“When I asked for examples of how I was high maintenance, he could only say that he had to pay me some sort of attention,” says Shaunna*, 27, from Manchester. She was shocked when her now ex-boyfriend first used the term, about a year into their relationship, when referring to basic acts such as talking, replying to her text messages, or just spending an evening together.
‘Love Island’ viewers will have seen Adam Collard pull a not entirely dissimilar stunt - first with Kendal Rae-Knight, and then twice with Rosie Williams. Kendal, he moaned, was “overthinking” things (choosing to take things at her own pace); Rosie, was over-reacting and making something of nothing when she tackled him about comments he’d made about her to Meghan Barton-Hanson. More recently, as Rosie confronted him after he ditched her for Zara McDermott, he accused her of being “arsey” and “having a bee in her bonnet”.
In these cases the implication was clear: these needy women are making unreasonable demands of me.
When people describe boyfriends or girlfriends as high maintenance, what they mean is they have “higher than normal expectations, and therefore more difficult or challenging to deal with”. The term can be used in a variety of contexts: physical, emotional or financial needs, but the unifying thread is that one half of the relationship has needs deemed by one party to exceed ‘the norm’.
And it is this that allows the term to be weaponised against women. Armele Philpotts of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy says calling out your partner for being ‘high maintenance’ is essentially shifting responsibility when you refuse to meet their emotional needs.
“They refuse to take responsibility in resolving difficulties, preferring to label you as the problem,” she says.
The term high maintenance is not new. Remember when Phoebe in Friends said Monica was high maintenance? But it was okay because Chandler “likes maintaining her”.
Flash forward nearly three decades and the term is being used in exactly the same way. Google data shows monthly searches for the phrase ‘high maintenance man’ are only 1% of the searches for ’high maintenance woman’ - experts say the term is increasingly being used against women in relationships.
“In a way you could say all relationships are ‘high maintenance’,” says Marian O’Connor, a therapist with Tavistock Relationships. “We should all be paying attention to the health of the relationship, which will inevitably include thinking about and maintaining our partner’s needs as well as our own.”
The term becomes problematic when it is used with a negative connotation, to degrade or berate someone. “Calling someone high maintenance is normally saying these demands are unreasonable and you are a bad person for having them,” says Relate counsellor, Gurpreet Singh.
““It can be used as a way of shifting responsibility for the person’s unmet needs...'”
For Shaunna, being viewed as ‘high maintenance’ had a serious impact on her relationship. “I did watch my behaviour towards him for a few weeks, being very careful what I said, or how often I texted, phoned or spoke to him,” she says.
Not only did she find this confusing, but it meant that it started affecting her self esteem. She now sees, as Philpotts highlighted, that in this case, the behaviour was part of a wider pattern of emotional abuse. She eventually left her partner as a result.
The trope of the ‘high maintenance’ girlfriend isn’t just an issue for partners, but also in society. “Women are so scared of being seen as hard work by men,” says Shaunna. And because the term ‘high maintenance’ is so vilified by society, they do their best to avoid succumbing to it.
So what should you do if your partner calls you high maintenance? Singh says: “Where there is controlling behaviour, be safe about approaching your partner. Especially if this is part of a wider violent or abusive behaviour. In this situation perhaps you need to seek external help.
“But if the relationship is otherwise healthy and you don’t like it when your partner calls it your name – call them out on it and tell them you don’t like it.”