Why Perfectionism And Parenting Don’t Mix

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After being together 3 years, Kate and Tim* became parents to Logan, who’s now a toddler. To describe them in a nutshell: Kate’s a go-getter and Tim’s laid back.

Kate takes pride in what she calls her “enthusiasm for excellence,” which Tim more bluntly refers to as “perfectionism.” Before they select a service provider or make a childcare decision, Kate researches all of the options so they can pick the best choice.

Yet Kate’s determination, perfectionist or not, has produced professional results, too: She negotiated a promotion for herself and encouraged Tim to pursue a more lucrative and prestigious job, which he started last year.

In the meantime, they’ve moved into a bigger house, can afford a great preschool for Logan, and go on wonderful vacations.

Their contrasting styles drew them together: Tim appreciated Kate’s striving nature, and efforts to build the best life possible. Kate loved Tim’s calmness, easy-going nature, and ability to live in the moment.

As time goes by, Kate and Tim find it harder to balance work and home, and sustain the life they’ve built. In recent months, their contrasting approaches—or, as Kate argues, Tim’s “non-approach”—are taking a toll on their relationship.

Kate wants Tim to be more active in decision-making, and in planning for their family’s future. She’s tired of bearing those burdens solo. She also worries that, without coaxing, Tim won’t improve his lot, personally or professionally, thereby putting their family’s wellbeing at risk.

By contrast, Tim claims that, no matter what he does, it’s never enough for Kate. He thinks she’s always “raising the stakes” for how they should live, what Logan needs to thrive, and how to spend or save their money.

Kate and Tim’s conflict and styles aren’t unique. It’s not unusual that, when one spouse leads the way for “a better life,” the other goes along for a while but, eventually, either can’t keep up or doesn’t want to.

Like all perspectives in a relationship, both of theirs have merit. They also reflect values that compete or contrast: e.g., striving for more/satisfaction with what is, being the best/doing one’s best, financial success/financial stability, risk-taking/safety, excitement/calm, to name but a few.

When it comes to their family’s future, Tim and Kate fall into two roles that social psychologist, Barry Schwartz, refers to as Maximizer and Satisficer. Originally coined to describe consumer behaviors, the terms apply to decision-making more broadly, especially when it comes to parenting or relationships.

Maximizers like to make the best choices; they want to be familiar with all the options so they can make the right decision. A challenge faced by maximizers is, after making their choice, they worry that a better option might be, or might soon become, available. Parenting or marriage maximizers might ask:

Is this the best school for my kid or is there another one I should be considering?

Is my spouse the right match or is there someone else who’s better suited for me?

Satisficers make decisions in line with their own criteria or standards. They’re not looking for the best, but for what’s good enough for them. A challenge for satisficers is ensuring their criteria change as they change; what was once good enough might not be over time. Parenting or marriage satisficers might ask:

Does this school meet the standards that I most want for my kid?

Are my spouse and I great matches for each other?

Research shows that satisficers are, on average, happier and less anxious than maximizers. Yet resolving the conflict between Tim and Kate isn’t just a matter of encouraging her to calm down and become a satisficer, given that excellence is one of Kate’s values and that being a maximizer is her way of honoring that value.

What can they do? For starters, they can locate areas in their lives where they occupy the opposite role. When he reads, Tim’s a maximizer; he only picks Booker and Pullitzer prizewinners. Kate’s a satisficer at yoga; her poses are good enough for her.

After recognizing they both occupy maximizer and satisficer roles, they revisited their conflict. Here are some questions I prompted them to ask each other:

How do you think your role (as maximizer or satisficer) serves our family’s wellbeing?

How do you think your role (as maximizer or satisficer) limits our wellbeing? 

What do you appreciate, if only 5% or 10%, about my role (as maximizer or satisficer)?

If you were to apply just 5% or 10% of my role to your approach to our family’s wellbeing, what might that look like?

What’s your worst-case scenario about applying that 5% or 10% to your approach?

What’s the best-case scenario?

How can we work together to make our best-case scenarios happen?

Kate and Tim used these questions to increase their appreciation of each other’s roles and to shift their own approaches to accommodate the opposite role.

The net result was: they decreased criticism of each other, integrated what they believed was the best of each other’s roles into their own, and began to see eye-to-eye on family-related decisions, even those decisions still being made by Kate.

If they came up with a motto for their new perspective, it would be: Maximizers and Satisficers unite!

If some of these issues sound familiar, consider using the questions above to explore your and your spouse’s respective maximizer and satisficer dynamics. Like Tim and Kate, they’re worth exploring to reduce conflict and find new ways to unite!

*Names have been changed, and client identities combined, to protect privacy.

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2 responses to “Why Perfectionism And Parenting Don’t Mix

  1. Great post, Rhona! The maximizer in me sometimes needs to scoot over and let the satisficer take the wheel…

  2. Amen! True for most, if not all of us, myself included. Thanks for sharing, Courtney!

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