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An Exploration of Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism as it Relates to Intimate Relationships

By Sara

Perfectionism is the desire to be faultless, a fear of imperfection, equating errors as personal defect, and viewing perfection as the only route to personal acceptance (Greenspon, 2008). Generally, perfectionism tends to be viewed in a negative context; however, perfectionism has two aspects. Castro-Fornieles et al. (2007) defined perfectionism as “a personality characteristic involving a tendency to place excessive emphasis on precision and organization, the setting of and striving for unrealistic personal standards, critical self-evaluation if these standards are not reached, excessive concern over mistakes, and doubts about the quality of personal achievement” (p. 562). Perfectionism manifests itself in two different forms, adaptive or maladaptive. Mainly perfectionism is only viewed as being maladaptive; however according to Bieling, Israeli, & Antony (2004) individuals outside of clinical and personality psychology tolerate perfection and even encourage it due to perfectionism being associated with important rewards in sports, business, science, and academics. Bielieng’s et al. (2004) research, which consisted of exploring the various factors of the two types of perfectionism (maladaptive and adaptive), was necessary in viewing the negative aspects associated with being a perfectionist as well as the positives.

perfectionism-article-oklahomaCurrently perfectionism is associated with a variety of topics related to negative and positive outcomes, such as in athletics, abnormal personality development, depression, and intimate relationships. Research on perfectionism and intimate relationships provides information on how perfectionism effects intimate relationships in a negative manner (Flett, Hewitt, Shapiro, & Rayman, 2001; Haring, Hewitt, & Flett, 2003; Martin & Ashby, 2004; Shea, Slaney, & Rice, 2006; Ashby, Rice, & Kutchins, 2008). Many of the articles focus on maladaptive perfectionism and the harm it ultimately causes the intimate relationship (Haring, Hewitt, & Flett, 2003; Martin & Ashby, 2004; Shea, Slaney, & Rice, 2006; Ashby, Rice, & Kutchins, 2008). The research also focuses on therapeutic procedures that therapists can implement into their practice (Martin & Ashby, 2004; Lopez, Fons-Scheyd, Morúa, & Chaliman, 2006; Ashby, Rice, & Kutchins, 2008; Hewitt, Habke, Lee-Baggley, Sherry, & Flett, 2008)
Adaptive Verses Maladaptive Perfectionism

Adaptive perfectionism is characterized as a normal, healthy type of perfectionism and is defined by deriving satisfaction from achievements made from intense effort but tolerating the imperfections without resorting to the harsh self-criticism that characterizes maladaptive perfectionism (Stoltz & Ashby, 2007). Adaptive perfectionists work well in environments that require cooperation. They generally may not feel compelled to take on leadership roles, but they are more prone to seek joint relationships (Stoltz & Ashby, 2007). Stoeber and Otto (2006) state there are some desired psychological outcomes associated with adaptive perfectionism. These outcomes are self-esteem, life satisfaction, positive affect, emotional regulation, exam performance and academic achievement, study behavior, school motivation, career decision-making self-efficacy, active coping, secure adult attachment, interpersonal adjustment, and perceived social support.

Maladaptive perfectionism is defined by having high personal performance standards and tendencies to be extremely self-critical in self-evaluations (Rice & Stuart, 2010). Maladaptive perfectionists possess a need to control their environment and when events do not go as planned, they develop negative attitudes (Stoltz & Ashby, 2007). They also view their environments as competitive and approach relationships more aggressively. They approach their work with an assertive nature and believe that they must achieve goals in their own way. Maladaptive perfectionists are also more likely to seek positive feedback from the environment and attempt to gain approval from their peers. Therefore, if they see imperfection in their lives, they are more apt to become discouraged and seek an alternative way to gain acceptance (Stoltz & Ashby, 2007). Some psychological maladjustments and problematic functioning associated with maladaptive perfectionism are depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, stress, eating disorders, emotional deregulation, recurrent physical pain and other medical problems, insecure adult attachment, marital and premarital difficulties, and less desirable academic performance (Chang as cited in Rice & Stuart, 2010). Both maladaptive and adaptive forms of perfectionism can moderate an individual’s response to disruptive events. However, for maladaptive perfectionists events that can cause loss of status, worth, and failure can result in behavioral avoidance and withdrawal (Bieling et al., 2004).

Perfectionism has a significant influence on intimate relationships. According to research, intimate relationships can be classified into five different categories: both adaptive, both maladaptive, one adaptive and one maladaptive, one adaptive and nonperfectionistic, and one maladaptive and nonperfectionistic (Ashby, Rice & Kutchins, 2008). Research also shows a large association of fear of intimacy in these relationships that contain a perfectionistic mindset (Martin & Ashby, 2004).
Categories of Perfectionism

Hewitt & Flett (as cited in Seo, 2008) states that perfectionism is comprised of self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism is defined as setting exacting standards for oneself and evaluating one’s own behavior stringently (Hewitt & Flett as cited in Kobori & Tanno, 2005). Socially prescribed perfectionism is characterized by people’s beliefs or perceptions that the influential people in their lives are putting unrealistic standards on them, evaluating them severely, and exerting pressures on them to be absolutely perfect (Hewitt & Flett, 1991a). Other-oriented perfectionism is described as having unrealistic standards for significant others, placing the importance on other persons’ perfection, and critically evaluating others’ performance. This behavior is extremely similar to self-oriented perfectionism; however it is directed outward on others instead of inward (Hewitt & Flett, 1991a). Other-oriented perfectionism is also correlated with self-confidence and competitiveness (Bieling et al., 2004).

Hewitt, the author of one of the most widely used perfectionism measure scales proposes that self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other oriented perfectionism strictly fall into the maladaptive category (Hewitt & Flett, 1991b). Research, however shows that self-oriented perfectionism can be categorized by several adaptive qualities (Klibert, Langhinrichsen-Rohling & Saito, 2005). These qualities are composed of being resourceful, having positive affect, being assertive and conscientious, and finally being motivated intrinsically (Klibert et al., 2005). Socially prescribed perfectionism is generally more associated with maladaptive characteristics such as submissive behavior, shame-proneness, depression, diminished self-esteem, irrational fears, maladaptive thinking patterns and coping, and other manifestations of maladaptive symptomatology, including maladjustment like ideas of suicide (Blankenstein & Dunkley; Blankstein, Flett, Hewitt & Eng ; Flett, Hewitt, Blankstein & O’Brien; Hewitt & Flett; Wyatt & Gilbert as cited in Mills & Blankstein, 2000). Clinically, aspects of socially prescribed perfectionism can be more detrimental to a person’s mental health than the other types of perfectionism due to the fact that it has such a high correlation with maladaptive characteristics (Bieling et al., 2004).
Perfectionism and Intimate Relationships

The influence of perfectionism in many facets of intrapersonal and interpersonal relations has been a critical research focus. Perfectionism impacts the interpersonal dynamics of intimate relationships. Intimate relationships can be defined as close interpersonal and romantic relationships (Shea, Slaney & Rice, 2006). Burns (1983) proclaims that “perfectionism in a spouse can destroy a marriage” (p. 219). Adaptive perfectionism is correlated positively with relationship satisfaction, whereas maladaptive perfectionism is correlated with relationship dissatisfaction (Shea et al., 2006).

Burns (as cited in Ashby et al., 2008) states that perfectionists can have disturbed intimate relationships because they respond defensively to criticism. They may have a tendency to withdraw to avoid disclosing their own imperfections, and they may also apply their perfectionistic standards to others, becoming disappointed when the standards are not met. Beck (as cited in Ashby et al., 2008) claims that perfectionists have trouble in relationships because they anticipate that they will ultimately receive rejection when they do not achieve their perfectionistic standards.
Intimacy Regarding Relationships

Dandeneau and Johnson (1994) define intimacy “as a relational event in which trusting self-disclosure is responded to with communicated empathy” (p. 368). Descutner and Thelen (1991) show that such deep self-disclosure can increase one’s sense of vulnerability; however, to achieve true intimacy, individuals must risk revealing their vulnerabilities to another person.

Intimacy is a factor that can enhance relationships and promote relationship adjustment (Heller, Wood, Waring, McElrath, Lefcoe & Weisz as cited in Martin & Ashby, 2004). The ability to create and sustain intimacy with their partner can help individuals cope with the problems that might occur in relationships (Martin & Ashby, 2004). Avoidance of intimacy, however, can cause the relationship to be less than satisfying (Prager as cited in Martin & Ashby, 2004).

Researchers (Beck, 1988; Descutner & Thelen, 1991; Merves-Okin, Amidon & Bernt; Waring, 1991) have identified different components of intimacy. These different facets of intimacy are acceptance, self-disclosure, conflict resolution, affection, cohesion, sexuality, compatibility, and autonomy. The degrees of intimacy can be related to the feelings of mutual understanding (Heller & Wood as cited in Martin & Ashby, 2004). Intimacy also is related to positively affecting the relationship satisfaction over a period of time (Dandeneau & Johnson, 1994).
Perfectionism Categories and Intimate Relationships

Research (Ashby et al., 2008) has found that there are five categories of perfectionism that are expressed in intimate relationships. These categories are: both adaptive, both maladaptive, one adaptive and one maladaptive, one adaptive and nonperfectionistic, and one maladaptive and nonperfectionistic. The data indicated that when both partners were maladaptive perfectionists, they were going to have a less functioning relationship (Ashby et al., 2008). In contrast, couples who were both adaptive developed more functional intimate relationships (Ashby et al., 2008). Maladaptive perfectionism in one partner decreased the likelihood of a higher quality relationship, except when paired with a nonperfectionist (Ashby et al., 2008). Adaptive perfectionists who were paired with a nonperfectionist had a higher chance of a relationship that was functional and satisfying (Ashby et al., 2008).

Habke and Flynn (2002) state, “when considering the issues of adjustment in relationships, the most obvious conclusion must be that perfectionists are prone to poor quality relationships” (p. 165). Ashby et al. (2008) state that the poor quality of relationships was particularly evident in relationships characterized by maladaptive perfectionism. However, those relationships only seem to lead to negative outcomes when those inhabiting maladaptive perfectionism pair with each other.

Examples of the many problems that having a maladaptive perfectionist as a partner include a tendency to be excessively sensitive to criticism, emotionally impaired, to respond hostilely and critically in interpersonal relationships, and to expect perfectionism from the partner, and to fear intimacy (Burns, Hollender, Hill, Zrull, Turling, Martin & Ashby as cited in Ashby et al., 2008). These characteristics could cause more problems if they are in the context of a relationship with a partner who also shares these same characteristics (Ashby et al., 2008). The characteristics can also add different problems to the relationship, which can result in a lower relational vitality and accord (Ashby et al., 2008).

Maladaptive perfectionism in regards to relationships. Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with a desire for complete perfection, which may contribute to an individual not being able to sustain a healthy relationship (Haring, Hewitt & Flett, 2003). Haring et al. (2003) state that other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism is associated with interpersonal problems. Other-oriented perfectionism is associated with authoritarian, exploitative, dominant behaviors, and blaming others, all of which cause a great deal of stress and conflict in a relationship. Socially prescribed perfectionism is related to hostile-dominant characteristics, blaming others, and outwardly directed anger, which also cause extreme problems in a relationship (Hill, Zrull & Turlington, 1997; Flett, Hewitt, Blankenstein & Dynin, 1994). This sense of anger stems from the perceived unfairness of others and is one of the most predominant emotions that has a negative impact on relationships (Hewitt & Flett, 1991b). Studies (Flett, et al., 2001) found that socially prescribed perfectionism is highly related to relationship distress and maladjustment. It was also discovered that socially prescribed perfectionism is associated with destructive responses in relationships, being insensitive toward the partner, being obsessive over the partner, and lower couple adjustment (Lopez et al., 2006). Flett et al. (2001) finds that socially prescribed perfectionism was related to neurotic aspects of love such as self-conscious anxiety in dating relationships, and being more emotionally dependent upon one’s partner.

Maladaptive perfectionism also can possibly cause perfectionists to project the same expectations they hold for themselves onto their partner, which parallels to the behavior of other-oriented perfectionists. The projection of expectations can cause unfavorable consequences in the relationship (Lopez, Fons-Scheyd, Morúa, & Chaliman, 2006). Many maladaptive perfectionism relationships encapsulate the perfectionist thinking that the partner does not share or emulate his or her own idealized performance, related standards, motivations, and expectations (Lopez et al., 2006). Burns (1980) epitomizes the fears of perfectionists, that harm their relationships when he concluded,

Because of their fear of appearing foolish or inadequate, perfectionists may have a disclosure phobia that causes them to resist sharing their inner thoughts and feelings. They believe that their human foibles will not be acceptable to others, and their excessive sensitivity to real or imagined disapproval inhibits intimate communication, further depriving them of the warmth and unconditional acceptance they crave but cannot earn through accomplishment (p. 37).

Wiebe and McCabe (as cited in Lopez et al., 2006) while using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS) as an example, developed the Relationship Perfectionism Scale (RPS). The scale is a 20 item self-report measure that directs those who take it to broadly answer, “how they think and feel about relationships” (Lopez et al., 2006). Lopez et al. (2006) finds that the natural impulse to impose one’s perfectionistic norms onto others associates with depression and interpersonal aggression. This imposition of high performance expectations onto others can cause the relationship distress. The Almost Perfect Scale-Revised was another scale that helped formulate a scale in which to categorize perfectionism in intimate relationships. The scale that was created from the Almost Perfect Scale-Revised was the Dyadic Almost Perfect Scale (Shea et al., 2006). This scale contains three subscales that are categorized as standards, order, and discrepancy. The first subscale, “standards,” measures high expectations of one’s partner. The second subscale, “order,” measures how orderly and organized one’s partner is. The final subscale, “discrepancy,” views the perceptions and appraisals that one’s partner falls short of meeting (Lopez et al., 2006).

Lopez et al. (2006) establishes that dyadic perfectionism beliefs can cause perfectionists to employ in more argumentative, and less collaborative, problem-coping interactions with their partner when observed relational differences become apparent (e.g. threaten to leave the relationship). Research also shows that discrepancy scores were significantly related to dependency, self-criticism, and attachment avoidance (Lopez et al., 2006). In this same study, the data shows that when one member of a couple reports high discrepancy scores, that person is more likely to continue to be dissatisfied with the relationship over time, and to report difficult exchanges with his or her partner. Using less collaborative and more coercive tactics in resolving relationship disagreements can fuel these exchanges, which contribute to a vicious cycle of negative reciprocity that ultimately places the relationship continuity in danger.

Another categorization that was composed by Olson, Fournier, and Druckman (as cited in Ashby et al., 2008) is the Pre-marital Personal and Relationship Evaluation. This instrument extracted a variety of personal and interpersonal factors that comprised four categories of couples’ relationships. These four categories are vitalized, comfort, traditional, and conflicted. The vitalized category is defined as high satisfaction, comfort, and problem solving. “Comfort” is defined as a moderate relationship quality and mutual understanding. “Traditional” emphasizes a typical couple strengths such as decision-making and also includes relationship dissatisfaction and problems with feeling understood and dealing with difference. “Conflicted” is defined as significant relationship dissatisfaction and poor communication and problem solving (Olson, Fournier & Druckman as cited in Ashby et al., 2008).

Adaptive perfectionism in relationships. Having a partner who is an adaptive perfectionist can be an advantage to the relationship in certain pairings and contribute to a “high quality relationship” (Ashby et al., 2008). Ashby et al. (2008) finds that when adaptive perfectionists were paired with other adaptive perfectionists or nonperfectionists, they had a relationship that was harmonized and invigorated. Adaptive perfectionists generally are characterized by having low feelings of inferiority, having greater self-efficacy, a positive affect, a higher self-esteem, a higher internal locus of control, and a more secure internalized working model of adult attachment (Ashby & Kottman, 1996; LoCicero & Ashby, 2000; Periasamy & Ashby, 2002; Rice & Slaney, 2002). These individual qualities provide a more healthy relationship characterized by more vitality and accord (Asbhy et al., 2008).
Therapeutic Process of Perfectionism and Intimate Relationships

Negative dynamics can emerge in dyadic perfectionists’ relationships in the counseling setting (Shahar, Blatt, Zuroff, Krupnick & Stotsky as cited in Lopez et al., 2006). This may endanger the formation of operative working alliances, which could contribute to having a less effective therapeutic outcome (Shahar, Blatt, Zuroff, Krupnick & Stotsky as cited in Lopez et al., 2006). In order to avoid this, counselors should explore possible contributions of dyadic perfectionism to the client’s intimate relationships (Lopez et al., 2006). With helping clients identify discrepancies in their expectations of their partners, counselors can encourage them to understand how their appraisal processes are increasing their own negative emotional responses and causing more relationship stress (Lopez et al., 2006). These perceptions could possibly enable the client’s consideration in alternative and healthier approaches for appraising and communicating their expectations in the relationship (Lopez et al., 2006).

In relation to treating the intimacy issue that arise in perfectionistic relationships, counselors should tailor their interventions to address unspoken concerns that their clients may have about revealing their perceived inadequacies to their partner (Martin & Ashby, 2004). In doing this, therapists can help couples become aware of and re-structure their distancing behavior, which serves as a self-protective measure to conceal “flaws” and result from a fear of being unlovable (Martin & Ashby, 2004). This will ultimately free the thought that the romantic partner’s constant distancing is an effort to reject the other partner (Martin & Ashby, 2004). Counselors should also address these vulnerabilities in their clients separately, along with a possible feeling of inferiority accompanied with the vulnerability (Martin & Ashby, 2004). Ashby and Kottman (as cited in Martin & Ashby, 2004) discovered that maladaptive perfectionists can perceive themselves as being inferior to others, and this sense of inferiority can cause avoidant behavior in their intimate relationships. By viewing avoidant or distancing behavior as a manifestation of perceived inferiority, counselors may help their clients confront and work through any feelings of rejection should such “inadequacy” be discovered (Martin & Ashby, 2004). Counselors are able to help maladaptive perfectionists manage their feelings of inferiority. By doing this, counselors might lead clients to evade the intimate contact that they truly desire, by simply altering their viewpoint of acceptance within their relationships as not being based on meeting particular standards of performances (Martin & Ashby, 2004).

Perfectionism traits and self-presentation styles are related to symptoms and disorders reflecting psychiatric disturbances (Flett & Hewitt as cited in Hewitt, Habke, Lee-Baggley, Sherry & Flett, 2008). These symptoms may accompany a negative perception of the clinical process, and clients could choose to not seek, maintain, or benefit from the treatment process (Hewitt et al., 2008). Hewitt et al., (2008) finds that broad perfection personality styles, mainly the facets of self-oriented perfectionism, are correlated to a variety of factors that influence the establishment and maintenance of a therapeutic alliance. This study also finds that socially prescribed perfectionists thought their therapist was critical and judgmental, and this can prevent development of a healthy therapeutic relationship. Given the potential stress of the clinical experience, perfectionists possibly will respond with their normal coping mechanisms of avoidance, which will result in missing sessions of therapy or premature termination further undermining the therapeutic process (Hewitt et al., 2008). Finally, in order to eradicate the negative influences in treatment, therapists should deal with the perfectionist’s personality vulnerability and interpersonal factors (Blatt, Auerbach, Zuroff & Shanar as cited in Hewitt et al., 2008).

Finally, there are five different categories that compose intimate relationships regarding perfectionism. These pairings can either cause the relationship to flourish or fail. Both maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism is highly correlated with intimate relationships. Maladaptive perfectionism has a negative affect, while adaptive perfectionism can be a positive aspect in the relationship. Research shows that maladaptive perfectionism in regards to intimacy can cause the perfectionist to withdraw, therefore not establishing healthy intimacy. Finally, there are many routes that therapists might take in regards to perfectionism altering a couple’s intimate relationship. Research postulates however, that perfectionism needs to be the main focus of treatment, which will then alter the relationship in a more positive manner.

Perfectionism is the desire to be perfect, to be flawless. In the context of a relationship, this desire to be completely faultless many times causes distress. True perfection can never be achieved, as humanity is incapable of being infallible. However, many individuals possess perfectionism, therefore they must learn to manage their perfectionistic tendencies. In order to truly help clients manage their perfectionism, therapists need a clear understanding of perfectionism and the impact it has on an intimate relationship.

The purpose of this writing is to provide a clear definition of the types of perfectionism as well as the three subcategories, and provide a compilation of data from other studies as to how perfectionism could impact an intimate relationship. The implications of this piece of literature presented in this writing perhaps could aid future researchers to continue the study of the correlation between the many facets of perfectionism and intimate relationships. With this continuation of study, therapists can glean more knowledge on the subjects, which may provide a more concrete approach to the treatment of perfectionism in an intimate relationship.

One major study that should be done is viewing a population of couples in adaptive perfectionism to help alter maladaptive perfectionistic couples to become more like adaptive perfectionist couples so they can enjoy a more fulfilled relationship. The understanding of perfectionism and its influence upon intimate relationships is vital for a therapist to treat his or her client effectively. This synthesis of data is necessary to marry these two concepts so they can be better comprehended in order to provide crucial insight into the therapeutic approach to treatment for anguishing couples facing perfectionism problems.

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