Attention — 17 February 2004
Is a “low maintenance relationship a good goal?

Our technologically propelled life impacts many aspects of our existence, including our concepts and language. We all know about the advantages of a low maintenance machines like cars, sound systems, computers, etc., but a “low maintenance relationship”? This term is not only used by some couples but is also believed to be a desirable state of relating.

So what is a “low maintenance relationship?” Well, it varies from speaker to speaker, but the theme is a relationship that requires little effort to maintain. How did we come up with the concept of “low maintenance” relationship and is it advantageous to have?

Perhaps it evolved from the distasteful description of some partners as too “high maintenance”. That often implies that the partner is too needy of material possessions, attention, affirmation, appreciation, and emotional or physical care. The label “high maintenance” implies unreasonable demands that are burdensome to the other mate.

If you ask people who use the term “low maintenance” relationship to define it, you will get one of many answers.

The most common definition of “low maintenance” refers to being with a partner who is not materialistic and does not put financial pressure to generate more funds for excessive spending.

For partners who spend a lot of time in excessive arguments, fighting and unpleasant negotiations, “low maintenance” may mean smooth interactions that are emotionally non-taxing.

Partners, who see their mates as very demanding, critical and controlling, define “low maintenance” as not needing to justify every decision or action they take.

For mates who are encouraged to talk more, express their emotions or talk about them, “low maintenance” may mean a relationship that does not stretch them to act in ways that are difficult for them.

“Low maintenance” may also refer to a low level of accountability to a suspicious or mistrusting mate or even a loving one.

All these uses are fantasized ways to reduce discomfort. They are ineffective and only lead to distance and alienation between mates.

“Low maintenance” is an inappropriate prefix to relationships. Reducing a relationship to a status of an operating system that should be established and function independently without input from the users, feels offensive.

To me, a “low maintenance” relationship is not a good goal, since it conflicts with one of my basic tenets that “everything worth having requires energy.” We put energy into our children, friends, pets, gardens, homes and they reflect both the amount and nature of our loving attention. When we love that which we invest in, the process is often as enjoyable as the positive outcome.

The best answer for a good relationship is a high level of loving energy, given freely on a daily basis.

In relationships, more (energy) is better. There is no such thing as too much love, too much caring, too much kindness or too much attention that can be given to our mates, provided that it is done appropriately. It could be too much if we violate the boundaries of the recipient. Otherwise, more love is better than less. More time together is better than less, more conversation and sharing is better than less. More of a good thing is better than not enough of it.

Couples seldom complain about too much goodness, they are often upset about not receiving enough of it. In order to give the right attention, love and caring mates need to communicate their wishes and set boundaries if they feel overwhelmed.

I have heard partners complain that their mates do so much for them that they lose the opportunity to initiate intimacy or helpful behaviors. These partners are dealing with issues of boundaries, not looking for a “low maintenance” option.

Giving in relationship is a key concept, not doing as little as possible to get by. Actually, the ideal formula is for each partner to do as much as he or she can do, to keep the connection vital and healthy. When both mates give the maximum loving energy to each other, their relationship blossoms.

When the relationship is great, it does not call for lowering input. Just as we need to eat and sleep daily and can not count on staying healthy by having done it the day before, so does a relationship require daily nurturing.

Some people say: “We used to be so close, what happened to us? Most likely, the energy that generated their close times was abandoned, as did its joys. We do not reap the benefits without having spent the energy to earn them.
Those who keep up their efforts in maintaining a healthy relationship often do not see this as a chore but as a delight.

  • Abandon the notion that a “low maintenance” relationship is a worthwhile goal. It is at best a stagnant one.
  • If you see it as a way to reduce conflict and create harmony, you are defeating your goals. Put energy into addressing the problems so you will be freed to replace them with healthy interactions.
  • Use a great deal of positive energy to attain a worthwhile relationship with your mate.
  • Please reserve human, loving terms to describe your partnership, not ones borrowed from technology. What may seem cute- is actually harmful.
  • Your happiness depends on your efforts. The more you give, the more likely you are to create that which pleases you.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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