We all have that one friend or family member who's a constant drain on our energy. You want to keep that person in your life (or have to), but you could do without the huge amounts of stress. While you can't change who someone is, you can do a lot to remove the dysfunction from the situation. Whether you've got one or many high-maintenance people in your life, here's how to handle them.
I have dealt with a handful of high-maintenance people in my life, some of whom I've handled better than others. It's always a delicate situation, and everybody's a little different. That said, as in any situation, certain approaches can work significantly better than others. To figure out which tactics work best for handling the high-maintenance crowd, I enlisted the help of relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil. Here's what I learned about managing those high-maintenance relationships.
Set Clear Boundaries (Because They Will Be Crossed)
When I first started as a freelance designer, I wanted to do a great job. Clients would take advantage of this, often coercing me into doing more work than we'd agreed upon. An early mentor told me one important thing: the first thing you need to do is set clear expectations and put them in writing. If a client asks for something you didn't agree to, you can always refer back to that list when you need to say no.
Sure, a personal relationship isn't a series of business transactions, but stressful situations with high-maintenance loved ones aren't terribly different. If a friend or family member is continually crossing a line, you need to ensure they know where that line is. Roger suggests the following:
Whether it's letting that person know that you're not comfortable talking about a particular subject or giving them rules about when it's appropriate to call you (such as "don't call me unless you're bleeding"), you need to let this person know where your limits are. When they cross them, let them know in a respectful manner. Don't let them bully you, but don't be a jerk either.
This can be an uncomfortable conversation, especially if you bring it up out of nowhere. If you do that, it may seem as if you're on the offensive. Because this is an ongoing relationship and not one formed from a business contract, you have the option of waiting until a problem arises. When it does, use that moment to tell your high-maintenance person what is or isn't OK. Let them know the terms of your relationship, and refer back to them politely anytime they breach those terms. Setting boundaries is important, but it's also crucial that you are consistent. If you're not, and you let this person break the rules you've set out, they'll learn that the rules don't matter. That will only make things worse.
Nurture the Relationship On Your Terms
High-maintenance people live in a world that revolves around them, so the only schedule that matters is their own. They'll often ignore or forget about the times you're busy, because they find their time to be more important. High-maintenance people won't necessarily think this way consciously, but rather they'll overestimate the importance of their current issue. That results in phone calls and subsequent requests that sound dire but really aren't all that important. To avoid this problem, Roger suggests only making an effort to help when you have the time:
If the person is the type to try to get your attention more than you would like, only make yourself available on your terms. For example, if they insist on calling you non-stop while you're on your honeymoon then don't pick up. Wait until you get back and reach out to them (although they'll likely be upset because you weren't available when they wanted you). One trick that's helpful is to return someone's call when you have a limited amount of time. For example, "Hey I'm sorry I missed your call but I have 10 minutes before I have to head out to work and I wanted to see how you're doing." This trick also works when calling back someone who's a hardcore talker.
This is difficult because you have a lingering "what if" in the back of your head, making you wonder if something bad is actually happening. You're simply a victim of a boy who cried wolf situation, causing you to worry about the possible guilt of ignoring a truly important problem. What you have to remember is that it is not your fault that a high-maintenance person cannot prioritise their issues and let you know when they truly do need your help. By putting your time first, you put them in a situation where they either have to find someone else who will devote the immense amount of time they desire, or they will learn to only ask for help when they truly need it. Either way, you don't have to spend too much time concerning yourself with their constant — and often trivial — issues.
Choose Your Battles Wisely
High-maintenance people don't like to be wrong. Because they consider their time of the utmost importance, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they value their own opinions highly as well. When you disagree with them, chances are they'll just fight back until you give up or just become upset with you.
When you pick a battle with this kind of person, Roger suggests you should save the occasion for when their actions are causing you harm:
It may not be worth having an argument with a pushy/demanding/drama-filled person if you're talking about how they call you at 1am to talk about their date. (They're probably too self-absorbed to care.) However, if the person decides to borrow your GPS without asking when you have a trip coming up, then you might want to speak up (because they're causing you possible harm). You should really know what you're willing to put up with and what you insist on calling them out on.
It's important to pick only the battles you need to win. If you don't, you're just going to end up exhausting yourself.
Plan For A Little "Crazy"
Life is capricious. It breeds interruptions and imperfections regularly. You can rarely count on things going to plan, but you can plan for potential problems and handle them well. High-maintenance friends and family members make up part of the force that brings the unexpected into your life. While you don't always know what they're going to do, Roger believes you can plan for it:
We all know that one person who's likely say something inappropriate at the wrong time. Or maybe we have a cousin who likes to drop by unannounced and expect us to open the door for them in the middle of dinner. While it sounds like we're enabling bad behaviour, we may have to tolerate a certain level of "craziness" in order to keep this person in our lives. Just remember to set boundaries and prioritise your time first when putting up with their behaviour.
In fact, these unexpected moments can often be good opportunities to help set those boundaries. Every time something bad happens, you have an opportunity to turn your problems into progress. It can be hard work, but it's better than enduring the issue for nothing but grief.
Give Yourself a Break
High-maintenance people often cause high amounts of stress. If they didn't, you wouldn't be reading this. As with any stressful situation, it's important to remember to extract yourself from it from time to time so you have a break. There are plenty of ways to do this, and Roger offers up a number of options:
If the person in question is someone you'll see on a regular basis, then give yourself ways to decompress from the stress they cause. Talk to a supportive person who doesn't mind hearing your complaints (like a therapist… yes, shameless plug). Go for a run. Meditate. Write about your frustrations in that fancy Moleskine you just bought yourself. Practice your preferred form of spirituality. Doing something healthy to unwind will make putting up with the person easier.
With high-maintenance people, it can be easy to forget that you're the priority in your own life. When things get too stressful, remember to put yourself first.
It's unlikely that you're the only resource your high-maintenance friend or family member has in their life. Chances are you know one or two of the other people that they also go to for their frequent emotional needs. Don't let the burden sit solely on you. Roger suggests tag-teaming this person's many requests with someone else:
If you have someone else in your life who has to put up with the person in question (such as a coworker, sibling, spouse, etc.) then it may help to "take turns" with this person so the other can get a rest. Similar to the "tag team" approach new parents should take with newborns, "tag teaming" the person may lighten the load on the both of you while keeping that person in your lives.
You have your own problems to deal with. Putting someone else's issues entirely on your back isn't healthy. Asking someone for help will not only lighten the load, it'll also give you a friend to talk to about all the ridiculous things you both have to deal with.
A big thanks goes out to Roger S. Gil, M.A.M.F.T. for his integral contributions to this post. Be sure to check out his podcast and follow him on Twitter for advice on personal relationships and more.