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How to Handle a High Maintenance Spouse


In context to the complex and never-boring emotional landscape of marriage, the term "high maintenance" is a real can of worms. One person's high maintenance is another's spousal nightmare, and vice versa. Less important than the laundry list of the attributes that generally qualify a spouse as "high maintenance" - obsessive (for men it's often football, for women it's interior decorating), inconsistent (one day it's perfectly okay to leave the toilet seat up, the next it's grounds for divorce), economically-challenged (when one spouse has absolutely no idea of the meaning of the term "limit" relative to credit cards), and about 79 other common behaviors - is the means by which the put-upon spouse manages to get by and, somehow, maintain some semblance of marital bliss.

Taken at face value, high maintenance behavior is a recipe for marital disaster. It's only a matter of time before one more parking ticket, one more once-worn pair of $400 shoes, or one more instance of saying precisely the opposite of the intended meaning and then getting defensively furious that you can't read his or her mind, becomes the straw that breaks the marriage counselor's back. But for couples who acknowledge this state of perpetual matrimonial challenge, there is hope. And it comes in three distinct areas of high-maintenance management.

First, the victimized spouse - in high maintenance situations there is usually one offender and one who is known among friends as an angel with the patience of Job - must establish the ground rules beforehand. If the high maintenance behavior creates consequences, such as habitual late fees for unpaid monthly bills, there is compensation to the patient spouse in the form of their choosing. The goal is the elimination of anything close to a double standard. There must be ground rules for when and how to give feedback and express frustration, about defensiveness, and about an honest assessment of the effect on the patient spouse when the offending spouse clicks into high maintenance mode.

Next, feedback and discussion must be carefully timed, regardless of the ground rules. Rarely does feedback given in the moment have the desired effect. Wait until emotions subside on both sides, then ask permission to give feedback about how the high maintenance offense made you feel, and how to prevent it from recurring. Establish that you are entitled to those feelings and that your feelings are important. This may be like asking a dog not to bark at the mailman, or in some cases the moon - high maintenance behavior is often second nature behavior - but it clears the way for apologies and forgiveness later, and over time may serve to actually diminish or change the behavior altogether.

And finally, the patient spouse must make it clear that there's only so much abuse to be tolerated before the proverbial foot is put down. Ironically, one of the more common high maintenance behaviors is to totally ignore feedback from the so-called patient spouse (the victim), not to mention their feelings. In these cases a line must be drawn in the matrimonial sand with very real and meaningful consequences. This isn't about threatening to take away the credit card or the car keys, it's about threatening to call a marriage counselor or, if things get worse, a lawyer. Because in divorce court, high maintenance translates as "irreconcilable differences," the most common divorce rationale there is.

For any of this to work there must be a solid context of affection, commitment and a shared intention to not allow the prevalent high maintenance behavior to slowly, like acid, deteriorate the relationship. The offending high maintenance spouse knows who he or she is - if there is denial on this front you have a much bigger issue on your hands - and once acknowledgement is on the table there's no hiding from the truth. Such a context serves to keep the offending spouse on their best behavior, and cushions weak moments with latitude and forgiveness. That metaphoric dog may continue to bark when the mail arrives, but at least he or she will know where the doghouse is, and what awaits them once they get there.

With love, gentleness, open communications and meaningful consequences at stake - not the least of which is fair play and your feelings - high maintenance spouses can be managed. One hopes there is sufficient upside to make all the effort it will require worthwhile. And that, too, should become part of the discussion, permission or no permission.


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