Recently, a woman I know who was dating a mutual friend told me things had ended badly. I asked her what happened. “I’m A LOT, Tracy!” she said. What she meant, of course, was she’s a headache. A handful. Too much work. Not worth the payoff.
I don’t really hear the term “high maintenance” bandied about as roll of caution tape on women anymore. I’m not sure when it lost traction, but in the last decade, I’ve heard far more references to women who are “crazy” or just “drama.”
Maybe it’s a dated term, as its major pop culture moment comes from (and likely remains for eternity) that scene in When Harry Met Sally. In it, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are both watching Casablanca together on the phone when Ingrid Bergman appears onscreen. “Ooh, Ingrid Bergman,” Harry says. “Now she’s low maintenance.”
“Low maintenance?” Sally asks, as if she’s never heard this categorization.
He tells her there are only two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance. “Which one am I?” she asks naively.
“You’re the worst kind,” he says. “You’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.”
Aside from the fact that this actually reveals there’s at least three kinds of women (high, low and obliviously high), what’s more instructive is why Sally earns this distinction. When pressed to explain, he gives her these examples:
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.
I just want it the way I want it is the most succinct definition of a high-maintenance woman. The what and the how might change (and boy do they!), but it’s all laddering up to the same impossible standard. She’s picky about food, engagement rings, attention, has no chill, is not laid-back. She is not a fun hang, because things have to be a certain way or else. And what’s more, it’s never enough. No matter how much you cater, tend and comply, it’s never ever enough for the impossible-to-make-happy woman.
What Makes a High-Maintenance Woman?
Even though it seems like women are more comfortable owning the designation in one way or another, I was surprised to see the term still out there in the ether. A recent Reddit thread on the subject suggests it’s alive and well. A man asked on the r/AskMen subreddit this week, “What is, to you, a high maintenance woman?”
Commenters weigh in, but a best example answer includes four main types:
And another suggests it’s also just a distrustful woman who never assumes the best in you:
A woman chimed in that she thought it was entirely about being too performatively feminine:
But in the end, someone concludes that it’s really just anyone who takes too much work on any level:
This is a key distinction: Maintenance levels in any relationship with any person are relative. We all come with certain factory settings. Too much work is totally subjective, and one man’s high-maintenance nightmare is another man’s dream girl. (For what it’s worth, some men totally dig high-maintenance women. They see them more as women who know their value.)
But we can draw a few reasonable generalizations based on being alive in the world: Generally, women are the ones who are expected to put in a lot of work, or emotional labor, into relationships to keep them going. Generally, men aren’t.
It’s not entirely your fault, guys. Gender programming tells us that it’s a woman’s job to do the work of communicating and nurturing the relationship. And this is a message women receive practically in utero: Be sensitive, kind, accommodating and caring. Put others first. Don’t be selfish by demanding things your way. The only women who don’t get this message are spoiled — that is, high maintenance. And while men might temporarily be dazzled by such spectacles, that’s not the sort of women they make their wives.
Likewise, men are generally not raised to cater to and consider others at the expense of themselves. Be polite? Sure. But make a romantic relationship your main priority? Not so much. Any woman who demands you do? Kind of a nag. Thus the recurring joke: What are the four worst words you can say to a guy? “We need to talk.”
The Myth of the Low-Maintenance ‘Cool Girl’
This is also why we still fetishize the Girl Next Door and Cool Girls, because they seem so very low maintenance and seemingly built to make you happy. That is, they are fun, down to earth, accessible, sweet, accommodating women who will put you first, who are easy to be with and who don’t make a big deal out of everything, unless the big deal they are making is about how great you are, and how much fun you’re having together, never getting all worked up about anything.
They’re hot, but in a low-key way that doesn’t take two hours to paint on. That’s still the wifey dream. Contort yourself to this end, we tell women, and you’ll never be lonely come Saturday night — or every Saturday night for the rest of your life. Low maintenance women just don’t have the demanding neediness and hypercritical scrutiny of their high-maintenance counterparts. We tell men they are always good enough to a low-maintenance woman, and what greater aphrodisiac is there than this? Someone who accepts you for just you, and isn’t going to try to change you.
Dating advice literature still peddles high-maintenance red flags to men as warnings they ignore at their peril. One representative example is an article on 10 signs she’s too high maintenance at Muscle & Fitness, which tells us the following: She’s too done up with her appearance and too emotionally needy (“When you are working, she’s calling you twice, sometimes three times a day and leaving you endless Snapchats, text messages, and tags on Instagram.”) She also takes everything way too seriously. (“Does she treat spilled milk as if it’s murder, or can she go with the flow?”)
But What All These Descriptions Ignore Is That Men Do All This, Too
They can be exceptionally insecure and needy, consumed with their appearance, jealous, controlling and temperamental. A study a few years back found that roughly 20 percent of women said their man was high maintenance.
Those behaviors included: throwing a fit when they didn’t get what they wanted, needing to be told they were loved several times a day, often running late, and spending a lot of time in the bathroom getting ready.
In recent years, a number of articles have also begun to warn against the high-maintenance man who needs a lot of pampering and attention. Chalk it up to relaxed gender roles, but if a man can be a Groomzilla, you can best believe he can be a handful in every other way.
Co-workers can be high maintenance, too. If you always complain, never offer solutions, and tend to suck up a lot of time and energy creating drama at work, report yourself to the nearest mirror for some self-reflection (you probably needed to check your hair, anyway). Babies? They’re the most high-maintenance creatures on earth.
In other words, yes, high-maintenance people exist, and they are everywhere. Researchers have even come up with a kind of test for people who have a very pronounced Need for Drama (that’s actually the official psychological term).
And there’s nothing wrong with calling it out, avoiding it, or loving it until death do you part. All we ask is don’t make the mistake of applying it to just one gender. If we’ve learned anything by now, it’s that women don’t have the monopoly on being “A LOT.”