The Problem with 'High Maintenance'
Updated: Sep 15
After being described as ‘high maintenance’ during an innocent game, the more sinister and frustrating connotations of this term frequently played on the mind of Chloe Lawson, inspiring her to vent her thoughts on paper.
This rant was fuelled during a recent round of a novelty card game played at the kitchen table between my flatmates and me. The object of the round was to decide who in the room was the most ‘high maintenance’ and votes were resoundingly cast for me, including my own. This was not something I found offensive at the time and no friendships were damaged. However, since then I have become increasingly bothered when thinking about the phrase and its connotations. In the context of the game, the term was not attached to a particular gender. Yet, it seemed inconceivable to me that any of the boys would ever have been described in that way. A quick search of ‘high maintenance’ on google, delivers high up on the suggested searches ‘high maintenance girl’ and the first result: ‘12 signs she’s a high maintenance girl: Should you date her?’ from a site laughably called ‘The Adult Man’. In the ‘Urban Dictionary’, you also find a definition for a ‘high maintenance woman’ but not a specific definition for ‘high maintenance man’.
According to Grammarphobia, the term has been coined since the early 1980s to describe a demanding or needy person, of any gender. The words at a simple level bring to my mind an inanimate object or possession whose upkeep is more trouble than it is worth. Google’s definition of the term is ‘something requiring a lot of work to be kept in a good condition’. This image is problematic, implying an object that is essentially too much effort to be worthy of care. In the Urban Dictionary, ‘high maintenance’ is specifically defined as “a female that requires more than average hair/nail/pedicure/skincare services, the latest trends, name brand clothes/shoes and handbags, and lots of attention”. Essentially, an overly demanding ‘Miss Piggy’ type character or perhaps a botox-filled gold-digging second wife.
I am neither of these things and I did not for a moment think that my friends were accusing me of being so. Nevertheless, the phrase does carry these connotations. I felt as though it were outdated, a misogynistic way of belittling people trying to communicate their needs in any relationship, romantic or otherwise. It is unanimously agreed by female writers that it is a phrase coined by men to manipulate and shame women who do not “line up with their subjective expectations” of how they should behave. Fundamentally it denigrates someone for knowing what they do and don’t want. When a man is clear about what he wants, he is never called ‘high maintenance’, but rather applauded.
It is not simply a complaint from men; women and girls can perpetuate this idea, unknowingly or not. To describe yourself as ‘low maintenance’ is a conscious contrast to those hysterical ‘high maintenance’ women. This could be described as a ‘pick me’ habit because it implies that the ‘low maintenance’ people do not ask for anything and would be much less ‘hassle’ in a relationship. The women at the ‘low maintenance’ end of the scale are amusingly described on the blog ‘Sandria_Says’ as those who “embody the colour beige”, seeing as they rarely express a definite opinion on anything.
In response, I would argue that to not ask for anything in any kind of relationship is not the sign of a healthy bond. Sometimes, it is vital to set boundaries and communicate to prevent or ease difficulties. When a friend or partner is, or is not, doing something that upsets you, it is important to voice these feelings understandably. If doing this is ‘high maintenance’ then let that be ‘high maintenance’. The negative implications disgust me in their potential to prevent anyone from voicing their feelings for fear of putting someone off them, friend or otherwise because they are ‘too much work’.
To me, ‘high maintenance’ can be classed with other such demeaning turns of phrase such as ‘very difficult woman’, or describing a girl as ‘psycho’ in instances when she is expressing anger. These are terms that trap people into behavioural patterns to avoid upsetting others. They are used when a woman is acting contrary to society’s expectations. It reminds me of the unnecessary fuss surrounding Jennifer Anniston and the absence of a husband. I have heard it commented that ``she must be really difficult”. Why must she? And what do you know? These phrases have the dangerous implications of acting as potential ‘gags’ to reduce admirable qualities to unattractive vices and invalidate opinions. Why should anyone feel that they can’t communicate their thoughts or anxieties because it might mean they are too much hassle?
I do not mean for this to come across as something that exclusively applies to women; anyone could be described as ‘high maintenance’ by someone else trying to put them down. It should not be forgotten that people are, by nature, complicated beings and therefore ‘high maintenance’. In a time when increasing attention is being paid towards mental health issues and understanding of them is encouraged at great lengths, lingering phrases like this must be understood for the connotations that they carry with them. If someone communicates their fears, concerns or boundaries and is met with a reaction that implies they are too much like hard work, they will likely be less willing to repeat the conversation for fear of being brushed aside for a more ‘low maintenance’ model.
Of course, this goes both ways. You cannot simply ask and ask and ask and not respond with the same understanding. It is necessary to achieve a balance of reciprocal high maintenance.
I have an idea of why I was voted the highest maintenance out of the people sitting around the kitchen table. However, what struck me as I wrote this rant is my apprehension about putting this on the internet. By freely describing myself as high maintenance and aggressively calling for an end to the phrase, I was still afraid that people would think of me as difficult and too much like hard work. I do not believe I am, yet this belief is still prevalent in society. I was irritated that I should feel like this. If anyone feels uncomfortable in a friendship or relationship, they should not feel straitjacketed by ridiculous notions about keeping feelings to themselves for fear of upsetting the apple cart. I was struck by an important thing to remember when writing this: you will always be high maintenance to the wrong people, if they are not mature or emotionally evolved enough to respect and understand your needs. As a Friends fan, I am reminded of Chandler’s words to Monica who has been accused of being high maintenance by Phoebe- “they can call you high maintenance, but it’s okay because I like maintaining you”. Cast aside the whinging babies who aren’t prepared to treat you as you deserve and find the Chandler Bings of this world.
1. Sigafus, Joshua; ‘12 signs she’s a High Maintenance Girl: Should you Date Her?’ The Adult Man. Accessed 20/05/2021. https://theadultman.com/love-and-lust/high-maintenance-girl/
2. The Urban Dictionary, ‘High Maintenance Woman’. Accessed 20/05/2021. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=High%20maintenance%20woman
3. Kellerman, Stewart and O Conner, Patricia. ‘When Harry Met High Maintenance’. Grammarphobia. Accessed: 20/05/2021. https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2020/04/high-maintenance.html#:~:text=very%20demanding%20or%20fussy%2C%E2%80%9D%20according,%2C%20April%2019%2C%201982).
4. The Urban Dictionary, High Maintenance. Accessed 20/05/2021.
5. @Sandria_Says. ‘What Men really mean when they call you high maintenance’. Accessed 20/05/2021. https://medium.com/@sandriasays/what-men-really-mean-when-they-call-you-high-maintenance-85a51b79e422#:~:text=I%20worry%20about%20doing%20good,to%20comply%20to%20my%20wishes%E2%80%9D.
6. Stern, Abby. ‘Why Calling Someone High Maintenance is so Wrong.’ The Zoe Report. Accessed 20/05/2021. https://www.thezoereport.com/living/relationships/high-maintenance-women-opinion
7. Sandria_Say, ‘What Men Really Mean’. https://medium.com/@sandriasays/what-men-really-mean-when-they-call-you-high-maintenance-85a51b79e422#:~:text=I%20worry%20about%20doing%20good,to%20comply%20to%20my%20wishes%E2%80%9D.
This article was written by Chloe Lawson, a fourth year History student at the University of Edinburgh. It was edited by