had anything remotely good enough.

Furthermore, their past has taught the perfectionist lover that the only way to survive – and protect the raw defenceless child within them – is to fire a gun at the slightest danger. There need be only a light rustle in the bushes and they will eviscerate the entire landscape. The meaning of their overreaction means ‘never ever again’. 

What one wishes for the wounded perfectionist is that they might start to appreciate that they are applying to adult relationships a survival mechanism that belongs to another time, a mechanism that served them well when they were five or nine but that has no sensible place in their contemporary lives. Their challenge is to believe that someone might actually love them and still get a few things wrong along the way; that someone could genuinely be on their side and make – a few times a week or once or twice a month – a mistake. What one wishes for them, in short, is that they could learn to trust. The perfectionist lover can look forward to a day when they might finally accept a properly complicated and surely rather implausible idea: that they have genuinely found someone who loves them, it’s just that the price of real love is always – by necessity – imperfection.

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