We call someone ‘high maintenance’ when responding to them requires us to use energy above and beyond what we consider normal. In other words, I have to do things that don’t come naturally to me and it will cost me energy to restrain my natural response and additional energy to produce the necessary behavior. For example, there are people in my life that I need to modify my direct, blunt, matter-of-fact approach to one that is warmer, displays more expressed emotion and uses a slower pace. It will take energy, skill, willingness and conscious awareness to modify my responses.
Most days, the energy expenditure feels minimal and I’m hardly aware of what modifying my behavior is costing me. And, through the years, I’ve learned the necessary adaptive skills and usually have the willingness to modify my natural behavior to get a better outcome. However, if I’m tired, stressed, pressured, sick or simply ‘out of cope’, it feels like the person is “high maintenance”. Or if I feel the relationship is too one-sided, that I’m working more to adapt than I’m getting in return, I may feel that the cost is too high.
There’s another reason that feel we some relationships require a lot of work—non productive ‘games’. Many years ago, Eric Berne wrote a book, Games People Play, in which he identified “nonproductive rackets” or transactions that consumed a lot of energy dysfunctionally. While this model of Transactional Analysis isn’t used much any more, it still provides a lot of information about the kinds of interactions that consume a lot of energy. One of the games I still hear a lot about when people talk about high maintenance relationships is called “Why Don’t You, Yes But“.