Dilemmas: I just can't stand my wife's perfectionism

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Piers's wife is turning into a perfectionist. After a few drinks she's okay, but otherwise it's shoes off before entering the super-clean house, deep offence if someone doesn't ring her back straight away, and the constant refrain of `Do as you would be done by'. What can he do?


The word "perfectionism" has overtones that are complimentary. "I'm afraid I'm rather a perfectionist" people will say, meaning: "Aren't I brilliant? If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well" and all that nonsense. Certainly, I always feel extremely ill at ease in people's perfect homes. The owners usually introduce their immaculate sitting rooms, littered with gleaming silver, with the words: "I'm so sorry the place is such a tip." But in fact perfectionism, which Piers's wife is starting to suffer from compulsively, is often more of a curse than a blessing.

Now of course this pre-occupation with everything being spotlessly clean may well be the beginning of an obsessive illness. "Take your shoes off" today, and tomorrow Piers will come back to find the three-piece suite covered in polythene, and being told that he has to have a shower before he sits down. Then it's doctor time - but now he still could possibly nip this behaviour in the bud. But first he must ferret out the reasons why his wife has become like this.

Boredom might be one. Is she so underoccupied that keeping her house clean is becoming a career? Is her increasing obsessiveness her route up this career ladder? If so, heaven help Piers when she becomes chairman. Or could it be a compulsive nesting instinct? Is all this polishing and caring for her home a substitute for having a baby?

Could it be that she's terribly unhappy? I only get obsessional about cleaning when I'm suffering tremendous loss. After my father's death, I went to stay with some friends and took it into my head, at 10pm, that I must clean the car. No matter that it was pouring with rain, that I had to do it by torchlight and it was freezing cold. I was out there polishing, scraping and waxing till three in the morning. For me, cleaning is definitely connected with control.

As for the phrase "Do as you would be done by", it's fine as long as you realise that other people have different expectations of how they'd like to be done by. Piers's wife may feel riddled with anger and resentment when a friend doesn't ring her back immediately after she leaves a message; but the friend might be someone who's idea of doing as she would be done by involves ringing the other person in the next few days, not right now. Her inability to understand that other people have different needs to her own is another sign of her anxiety, and her delusional belief that everyone is like her.

Obviously Piers should tell his wife that he's getting worried. It's quite possible that she won't accept what he says - obsessive people rarely do. But until the situation gets out of hand, I'm afraid that he must refuse to go along with her strictures. Keep his shoes on in the house. Throw his socks on the floor before he goes to sleep. Move the ornaments occasionally so that they're not quite symmetrical and see what she does. She will either relax or her anxiety levels will rocket to such an extent that she'll have to admit that she's got a problem and get help before she becomes a hermit.


It can be treated

YOUR WIFE may be in the early stages of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). If it gets worse (and it may not) life will not be so funny: OCD can threaten relationships, and is deeply disturbing to both family and friends, as well as the sufferer. The good news is that it usually responds very readily to therapy. If it is OCD, the sooner it is treated, the better.

Your difficulty may well lie in getting your wife to admit that she has a problem. Try and get some information (from your library, or the Internet) and if you think she needs help, then you may have to devise a way of persuading her that she does.

You will probably find yourself an integral and vital element in her recovery, and be prepared for a long haul. Don't be too disappointed a with any apparent setbacks; think positively; set achievable goals - praise (rather than blame) works wonders. She will be in desperate need of your support and understanding, but it will be worth it.

Our daughter (then not quite 16) was diagnosed with OCD two years ago, and is now recovering well. I wish you luck.


Dibden, Perlieu

Grow up, Piers

PIERS SHOULD realise that if there is mud on the carpet, a mess in the bathroom, or three-weeks' Independents on the sitting room floor, somebody has to clear it up. Does he take responsibility for any of these jobs? I suspect he does not.

Shut up, Piers, and be grateful that you have a wife who (in your own words) "cheerfully" does the domestic chores, and stop treating her with contempt by adding to the mess she clears up.


Highnam, Glos

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm 45 and a widow, and for the last year I've have been seeing a lot of a man who's been divorced for three years. His wife left him and it broke him up. He has two children of 18 and 30. The 30-year-old is married with two small children. My two children have been really accepting of my new friend, and even took him out to dinner on his birthday.

His parents are fine with me, too. The problem is his children. They absolutely refuse to meet me, or speak to me, and if I ring his flat and they are there and pick up the phone, they just slam it down on me.

There's a big family celebration because his parents are having their golden wedding. They've left it to my partner whether I come or not. And he's not sure what to do. I feel so dreadfully left out and betrayed by his family. I feel like some scarlet woman, or fortune-hunter, which I'm not. He hasn't got a bean, anyway. What should I do? It's all tearing me up inside.

Yours sincerely, Petra

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; or e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk, giving a postal address