My boyfriend criticizes everything!

He thinks I'm supposed to be perfect and seizes on my tiniest mistakes

Topics: Since You Asked, Coupling,

Dear Cary,

Since the beginning of our relationship, my boyfriend of five years has always said, “You’re perfect.” At first this seemed like a wonderful thing, until I slowly realized he does not mean that I am perfect; he means that he would prefer to imagine me as perfect. When I do not live up to this image, he is devastated. He is up in arms about the smallest of discrepancies: I dropped food on the floor. I forgot to close the door to the computer room. I forgot my purse at the restaurant. When I make mistakes, they are not the mistakes of a normal person but the mistakes of someone he thought was perfect.

I thought that as the years went by, he would realize (as I do, about him) that I am nowhere close to perfect. I am full of mistakes waiting to happen, but they are livable mistakes. I know that he is not perfect, so it is a very simple matter to forgive him when he forgets to pick up milk, or overdraws on his checking account, or missteps, as we all do, every day.

I have tried to gently remind him, when he is scolding me, that I have not been so hard on him when our positions were switched. When I do this, he starts to get down on himself about his previous mistakes, completely missing my point! We are both human and I do not care about his mistakes — that is my point.

I have spent the past five years thinking that if I do exactly what he wants, he will eventually be satisfied. But anytime I fix one thing, he finds something new that keeps me a stone’s throw away from being that perfect woman he was expecting all along. He isn’t perfect. Why do I have to be?


Dear Trying,

You may have to just stop him and say, This is not about the door to the computer room. This is about me. This is not about how well you perform or how well I perform. This is about what you are doing to me. You are attacking me. You are causing me pain. I am asking you to stop.

He may offer a justification, saying that of course the door has to be closed, or of course the floor has to be clean.

But if he’s hurting your feelings, he’s hurting your feelings. It doesn’t matter what justification he may have for hurting your feelings. If he knows he’s hurting your feelings and you ask him to stop and he doesn’t stop, then he’s hurting your feelings on purpose. He’s choosing to put you second. He’s choosing to put his own needs for … whatever, a closed computer door, a clean floor … above your own feelings. He’s causing you pain.

It will be interesting to see how he responds. What you are suggesting is in effect a paradigm shift. You are asking him to shift his focus from the functional to the personal. He may grasp it immediately. Or he may be unable to grasp it.

Let’s dispose of the obvious. I’m not saying that it isn’t a lot of work keeping a household in order. It is. I’m not saying that people who live in a household together don’t need to communicate about upkeep and maintenance and rules and so forth. They do. That’s obvious. There’s always a lot of work to be done to keep the house in order.

But people are more important than objects. They have to be. Otherwise all sorts of atrocities are possible. This basic understanding has to carry through into our daily lives.

So here is my plea in as simple language as I can muster: You can always stop and look at the person you love and say, Well, you’re what’s important here. Let’s let that other stuff go. You’re what’s important. Leave that crust of bread on the floor. Let’s go get a cappuccino together.

You know what I mean? If you can just break through sometimes, in these little moments, you see how ridiculous it has gotten. You remember that what’s important is the love between you, and you can admit that you’re a little wound up over stuff that maybe, even if it is important, can be put aside, or relegated to a lower priority, just long enough to get the human stuff sorted out, to reestablish the basic bond between you. Just long enough for you and him to say, yeah, how we feel about each other is important.

It’s pretty simple. But what if he does not get what you are saying at all? What then?

I’m not comfortable tossing around labels like “sociopath” and “narcissist,” but I have observed that some people are profoundly limited in their ability to see how their actions are affecting others, even when they are told what is happening, even when they are invited to explore. If that is the case, then it’s important to know, because if he really can’t see you, if he can’t feel what you are feeling, then you could spend the rest of your life battling something that is never going to change and wanting something you’re never going to get. So it would be good to get a clear understanding of that. If he lacks the capacity for understanding what he is doing, then you have some very serious choices to make about your life.

But that’s pretty rare, right? I mean, I’m a pain in the ass too, very perfectionistic and kind of a control freak. How else would I know about this kind of thing? I have to stop all the time and say, what’s important here is the person in front of me, not the way she wipes the counter and doesn’t dry it off right away.

I grew up in a household where you never knew what was going to happen next, and you couldn’t depend on promises to be kept, and people would periodically go on strike and stop cleaning up and it made me really nervous and kind of hyper-vigilant. So I’m no picnic to live with. But whenever I can, I stop and say, Sweetheart, it’s you that’s important.

I try. That’s about as good as it gets. You can at least ask for that. Sure, maybe he has some legitimate beefs. You probably both do. But you have to find a way to get out of that murderous focus on externals to where it’s just you and him in the space, just you and him, and what’s between you and him, and how you and he are feeling and relating to each other. That’s where you have to get to. Somehow.

Got housecleaning issues? See p. 188!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?

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