Help me understand the term "high-maintenance" in describing a partner.
May 19, 2012 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the term "high-maintenance" in describing a partner. I am asking this question to get a clearer understanding of the term "high-maintenance" when your partner describes you as such. My interpretation of it has been respect, dedication, commitment and love and want to gauge whether I should alter my understanding of my definition and my actions.

I've done some reading on the subject, but I'd like to hear personal experience in dealing with high-maintenance women, men, romantic relationships in general.

-What does high-maintenance mean to you in describing a romantic partner?

-What made your romantic relationship feel high-maintenance?

-Did or has your romantic relationship stood the test of time and love in dealing with someone you felt was high-maintenance?

-What advice do you have for the high-maintenance person involved in a relationship with someone who believes they are low-maintenance?

So many questions, but your experience is what I am seeking to give me some perspective on the subject in general. Thanks.
posted by i_wear_boots to Human Relations (58 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If my partner called me high-maintenance that would be a huge red flag for me regarding my partner. In general, I don't feel that high-maintenance is a respectful thing to call one's partner -- particularly when used by a male partner to describe a woman. It implies that you are too demanding and have too high, unreasonable expectations of behavior.
posted by peacheater at 10:20 AM on May 19, 2012 [22 favorites]

When I hear "high maintenance" regarding a bf/gf, it means that person needs (or demands) a lot of attention--they want to be talked to all the time, texted a lot, bought gifts, taken out a lot. It does not have kind connotations in any context I've ever heard.
posted by smirkette at 10:22 AM on May 19, 2012 [52 favorites]

High maintenance often means 'pain in the ass but makes up for it in other ways, such as being extremely good looking'. There's a saying a car-loving friend of mine had: 'high maintenance equals high performance'.

Sorry to be sort of crass but it's not really a 'romantic term connotating respect'. At least not in the way I've heard people use it.
posted by bquarters at 10:24 AM on May 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

High-maintenance means people who need a lot and complain when they don't get it. What they need a lot of varies. The classic archetype is the gold-digger who wants to be taken to expensive restaurants all the time, but there are high-maintenance people who need lots of affection (you ALWAYS need to reassure them that they're loved and cared about) or time ("You hang out with your friends too much; it feels like I never see you!")
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:26 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's what *I* mean when I've used it and heard it used in my presence: requiring levels of emotional, social, financial(?), and/or attentional engagement that are taxing, that are generally agreed to be excessive, and that the speaker is sending a very clear message that the investment in the relationship is NOT paying net dividends.

It's definitely not a compliment.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:26 AM on May 19, 2012 [20 favorites]

'My interpretation of it has been respect, dedication, commitment and love and want to gauge whether I should alter my understanding of my definition and my actions.'
= positive

In my personal experience the term 'high maintenance' has a rather negative connotation.
For further reference:
Urban dictionary
posted by travelwithcats at 10:26 AM on May 19, 2012

High maintenance is a negative term. High maintenance people are people I choose to not have in my life. It implies selfishness and a willingness to let other people do for you what you are capable to do for yourself, but can get away with having other people do it, because of some entitled feeling that their time is not as important as yours. I see a high maintenance partner as on that is using the other.
posted by Vaike at 10:26 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

High-maintenance means needy, codependent and often expensive/princess-y.
posted by smorange at 10:26 AM on May 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

What smirkette said. If specifically used to describe a relationship rather than one of the people in it, it could be a slightly less blaming thing that just means [the person using the term] finds they are unduly often having relationship "work".

But no, absolutely does not convey respect. At best it can be part of a sentence that is light teasing rather than simply demeaning.
posted by pahalial at 10:26 AM on May 19, 2012

When I think of someone as high maintenance I'm thinking of someone--male or female--who either needs constant reassurance or requires 100% of my attention at all times. Some people use the term to describe others who spend a lot of time/money on their appearance. It's purely subjective and, in my opinion, not a compliment.
posted by marimeko at 10:29 AM on May 19, 2012

In addition to the other responses, I also sometimes think of (and use) the term high-maintenance to refer to people who have very strong, generally inflexible opinions about stuff (what to do, where to eat, how to decorate, etc). The other partner usually has to be the one who will compromise, because the high-maintenance person will not compromise or bend.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:32 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

My interpretation of it has been respect, dedication, commitment and love and want to gauge whether I should alter my understanding of my definition and my actions.

No, it means "needy". Spends a lot of time on their appearance because they're quite needy of attention and, often, material goods. It basically means that you're good enough in bed that it's worth putting up with your purse-dog.

You probably don't want to stay with somebody who'd describe you in those terms.
posted by mhoye at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

The only time "high maintenance" is a quasi-positive term, in my experience, is when some people may have co-opted it in a kind of "yes, I AM a diva, now do my bidding" sort of way. But at its base the implication is pretty much always someone who is regularly demanding in some way (demanding material goods, demanding emotional reassurance, demanding attention, etc.).

It can also be tossed off dismissively in a way that says more about the person using the term and not the person it's being applied to -- such as some guy who really doesn't treat women well and says that any expectation of kindness or reliability is a woman being "high maintenance."

In any case, it's really not a term connoting respect in any way.
posted by scody at 10:34 AM on May 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

I agree it is mostly negative but I have heard it used to refer to someone who's family dynamic created a strong need for validation above and beyond the norm, so there was an element of sympathy. In which case the person was described as "high maintenance, but..."
posted by saucysault at 10:36 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hear it used two ways. One is sort of negative, to describe a person (often but not always a woman) who requires or appears to require an unusually high level of attention, money, and time. But it's only sort of negative, because as mentioned above there's a connotation of attractiveness and sexuality in return.

And the other way I hear it used is affectionately or neutrally, just as a descriptor for when someone requires more attention in some aspect of life (which, if we are honest, we all do). That's probably a cooptation of the negative use of the phrase, but I've been hearing it that way for so long that I think it stands on its own at this point.
posted by Forktine at 10:38 AM on May 19, 2012

Oh, and high maintenance has generally meant the HM person's needs are prioritised quite excessively and over a sustained period.
posted by saucysault at 10:38 AM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

In my experience, high maintenance when referring to a partner in a relationship seems to usually mean a combination of clinical co-dependence, which is certainly not positive, and a whole lot of sexist baggage.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:39 AM on May 19, 2012

I too see it as a mostly negative term, though it's possible to be "high maintenance" [i.e. to me requiring a lot of time and attention that is disproportionate in a relationship] and still be a person who is worthwhile to be with, but it's seen as a negative trait though scody is right it can also be seen as a comment on the expectations of maintenance of the person doing the commenting. SO, to your questions...

-What does high-maintenance mean to you in describing a romantic partner?

Someone who requires significantly more efforts to be with in a relationship than I feel that I require. My parter and I, for example, are both somewhat needy at times, but I feel that it balances. I wouldn't say we were *both* high maintenance in this situation.

-What made your romantic relationship feel high-maintenance?

A partner who was demanding, who was inflexible and rigid, who couldn't manage himself [i.e. required me to make sure he was fed, that he was entertained, that he was getting his work done, etc] and who was not reciprocally available when I felt that there were things that I needed in the relationship.

-Did or has your romantic relationship stood the test of time and love in dealing with someone you felt was high-maintenance?


-What advice do you have for the high-maintenance person involved in a relationship with someone who believes they are low-maintenance?

A reality check on whether these things are actually true. A lot of people do not like the believe that they are high maintenance and a lot of people who have zero requirements for things ["Oh I don't care where we eat, oh I don't care what movie we see, I don't know what I want to do this weekend, I don't know what my holiday plans are"] can also be high maintenance because they wind up putting you in the position of doing all the work. Sometimes it's useful to have an outside perspective or opinion on what the actual balance truly is. And at some level it doesn't matter who is more or less simple to maintain, it's the balance and whether people feel that they are getting what they want out of a relationship that matters.
posted by jessamyn at 10:42 AM on May 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

I'm not sure I've ever seen it used as a sign of respect. It's generally used as language for describing someone's flaws. It's not a dealbreaker, necessarily, but it's not a compliment.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:45 AM on May 19, 2012

My understanding of the phrase is that it's the same for a partner as it would be for a car or a garden. It means the car / garden / partner / relationship needs a heck of a lot of work to keep going compared to what you might normally expect.

By definition that's not a plus from the perspective of the person saying it.

If for example someone was a gardening enthusiast they wouldn't describe their garden as high-maintenance, because they'd relish all the time they spent on it.

A partner could be high-maintenance in a lot of different ways. Maybe they're particularly emotionally fragile and need a lot of support. Maybe they want to do a lot of stuff together when you want more space to do your own thing. Maybe they overthink everything and want to discuss every minor decision with PhD level rigor.

For any of these ways, there might be people who wouldn't find that high-maintenance at all, because it fits what they want or need from a relationship.

Final thought... sometimes it's the person's expectations of how much work relationships should be that are off. Relationships do need a fair amount of effort, and a lot of people esp when they're younger don't know what it really takes.
posted by philipy at 10:49 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

High-maintenance, to me, means that they require a lot of attention and are not necessarily forgiving in this respect. For example, a high-maintenance partner would want me to contact them daily, no exceptions, and would grow very resentful if I failed to accomplish this (usually regardless of the circumstances, though they could eventually "forgive" me for it; this usually came with a big show, a sigh, and a statement of "well OK I guess I forgive you" like it was a huge pain for them). They require a lot of energy on my part (either emotionally, socially, physically) and are constantly asking for things without necessarily helping replenish my internal stores. This can be fine for the beginning phases of a relationship but it gets very wearing when the limerence wears off.

As someone with ridiculous anxiety, I have never managed to make a relationship with a high-maintenance person work. It's just too much stress and too much negativity.

In my experience, high-maintenance isn't necessarily stable over time. A person who was high-maintenance in a previous relationship may have resolved their insecurities or the underlying causes of their attention seeking by the time they enter a new relationship and, thus, not exhibit any high-maintenance patterns of behaviour. However, I would caution you against believing that your partner sees you as low-maintenance when you self-ascribe as high-maintenance because this is primarily an externally-determined facet - your partner would likely have known/described you as this long before you did. As jessamyn said, it might be a good idea to touch base on whether this is true.
posted by buteo at 10:50 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Usually negative, but not always.

Some people are proud of being high maintenance: "I ask for a lot, and I get it, because I'm all that."

Some people are even proud of having a high maintenance partner ... kind of a logical extension of the first type of person -- "I'm awesome because I get to have a boyfriend who is so awesome that he can be high maintenance, and maintaining him is a price worth paying."
posted by MattD at 10:52 AM on May 19, 2012

I've always though of high maintenance as needing a lot of "stuff"

That could mean a few things. Always needing like 2 hours to get ready to go ANYWHERE. Always needing particular items, like makeup and other certain things.

Some people are emotionally high maintenance, meaning they need a lot of reassurance and coddling.
posted by christiehawk at 10:56 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

High-maintenance means "requires more work than the speaker thinks is normal or average." Unless you can put that in a context that isn't derogatory, it's derogatory.

Even if it was used as a statement of some situational fact - "Jane's in a body cast right now, so she's kind of high-maintenance" - it wouldn't necessarily be the kindest or most sympathetic way to put it.

I've heard people use it as a humblebrag, ie "I'm so rich/giving that I can afford/maintain this person's material/emotional upkeep," but I don't think that's any kind of trophy unless that's the kind of person you're proud of being.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:01 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

People use words in all kinds of different ways. I see "high maintenance" as a negative, but isn't it more important for you to find out what your partner means when they call you that? Maybe they mean it affectionately;, maybe they are telling you there is a problem. It's their intent that matters. Why not ask?
posted by Wordwoman at 11:01 AM on May 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Needy attention-hog with unusually high emotional, social, and material demands.

Have heard it used to self-describe by two different people with serious issues (bpd/npd) in a humorous/apologetic/deprecating way in terms of "I am thankful that he puts up with my high maintenance self" sense.
posted by rr at 11:03 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think people who have severe issues with codependence, fear of abandonment, personality disorder, atypical neurologies that can present challenges to communication, etc., might well use it as a self-descriptor. (I've said that about myself regarding my chronic illness, depression and anxiety, and generally prickly personality.)

Sometimes people using it as an other-descriptor are mirroring what they've heard as a self-descriptor (I don't think my husband would call me "high maintenance" but I can imagine having a partner who might); other times, people use it as an other-descriptor to denote someone simply being selfish and needy.

So, yeah, it's pretty varied depending on the situation. If one partner describes the other as "high maintenance" and the second partner doesn't see that as a valid self-descriptor, that might well indicate some problems in the relationship. At least in terms of communication if nothing else.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:13 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

My interpretation of it has been respect, dedication, commitment and love

I've never heard anyone else use the phrase with this meaning, just as a datapoint.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:14 AM on May 19, 2012 [17 favorites]

I know someone who self-identifies as "High Maintenance" meaning they had very *specific* and hard-to-change ideas about lifestyle, upkeep, work, dress, and what was considered "proper". They used this team so people wouldn't be surprised or shocked by their attitude and so they could find someone who shared the same goals.

But they are literally the only person I know who used it in a non-pejorative way.
posted by The Whelk at 11:15 AM on May 19, 2012

Just as a point of order, this phrase was popularised and may have originated in the film When Harry Met Sally.
posted by Diablevert at 11:26 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think it means someone whose partner has to constantly work, to put up with them and their incessant needs and demands. I think of "put up with" specifically because I used to go to this gynecologist who was really into relationships and would always try to talk about them with patients. (Yes, while she was all up in your cervix.) Once she asked me what type of man I wanted and I said, just as a sort of joke because I wasn't about to get into a deep discussion, "Just someone who would put up with me." And she took me seriously and said, "Oh, are you really high maintenance?"

The phrase makes me think of a person who's like an old appliance in that if you don't constantly maintain them, they will break down. Buy them an inexpensive gift and they'll cry for hours, leave them home alone and they'll text you 3,000 times or set the house on fire, that kind of thing. They take constant work.

I've used it about myself, not in the relationship sense but e.g. about my hair. My personality is much more "wash & go, don't give a fuck" but the stuff that grows out of my head requires a fair amount of regular work to look at all presentable. So I've said things like, "I wish I could be low-maintenance, but I'm stuck being high-maintenance, sadly." So not totally a pejorative, but I'm not saying anything nice about my hair either.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:27 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

It basically means that you're good enough in bed that it's worth putting up with your purse-dog.

This is a perfect encapsulation of the way I think of the term. I would never use it to describe a partner, mainly because I would not continue to see a woman that I thought of as high-maintenance.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:29 AM on May 19, 2012

I have spent my life avoiding being called high maintenance just as a goal is to never be on the cover of the NY Post. I want any relationship to be on equal terms in terms of needs and wants.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:41 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only way I've ever heard it used was to describe a woman who spent a lot of time on her appearance and took a lot of time to get ready (in the morning, to go out, etc.). I've never heard it used to mean codependent or needy - far from it. More like vain and obsessed with outward appearance.
posted by pecanpies at 12:17 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Moreover, high maintenance individuals generally are unaware of the behaviors that make them high maintenance. If they are aware, they generally rationalize others as the "problem" and not themselves. In the example given earlier of the the individual that needs 2 hours to get ready to go anywhere, the high maintenance person likely thinks (s)he is spending the requisite time to do it right, not that it represents a personality quirk and preempts said behavior with, "honey, you know this is important to me and I know I take forever doing it...thanks for being so understanding."

This, of course, makes them even harder to be around.
posted by teg4rvn at 12:19 PM on May 19, 2012

As you can see, OP, your interpretation of the term is so idiosyncratic that I think it can accurately be called wrong. I've never heard anyone use it even remotely in that fashion. As others have said, it really means someone who is needy and demanding.
posted by Justinian at 12:35 PM on May 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

I was once called 'high maintenance' in a relationship because I needed constant validation from others, was extremely emotionally reactive and volatile and needed others to calm me down, ground, and reassure me to and tell me nothing was my responsibility. I was considered high maintenance because I expected others to take care of me emotionally.

I fixed this in therapy and with lots of hard work.

I describe people like this 'high maintenance," draining, and annoying.

I was also once called 'high maintenance' every time I wanted to talk about something my sweetie was doing that was painful to me. I interpreted this as 'I don't care about your feelings.'

I fixed this by leaving.

I call people who do this narcissistic jerks.
posted by space_cookie at 12:37 PM on May 19, 2012 [12 favorites]

I think space_cookie has a good way to describe it; high maintenance SOs expect others to take care of them emotionally.
posted by Justinian at 12:47 PM on May 19, 2012

Maintaining a relationship with someone who calls you high maintenance can be in itself a high maintenance activity.

"High maintenance" can describe lots of relationships at various times. To me, they just mean relationships that take a lot of effort to maintain, for all kinds of reasons.

Is this discussion in the context of a conflict? During conflict is when relationships need the most maintenance. Perhaps-- and this is just a guess, your boyfriend considers the effort of hashing out emotional issues temporarily overwhelming. Thus "high maintenance." Or it might be something else-- "high maintenance," as others have noted, can also mean selfish and demanding, as in a partner who needs constant focus on themselves.

It's a hurtful term but unlike others, I wouldn't call it a dealbreaker. It's a loaded term, maybe. Just one that raises questions. Who is doing the maintaining, and on what counts? Without the maintenance, does the relationship work? These are the important issues.
posted by kettleoffish at 1:52 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Moreover, high maintenance individuals generally are unaware of the behaviors that make them high maintenance.

Seconding this. There was never a person I could describe as "high maintenance" that I could also describe as "considerate." High-maintenance is the opposite of empathy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:30 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

To me, as a straight woman, I have been in relationships with men I would consider high maintenance and that basically has meant a huge amount of energy expenditure to keep them on an even emotional keel, a constant stream of ego feeding and an extremely burdensome amount of appearance primping and upkeep on my part because he lead that sort of flashy lifestyle and if I wanted to be with him I needed to match it. Being in this relationship was more or less a full time job, and was really high maintenance.

The women I have known who are high maintenance required a lot of phone calls, a lot of texts, a lot of flowers, a lot of PDA... none of those is a big deal individually but put together, they basically demanded a constant feedback loop of affirmation that I would find exhausting as a partner. (Conversely, my partner and I are about as low-maintenance as you get. THANK GOD.)
posted by DarlingBri at 2:44 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another way to describe "high-maintenance" is "requires guidance and assistance from others in everyday affairs; generally incompetent."

You can't pack a bag, get yourself to the airport and onto the plane? You cannot plan ahead and be self-sufficient. You're high-maintenance.

Your car breaks down because you haven't changed your oil in 20,000 miles? You don't know the importance of monitoring and caring for important items. You're high-maintenance.

You're often getting lost, can't read a map and showing up late to things? You can't self-orient. You're high-maintenance.

Mind you, these are all flexible, subjective points -- you can be a brilliant, wealthy, creative individual in every aspect in life, but you need help tying a necktie, and someone can describe you as high-maintenance.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:45 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

i think of it as a person who needs many things or has a lot of habits that they incorporate into their daily life. for example, a person who spends a lot of time in the morning putting on make up or fixing their hair, they need the right lotion, shampoo, etc. or else they can't/won't go out or do anything. this is in contrast to someone who can take a five minute shower then throw on a shirt and jeans, and they're ready to go. a high maintenance person would not enjoy camping, but they know how to look great for a night out at a fancy restaurant or club.
posted by cupcake1337 at 3:03 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've heard "high maintenance" referring to a person's requirement for a high and specific standard of material things, like "yeah well he can't exactly quit that job, that wife of his is very high maintenance." But more commonly, it's like everyone else has said here - someone who gets bent out of shape if an unusually high level of attention and validation isn't directed their way at all times.

It is never a compliment, although you sometimes see this (awful) kind of person referring to herself this way with pride, like "I get to have high standards because I'm so worth it!"
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:15 PM on May 19, 2012

High-maintenence is a term of disdain used by people who are not articulate -- it has almost no specific meaning. It is of the same class as "control freak". A specific complaint can be addressed but you probably cannot make yourself lower maintenance. Calling somebody high maintenance conveys roughly the same amount of information as saying "you suck".
posted by bukvich at 4:01 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've only ever heard "high-maintenance" in the context of emotional neediness. A person who (purposefully or not) demands a lot of interaction. Kelly on "The Office" is high maintenance, as are Andy and Michael Scott. Basically self centered + dependent.

There was a great comment here (I think?) where someone described a high maintenance person as someone who consistently (and again, not necessarily on purpose) chooses the more difficult option when presented with a choice.

On the really bad end of the scale, these are the people who create drama. Letting themselves run out of gas so they can call for help.
posted by gjc at 6:03 PM on May 19, 2012

The use of the term is a red-flag that there's a problem in the relationship. What the red-flag signifies has everything to do with what's actually true as opposed to what's merely perceived to be true.

That is to say, implicit in all the comments above is that it's extremely important whether or not the person who is supposedly "high-maintenance" really and truly does require more attention and effort "than normal", or not.

If the person does require more attention and effort than normal, and it's not the result of some temporary or externally imposed situation (like an illness or a specific emotional crisis or whatever), then it almost certainly indicates that that person is codependent and/or narcissistic or just plain selfish. In this case, the partner who describes the other partner in those terms obviously has some resentment about it, and rightly so.

In the person does not require more attention and effort than normal, but their partner is claiming that they do, then this indicates that possibly that partner (the one who described the other this way) is narcissistic or just plain selfish, or maybe just feels pretty unsatisfied with the relationship and so perceives any amount of effort expended on their part to be "excessive". Also in this case, the partner who describes the other partner in those terms obviously has some resentment about it, but wrongly so. (Well, if the relationship just generally sucks, they're possibly not wrong to feel that it's not worth their effort, but that doesn't make it fair for them to characterize their partner as requiring an unusual amount of effort when they really require no more attention and effort than an average person in a relationship.)

So, you see, this almost certainly indicates a serious problem in the relationship. (The exceptions would be when it's temporary and so there's no real resentment about it, or otherwise where the one partner actually feels that investing much more effort than normal to keep the other partner happy is worth it. But, as mentioned above, that's probably a minority usage of the term.) What's ambiguous is where the problem lies. Maybe the supposed high-maintenance person really is, and it's a pathology with them. Maybe they're not really that way, and the perception by the partner says a lot about the partner. And, maybe, both are somehow true. Maybe one partner doesn't want to put much effort in and the other partner is expecting more effort than they ought. Whatever is the case, unless both people are truly happy with this state of affairs (which, again, is probably not the case), then there's probably a big problem that needs to be worked through, or the relationship ended.

However, as was also mentioned above, this probably needs some outside perspective because in my opinion whatever is the actual truth of the matter, both people are going to have very strong emotional investments in the particular version they see. It's difficult to convince a truly high-maintenance person that there's a problem originating with them, and it's difficult to convince a person falsely claiming their partner is high-maintenance that there's a problem originating with them. A lot of the framing of all this involves blame, and that ends up stirring up a lot of conflict. But the resentment is probably already there.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:27 PM on May 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've had a lot high-maintenance friends and family members. They always have to be the center of attention. One often has to walk on egg shells around them and go out of one's way to please them. When I hear the term 'high-maintenance' I think the person being described as such needs a lot of attention and has to get their way. While it's certainly not a respectful, loving description to give to a significant other, friend, or family member.. since I've had to deal with a lot of people who ARE that sort, I tend to have sympathy for the person who has to deal with the high-maintenance person because dealing with someone who truly is high-maintenance is a real drain physically and emotionally. Often, I think the h-m person might not realize that their S.O./friend/family is silently suffering or resenting them and that they're being perceived in such a negative way. Being oblivious is one thing, but not caring is just... well, it's not worth having any variety of relationship with a person who is aware of how they are and feel that they are entitled to special treatment.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

One other thing. Someone may be using it as an endearing compliment because they know you are a giving and loving person, but you have specific needs to make your life good. For example, say you are a woman who gets a mani/pedi every week. No matter what. And needs to dress a certain way, roots taken care of once a month etc. But you also carry your own weight, take care of the matters you need to, give as much as you get, etc. Then I could see your SO saying you are high maintenance, but in a different context, more as an appreciation of what you do to take care of yourself, and that they like that about you. (although, I think they would be a bit off on using the term how they are using it.)
posted by Vaike at 8:10 PM on May 19, 2012

I have one friend who would self-describe as high maintenance, meaning she has specific ideas about how things should be, and will insist on them being that way. This can be for better or for worse, it's related to her finely developed sense of taste and propriety, but she does have certain expectations for her partner's behavior (much as she has certain expectations for her own behavior) and is not suited/inclined toward a "casual" or relaxed type of behavior.

One reason this is usually negative is the growing idea in our culture that people (women especially) should not set high standards or judge others. So if a woman thinks her boyfriend or husband should stop wearing t-shirts and dress more formally, or expects a certain level of refinement, there's a cultural thread that says she's being unreasonable - t-shirts and feet on the coffee table is 'authentic' and it's unreasonable to expect anything else.

So she might start referring to herself as 'high-maintenance' also in order to signal that expectation early on in the relationship; she'll act the woman's role of formal society, but her partner is expected to act the man's formal/traditional role too.

In that sense, it doesn't need to be negative at all. It IS indicating that "there is more effort required of this relationship / this woman's expectations are higher than the norm".
posted by Lady Li at 9:29 PM on May 19, 2012

I would jokingly describe myself as "high-maintenance", meaning, I need to floss every night, and I have an array of skin care products (some quite expensive) that I like to use day and night, and I like to take a car service rather than public transit or a regular taxi, and if I'm anywhere without at least 3G I get very very freaked out. So, I am too high-maintenance to take on a camping trip, for example. But the difference from the examples described above is that I pay for all of this myself, I'm not looking for a man to finance my lifestyle. I would get upset if you made me do an activity where I broke my well-manicured nail, but I pay for those nails myself with a backbreaking lot of hard work. So "high-maintenance" to me means needing a lot of civilization to be comfortable, but not depending on anyone else to provide it. I think I have the most positive usage of the term so far.
posted by twiggy32 at 12:52 AM on May 20, 2012

I saw that "When Harry Met Sally" video was linked to above. But I thought pasting in the relevant exchange would be useful because it really illustrates what the popular use/connotation of the term is. Plus who doesn't love a "When Harry Met Sally" quote....

Harry: There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.
Sally: Which one am I?
Harry: You're the worst kind; you're high maintenance but you think you're low maintenance.
Sally: I don't see that.
Harry: You don't see that? "Waiter, I'll begin with a house salad, but I don't want the regular dressing. I'll have the balsamic vinegar and oil, but on the side. And then the salmon with the mustard sauce, but I want the mustard sauce on the side." "On the side" is a very big thing for you.
Sally: Well, I just want it the way I want it.
Harry: I know; high maintenance.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 2:22 AM on May 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

It seems like there's maybe a pair of alternative meanings for "high-maintenance". Or maybe three.

One, apparently mostly applied to women, involves material things and appearance — this reads to me as a fairly regressive notion of women and relationships, but YMMV.

Another is implied in the When Harry Met Sally quote above — someone who is very persnickety; a perfectionist or otherwise very particular. I'm not clear on whether this is gender-specific...but I think that it more may be pointing to one or the other of either the previous possibility or the next one and not necessarily be its own, separate, thing.

The other main meaning is someone who, in the context of relationship interaction — or, naturally enough, relationship maintenance — requires a lot of effort. That's the codependent/needy/narcissistic sense I discussed in my comment. That can, and does, apply to either men or women. I suspect that because of certain gender roles and how they involve relationship expectations and all that it's likely that this may be applied more often to women than men — and certainly more often unfairly and falsely to women by men — but it's not necessarily that highly gender-specific.

To the degree to which this involves some older-but-changing gender roles, the variation in meaning may be age and subculture-specific. I'm almost fifty, but in my peer group the idea of a high-maintenance female partner in the sense of being "kept" in nice clothes and such and the things that others mentioned earlier in the thread are like television caricatures and not any real people I've known. On the other hand, someone who demands most of the attention and most of the effort in the relationship (for them and on their terms) is pretty common and applies to both men and women.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:45 AM on May 20, 2012

There's obviously got to be some other good qualities about the person (like being super-hot, or what have you) that make-up for their high-maintenanceness, but that doesn't mean that being high-maintenance is in itself a good thing.

I disagree. I know a number of guys who actively seek out and enjoy stereotypically high maintenance women. The conversation might be more like:
Bro: How are things going with Sarah?

Dude: She's great! Kind of high maintenance, you know what I mean? But man, last week we went out, swung by the new tapas place, went dancing, there was a huge line but the guy at the door waved us straight in, it was awesome.

Bro: Sounds like fun. Susan was telling me that she's really pretty and wants to go shopping with her.

Dude: Yeah, you wouldn't believe the salon bills she runs up, worse than a truck payment, ha ha
You know, more like humble-bragging, telling the world that you have the resources to provide a certain kind of lifestyle, and that in exchange you get a lot back.
posted by Forktine at 8:06 AM on May 20, 2012

I think 23skidoo has it - that being high maintenance is universally regarded as a negative trait, but women who are high maintenance tend to be hot enough to get away with it, at least for a little while and with a certain kind of guy. The example scenario Forktine describes would not work without this basic assumption. If the woman in the scenario wasn't also pretty enough to get them past the club lineup, would dude and bro be nearly so enamored with her? What would be the benefit of footing her outrageous salon bills then? So perhaps by association, (high maintenance generally correlated with being physically attractive), it could be considered something of a positive, but in and of itself being called high maintenance is not a nice thing.
posted by keep it under cover at 10:19 AM on May 20, 2012

Like Wordwoman said, context and tone of voice can change everything and a normally very positive word can be used negatively, or a normally negative word can be used positively.

The most positive terms can be used sarcastically, e.g. "We missed our flight because genius here forgot his passport." And pretty negative terms can used affectionately. e.g. "Sorry guys we're going to be joining you a day late. That adorable scatterbrain of mine forgot his passport so we couldn't get our flight. Y'all have fun now, and we'll see you tomorrow."

Pretty much anything can be affectionate ribbing if the person doing it thinks their affection is clear beyond question and they like to rib people.

For that matter with loved ones it's not uncommon to see their foibles as adorable, or at least accept their shortcomings with tolerance and good humor.

In a neutral context and neutral tone of voice, "high-maintenance" would never be a good thing. But it's hard to imagine that anyone ever says it to their partner in a neutral way. If they say it in an irritated way, it's negative. If they say it an affectionate way, it's maybe accepting, maybe somehow positive, maybe telling you gently some ways they wish you'd change. If they do say it in neutral way, maybe they're telling you something about you which they find trying, though it's not a big deal, and no barrier to having a good relationship.

If you're interested in finding out more specifically what they meant, maybe ask them what they'd like you to do different.
posted by philipy at 10:22 AM on May 20, 2012

Maintenance - the expediture of time, energy, and money to maintain the status quo. Its like bailing water out of a ship, you do it or eventually there's a problem.

Would you want a ship that had "high bailing requirements"? As in, stop bailing water out of this thing for a day and it will spontaneously sink?
posted by Chekhovian at 7:40 AM on May 23, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all for sharing your interpretation and experiences. I have a better understanding of the term and new things to think about. The delivery of the term is very important and it's all about semantics.
posted by i_wear_boots at 9:19 AM on May 23, 2012

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