“I’m a Perfectionist!”

With these words Paul* introduced himself—and his problem. The first part of his story painted a picture of success—academic degrees, job advancements, and community awards. However, Paul did not present the pride or show the smiles that would typically accompany his level of success. His description of several key accomplishments in a matter-of-fact manner with little if any joy in his presentation illustrated a long history of frustration and dissatisfaction. Paul’s sense of failure was intensified because his perfectionistic pattern was making life very difficult for his wife, Paige, and their two teenage sons. Recent comments from Paige fueled his fear that their relationship was traveling toward a major collision or breakdown. Outwardly, Paul’s life appeared to be the epitome of success; inwardly, he felt like a failure. His words conveyed the pain he suffered.  “I’ve never felt good enough no matter how hard I tried or how much I achieved. I always knew that I should have done better. All I have is a bunch of hollow victories. I’m exhausted and depressed, and I’m losing my family. I’m afraid that I’m stuck on this road forever.” 

Paul’s travels along the Perfectionism Highway seemed to be typical of individuals who struggle with a perfectionistic lifestyle. The very traits that promoted his success also prevented his satisfaction. Paradoxically, the traits were simultaneously both a blessing and a curse. His achievements were high—and so was the price tag. In the midst of his accomplishments Paul was constantly aware of the dark clouds overhead that traveled with him along the Perfectionism Highway. Unfortunately, Paul is not the only traveler on this highway. Many people struggle with and suffer from the perils of perfectionism. Some perfectionists consider their achievements to outweigh the downside of perfectionism, so they choose to continue in their perilous journey. However, many other perfectionists, like Paul, are exhausted and depressed from their never-good-enough lifestyle, and they are worried about the increased stress that their perfectionism places on family, friends, and colleagues. Understandably, they are looking for a safe exit from the Perfectionism Highway. Since perfectionism represents a threat to both individual health and relationship happiness let’s examine the pattern and explore some possibilities for safer travels along the roadway of life.


                                        “Coming Home is Nothing Special.”

Ben hesitated as he looked at the floor, pondered what he had just said, and then explained his statement. “When Billie and I were first married I always looked forward to going home. Regardless of who got home first we would always greet each other in a special way. It really felt good to go home. Now there’s nothing special at all about coming come. I miss the way it was at first.” When I asked Ben if he thought Billie felt the same way, he responded, “Well, we really haven’t talked about it. She hasn’t complained or fussed about what we have now, so maybe she’s comfortable with everything.” As we talked further I began to understand Ben’s sadness and his sense of loss. Like many other couples Ben and Billie had fallen into the rut of neglect. Over time they gradually changed the “coming home” process. The original “Honey, I’m Home!” announcement and the “Welcome Home!” response somehow had been left behind on their relationship journey. As a result of the mutual neglect Ben could say, “Coming home is nothing special.”*

Perhaps you can connect with Ben’s frustration. You might be wondering about Billie’s feelings regarding the same issue. You might also be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about greetings. The truth is that arrivals (the way people greet each other) and departures (the way people say goodbye to each other) have a significant impact upon personal relationships. A related truth is that the “greetings-and-goodbyes” pattern will also help or hurt the future relationship, depending upon the quality of the arrival-departure behavior. In light of these truths we would do well to re-assess our arrivals and departures. Our examination could reveal the need for some personal repair work as we travel the Relationship Highway.


                                        “He’s so Self-centered!”

Julie’s statement captured her primary complaint about her boyfriend. She and John had been dating for several months and the relationship was getting serious, even to the point of some references to marriage. In light of a recent comment from John she was predicting a marriage proposal very soon. Her heart was telling her to accept his proposal, but her head was warning her about his apparent self-centeredness. Even though she loved him Julie did not want to make a marital mistake that could lead to major misery. As she shared with me more information about John’s attitudes and actions, I became increasingly concerned about the possibility that she was involved with a narcissistic individual. I explained to Julie the typical characteristics of narcissism and their impact on intimate relationships. Her feedback clearly supported my hunch. Without a doubt John had to be at the center of the solar system! At my suggestion Julie invited John to join her in a future session, but he quickly declined and emphatically declared that he was fine and did not need therapy. She was disappointed with his refusal to participate, but more so she was surprised at his attitude and tone. A few weeks later she made a tough decision and ended her relationship with John. In reviewing her decision Julie revealed her reason:  “I refuse to marry a narcissist.”*

Unfortunately, Julie’s experience is not unique. Many women get involved with men who, like John, are motivated by narcissistic tendencies. The initial attraction is often quite strong, and the relationship may seem rather appealing. A narcissist may project the image of an “I-have-it-all-together” man, and he can present an illusion that is charismatic and charming. However, before long the underlying currents of the man’s narcissism rise to the surface and his inherent self-centeredness becomes more clearly seen and recognized. The narcissistic pattern is not limited to the male gender. Women also can develop similar personality traits that lead to a narcissistic lifestyle. Regardless of the gender issue, this unhealthy pattern raises roadblocks and causes collisions along the Relationship Highway.

Have you ever been in a relationship with a narcissist? Are you in such a relationship now? Could you be married to a narcissist? If so, you can probably identify with Julie—and with many other women and men who are trying to survive the pain and peril of a narcissistic relationship. Survival in a narcissistic marriage is indeed difficult as the victim-spouse is slowly consumed by the self-serving narcissist. Because of the growing prevalence of narcissistic behavior the subject merits and invites our attention. Let’s look a little closer at this relationship threat and then explore several tips for personal survival.


                                        “Watch Out for Litter”

Somehow you failed to notice the road sign’s warning that you were entering a high litter zone. You were unprepared for the high level of highway litter you had to dodge during the following fifty miles as you traveled through Litter County.  The nightmarish stories you had heard about Litter County were immediately confirmed.  The county’s official motto, “Litter is Our Lifestyle,” certainly fit the scene. There was litter everywhere—in both ditches and on the roadway itself. The repulsive smell was nasty and nauseating. Cars were slowing and swerving as the drivers strived and struggled to miss the pieces of litter that could violate vehicles and cause collisions. Your car suffered several hits but, thankfully, all of the litter encounters caused only minor damage. After a tedious and turbulent three-hour ordeal you somehow completed the fifty-mile trip and crossed the county line into the next county that, thankfully, had a frequently monitored and strictly enforced “No- Litter” law.

In case you’re questioning the whereabouts of Litter County, please rest assured that the geographical location does not actually exist. However, we’ve all traveled along roadways that contained so much litter that the county might deserve to be called Litter County.  On one cross-country trip I saw a road sign that clearly said, “No Littering Allowed.” Ironically, the ground directly beneath the sign was covered with highway litter. People who are proud of littering are prone to ignore or defy such signs. But to the majority of travelers highway litter is both unsightly and unsafe.

Likewise, the practice of littering represents a serious threat to individuals who are traveling the Relationship Highway. Understandably, wise travelers prefer to avoid relationships in which littering is a lifestyle. The person who commits the littering, whom I refer to as a “Relationship Litterbug,” is placing his relationships at risk. The only person who might prefer to travel through life in a litter-filled relationship is someone who is also a Relationship Litterbug.  Because of its inherent threat to health and happiness the practice of relationship littering merits our attention. Let’s examine this pattern a little further and see what we can learn about the litterbug lifestyle.


                                        “Where’s the Wreck?”

There’s something about a highway wreck that gets our attention. Prompted by curiosity or concern we want to see what happened. The initial slowdown of interstate traffic generates that question “Where’s the wreck?” Traffic slows and heads turn as the crash site is passed. The temptation to “rubberneck” is hard to resist. Hopefully, our curiosity is matched by our compassion for those personally involved in the wreck. The sight of a badly-wrecked vehicle makes us wonder about the survival of the occupants and our own personal safety in our travels along interstate highways and local roadways. Unfortunately, too many physical wrecks occur and too many lives are lost.

Emotional wrecks also pose a huge threat to an individual’s health and happiness, and they have a significant negative impact on human relationships. The Emotion Highway is strewn with debris and destruction that result from emotional wrecks. Traveling the Emotion Highway is indeed a challenge, both for individuals and for relationships. Just as the ability to drive certain automobiles is difficult so is the ability to manage our human emotions. Some people apparently never learn how to safely drive their “emotion car” and they sustain multiple wrecks and suffer much emotional pain.

In my professional work as a mental health and relationship therapist I’ve heard many references to and descriptions of “emotional wrecks.” Some individuals have self-disclosed the way they see themselves:  “I’m just a big emotional wreck.” Other individuals describe the way they see their spouse:  “I’m living with an emotional wreck.” Sometimes certain family members, close personal friends, or co-working colleagues are viewed as emotional wrecks. If I’m the emotional wreck, I’m probably having a tough time living with myself. If other people are the emotional wrecks, I’m probably struggling to get along with them. Our struggles should generate an important question:  “How can I survive emotional wrecks?”

Before going any further perhaps we need to define the term “emotional wreck.” In this discussion I’ll use that term although I also value another one—“mood accident.” For all practical purposes we can use the two terms interchangeably. We all have emotions—some positive and pleasant, others negative and painful. A low-to-moderate level of emotional intensity will probably not lead to emotional wrecks or mood accidents. However, when a person’s emotions enter the high range of intensity that individual is at risk for a potential collision. In our attempt to define the term “emotional wreck” let’s remember two key words—“excessive” and “out-of-control.” Emotional wrecks result from excessive, out-of-control emotionality. The wreck itself could be a major conflict with someone or a harmful incident with serious damage. The individual who allows his anger to boil over into a temper outburst is heading for an emotional wreck. The person who feeds his fear toward a major phobia is likely to experience an emotional wreck. The escalation of many human emotions can start sequences that result in serious emotional wrecks.


                        “Malnutrition Blamed for Relationship Deaths”

The local newspaper headline caught my attention. I read it again: “Malnutrition Blamed for Relationship Deaths.” My heart sank with the news of the tragedy. My mind raced with thoughts about a similar report last month, and now—more deaths. The media report appeared to be true. The county’s Relationship Coroner had completed a thorough investigation of ten recent breakups, and he concluded that the relationships had fallen victim to a leading cause of relationship death—malnutrition. My emotions churned as I pondered this deadly disease and its growth toward epidemic proportions. The report estimated that throughout the county hundreds of other relationships are currently in a moderate-to-severe state of malnutrition and that additional relationship deaths are projected. In concluding his comments the Relationship Coroner warned that all human relationships are at risk from malnutrition and recommended that good nutritional patterns be practiced and protected. 

Before we go further I need to clarify, and perhaps confess, that I imagined the headline. This particular newspaper article never actually occurred. However, one thing is not imagined: the reported threat is very real. The fictitious headline reveals a serious issue that affects every human relationship and deserves our thoughtful attention. What about your reaction to the headline? How often do you wonder about relationship deaths in your city or county? In particular, how concerned are you about the reported CORD (Cause of Relationship Death), that is, relationship malnutrition? To what extent do you worry about your own relationships, especially your marriage? Is malnutrition posing a current threat to the health and happiness of your primary relationships? Clearly, the high number of marital separations and divorces is the predictable result of relationship malnutrition. Friendships and family relationships are susceptible to the same threat.

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