Can perfectionism keep you single?

by Jeff Saltzman and Rebecca Israel, MS

September 01, 2020

  • Perfectionism is a personality trait involving high personal standards and excessive self-critique.

  • Rates of some forms of perfectionism have increased by up to 30% among college students since 1989.

  • Some forms of perfectionism are more associated with being single than others.

perfectionism and relationship status title

perfectionism and relationship status: could perfectionism be hurting your romantic relationships?

Young people face harsher social and economic expectations than a generation ago. Free market policy to promote competition and upward mobility in the Western world has driven a culture of individualism in which productivity is the most valued trait. Between work, relationships, and hobbies, constant expectations of productivity and perfection have pervaded all components of a young person's life. The growing stress and anxiety are compounded by the panopticon of social media, giving us a constant feed of people's best versions of themselves and rendering our normal lives inadequate. These factors may be escalating perfectionist attitudes and exacerbating interpersonal relationships.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is described as a mental state characterized by excessive personal expectations and extremely critical self-evaluations. It can simultaneously empower personal achievement as well as anxiety, depression, and interpersonal conflicts. In 1991, Hewitt and Flett established the most widely accepted model of perfectionist attitudes, dividing them into three types depending on the directionality of the perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors.

The Three forms of Perfectionism are self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism.

Hewitt and Flett define three forms of perfectionism based on the directionality of the perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors. Self-oriented perfectionism entails unreasonably high self expectations, while socially-prescribed perfectionism involves perceiving high expectations from others. In other-oriented perfectionism, perfectionistic expectations are directed toward other people.

Source: The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale: Reliability, Validity, and Psychometric Properties in Psychiatric Samples

In self-oriented perfectionism, individuals hold high standards for themselves and believe success to be crucial for their sense of self. Self-oriented perfectionists are the most common and often highly successful, if antisocial. Socially-prescribed perfectionists derive their perfectionist drive from perceived judgement by others. People with high socially prescribed perfectionism are prone to experience failure when they perceive to fall short of the impossibly high standards they feel have been imposed on them, whether or not these expectations are real. Finally, other-oriented perfectionism entails unrealistically high expectations of other people. Both of the latter forms may be associated with interpersonal issues such as distrust, hostility, depression, and social avoidance.

Top Questions and Answers

The rise of perfectionism

In a meta-analysis of all literature employing Hewitt and Flett's perfectionist criteria since its publication, researchers investigated changing rates of perfectionism among college students in the USA, Canada, and Britain. Since college students are the same age, the researchers were able to calculate changing rates of perfectionism in each year of students from 1989 until 2016. These rates were corrected for gender and country to remove statistical biases.

Rates of perfectionism have risen among college students since 1989.

Since 1989, self-oriented perfectionism has increased by 10%, socially prescribed perfectionism by 32%, and other-oriented perfectionism by 16%.

Source: Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016

All three forms of perfectionism increased in incidence from 1989 to 2016. Self-oriented perfectionism was the most commonly reported subcategory but increased by the smallest extent, although still significant at 10%. Meanwhile, socially prescribed perfectionism increased by 32% and other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16%. The dramatic increase of socially-perceived perfectionism is perhaps the most alarming finding and suggests that young people believe their social context is increasingly demanding and in response must display perfection in order to clinch social approval.

Romance and Perfectionism

Prior studies have connected socially prescribed perfectionism with a lack of control, anxiety, loneliness, and an excessive need for approval. These facets of perfectionism overlap with romantic relationships, with many psychology experts hypothesizing the rise in perfectionism may have negative implications for dating, especially since all three forms of perfectionism can be applied to and derived from a romantic partner.

A group of 200 young people, half of whom were in relationships, were given Hewitt and Flett's formal perfectionism evaluation. All questions were reworded to be about current or prior partners in order to orient perfectionist attitudes to the relationship. Then, perfectionist mindsets were compared to relationship status.

Socially-prescribed perfectionists are 20% more likely to be single than non-perfectionists.

Socially prescribed perfectionists were 20% less likely to be in a relationship (r=-0.205, p<0.01) than non-perfectionists. Other forms of perfectionism were not significantly linked to relationship status.

Source: To be or not to be in a couple: Perfectionism as a predictor

Only socially-prescribed perfectionism was significantly associated with being single, with 20% more single participants meeting the criteria for socially-prescribed perfectionism than those currently in relationships. This would imply that the participant's perceived their romantic partners to have extremely high expectations. Although both self and other-oriented perfectionists trended more single compared to non-perfectionists in the study, neither was to a statistically significant magnitude, perhaps due to the small study size.

There are several reasons to believe that socially-prescribed perfectionism could lead to a poor-quality or nonexistent relationship. Some studies have pointed to irrational beliefs in relationships as a product of perfectionism derived from a partner, such as anxious overconcern, performance issues both physically and emotionally, or excessive assumption of blame. Feeling the need to be perfect due to your partner's perceived judgment could lead to communication issues, rigidity, and fights.

Final thoughts

At the end of day, psychologists evaluating others' relationship prospects, while important, should not be prescriptive. Love and relationship experts have consistently stated that the most important facet of a good relationship is mutual trust and great communication. Perfectionism, whether personal or externally perceived, can be overcome with great communication and mutual respect for each other's needs. These mindsets can be worked through and even contribute to a thriving professional and romantic life.

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