Perfectionism Destroys The Relationships Of Adult Children Of Alcoholics

by David Baumrind
Two kids watching their parents hand each other a bottle of wine with appalled looks on their faces.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

As an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA), no words could be more threatening or hurtful.

I never handled it well. I’d get angry and defensive, triggered because I was a wounded child panicking at the thought that I’d been found out:

I’m a fraud — I am a flawed, damaged man unworthy of the love I’ve always craved.

For ACAs, perfectionism in our relationships is our way of life — a way to recreate ourselves as self-motivated, well adjusted, and seemingly unaffected by our dysfunctional childhoods. We create our sense of self-worth and value by meeting all of the needs of our partners.

Like chameleons, we twist ourselves into whatever shapes our partners need to stay ahead of the harsh criticism we fear from them and from ourselves.

Growing up in out-of-control environments full of isolation and not-good-enough set the stage for our perfectionism. We never consistently received the emotional nurturing and support that would have allowed us to feel comfortable with ourselves. Instead, we feel immense pressure to avoid mistakes, terrified that our flawed selves are unworthy of the love and belonging we crave.

As adults, perfectionism gives us a sense of control over our environment and feelings of self-worth. In our professional lives, we’re often rewarded for perfectionism with promotions and praise. But in our intimate relationships, it’s a different story. As we strive to become the perfect partner, we abandon ourselves, sacrificing our own needs in a desperate attempt to gain security and control over our environment.

We operate this way because our primary goal is the avoidance of having our flaws exposed. We do relationships on our own terms, but the price we pay is a chance at the deep, meaningful relationships we truly desire.

While perfectionism can appear as the desire to be all-you-can-be, for Adult Children of Alcoholics it is the desire to be everything we wish we were but are not. And this desire comes with a huge amount of pressure as our feelings of self-worth are on the line.

I want to see myself through your eyes. As the attractive, desirable, worthy person you think I am. I’m in love with the way you love me. And also terrified, because I’m afraid that if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me at all. And one day, I’ll slip up and make a mistake and have to see the disappointment in your eyes at learning what I’ve always known — that the person you love is unlovable.

As ACAs, we chase perfection not because we are running toward lofty goals, but because we are running for our lives, trying to stay a step ahead of the shame and unworthiness that relentlessly hunt us down.

We’re so desperate to hide away the parts of ourselves that are undesirable and unattractive that we never allow ourselves the space to make mistakes or disappoint people we love. We’re left hiding our red flags from our partners by shaping them into a cape that we wear into our relationships.

As long as things are going well, we feel safe and secure — this is one reason we do so much better at the beginnings of relationships when it’s easier to show only our best sides.

But as the relationship progresses, this becomes harder to maintain. As ACAs, what we know is dysfunction and chaos — we have little experience with healthy relationships and we lack the vulnerability necessary to achieve them. Expecting perfection of ourselves and our partners is too much to ask.

With time, as our façade of perfection begins to crack, we grip even tighter. Intense anxiety and pressure begin to consume us, as we’ve tied our emotional well-being and self-worth to the unrealistic illusion of perfection.

The mistakes we make are serious threats to our ability to function in the relationship. Any resulting criticisms appear to be clear signs that we are no longer meeting all of our partner’s needs. This conflict within ourselves continues to grow. We no longer feel secure as we struggle with the same issues that plagued us during childhood: low self-esteem, isolation, anxiety, depression, and intimacy issues.

As we are revealed to be flawed and fallible partners, we’re forced to let go of the fantasy of our perfect relationship.

As ACAs, many of us don’t realize why we suffer so much and why the deep, intimate relationships we desire are always beyond our reach. Without knowing, we continue to repeat the unhealthy patterns we learned as children which now permeate our adult relationships.

We’ve spent so much of our lives battling shame and imperfection that we never learned the value of vulnerability — that it’s the key to the fulfilling relationships we want. Learning to communicate openly and honestly about our struggles, fears, and mistakes allows us to develop trust within ourselves and our relationships.

The time has come to set down our fears and learn to appreciate our flaws and imperfections — they make us unique and authentic. Instead of denying our mistakes in relationships, we can accept the gifts they give us — the opportunities to learn and grow, becoming better partners over time.

If we can find the courage to face our lifelong issues and accept ourselves as we are, we’ll have the chance to be loved and accepted not in spite of our imperfections, but because of them.