Woman staring at herself in the mirror while putting on lipstick

Do High Maintenance Women Snag Better Mates?

by Eharmony Editorial Team - June 7, 2011

The phrase “high maintenance woman” casually refers to a woman who places exceptionally high standards on herself and her dating partner.  She spends an excessive amount of time on herself.  She makes hoop-jumping seem like a normal part of dating, is constantly making their partners prove their worthiness either through displays of affection, commitment or status – which she may or may not reciprocate.  According to researchers, “high maintenance” is just today’s term for a well-tuned competition strategy to win over a high mate-value partner.    Everyone wants to maximize their chances of getting the best partner possible, but considering all the work, is it worth it dating a high maintenance woman?

“Ingrid Bergman- now she’s low maintenance.
-Low maintenance?
There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.
-And Ingrid Bergman’s low maintenance?
An LM, definitely.
-Which one am I?
You’re the worst kind. You’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.”

The above scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally’ brought the concept of the “high maintenance woman” into everyday conversations on love and dating. While I do think that Harry was a bit harsh on Sally, we’ve all encountered a truly high maintenance woman.   Just about everyone tries to “spruce themselves up” for a dating partner; this type of woman might demand perfection in one or more of these areas.  High maintenance women just “want it the way they want it” and settling for something less is just unacceptable.  Considering all the work involved, is it worth dating a high maintenance woman? 

Why are some women high maintenance?

Researchers who study the tactics of mate attraction probably saw the movie and said, “of course!  That’s just evolution at work.”   High maintenance is just today’s term for a well-tuned competition strategy to win over a high mate-value partner.  The evolutionary theory of mate choice starts with the idea that reproductive success is the foundation for choosing a mate.  Everyone wants to maximize their chances on having strong healthy offspring.  Men therefore should be looking for women who are young and attractive (since those are tells of fertility), while women should be looking for men who are resourceful, high-status and able to stick around to raise the offspring.  These would be considered high mate-value partners.   Considering the risk involved for women in choosing a mate to have children with (e.g., he could leave, he could be unfaithful, or there might be issues in conceiving or raising children), it behooves her to know her value and choose the highest status partner available.

Each individual has a constellation of these traits that would translate into an overall mate value.  Those that possessed these desirable characteristics have a higher mate value (a ‘10’) than those without (a ‘4’), and could therefore be choosier in their partner acquisition strategy.  Of course, with a limited pool of partners, competition would arise within each side to gain the attention of high value mates, particularly for those who could display those coveted characteristics.  So by example, in modern times make-up, clothing choices, altering appearance and/or flirting- these could be seen as tactics utilized by women in competition with other women for the high-status man’s attention.  High maintenance women are just utilizing all possible resources for the win.   Darwin coined this phenomenon intrasexual selection: competition between members of the same-sex for access to members of the opposite sex for mating.   Today we call it many things; most of which can’t be reprinted here- but the concept is usually depicted in movies where hot girls sabotage each other for comedy’s sake while the nerd wins out.  That’s real, right?

But we’re already in a relationship.  When does all the grooming stop being about me, and start being about her?

We covered in a previous blog how both partners use different retention strategies to keep their mate around.  According to evolutionary theory, it may all be about you- even when it’s about her.  Following this theory, a woman needs to not only get a partner, but keep him from straying.   Research shows that women (young women especially) will guard their mates closely:  enhancing their appearance, signaling to other women that their partner is off the market, or using emotional manipulation to keep a partner close.  It’s possible that a high maintenance woman is taking hours to get ready to signal to her partner that she’s of high value (and worth waiting around for), and to signal to others that her status is not to be competed against.  She thinks she needs to look her best to make sure her man doesn’t wander.   And if her partner is similarly high value, then she probably needs to utilize every available resource to make sure he doesn’t cheat.  

Is she just insecure deep down?

Many would like to think that high maintenance women are just insecure little girls in need of an empathetic and committed partner to provide a bridge back to vulnerability (and sweat pants in public) but this might not be the case.  High maintenance women may just have exceedingly high self-esteem, even if it’s based on shallow standards.  Research on non-pathological narcissists (those without a disorder but more likely to be the ones bragging for no reason in a team meeting) establish that these individuals have elevated levels of self-esteem- deriving more from their own perceptions of value than from their perceived likability by others.  They are also aware of how they come off- and just don’t care.  Their own self-interest is more important than their sense of community.  But there is an upside: they are also less likely to get anxious or depressed.  If you are dating her know that she may not change, but she won’t get depressed about it, either.  A high-maintenance woman might be perfectly comfortable with her dating insensitivity- as long as it gets her a high value mate.

Does this mean high maintenance women are snobs?

Maybe.  It depends in part on how the woman perceives herself relative to other women (i.e., her perceived mate value).  If a woman thinks that she has better resources and can win the competition to acquire a similarly valued partner, then she isn’t going to settle for someone perceived as having a lower mate value, especially for a long term relationship.  In fact, research shows that both men and women generally express a higher minimum standard of qualities when thinking about a long term relationship over a short term one.   

Should I avoid dating a high maintenance woman?

Well, that depends — are you a high mate-value partner?  While the movies want to depict mis-matched mate values as romantic, ‘10s’ and ‘4s’  rarely if ever go out together long term.  If you’re impatiently waiting for your partner while she does her make-up, or changes her outfit again, but are not a high-status partner, it’s possible that this pairing may not stand the test of time.   If you’re the high-status partner, then her attempts to retain you might also fall short. 

While both men and women look for a balance of qualities for an ideal mate, a potential partner needs to fall into an acceptable minimum level on each dimension or they just aren’t going to be considered.   Those who perceive themselves as having a high mate value will be less willing to compromise.  Think of this as the opposite-sex friend who you laugh with but have zero physical attraction for- it’s just not going to happen.  Considering the stakes, it’s best to know your mate value, and do your best to find someone that matches you.   If you think your value is going to leave you on the wrong side of the dating pool, elevating your own mate-value might be the best way to snag a higher value partner.

A question remains: From an evolutionary standpoint, do high maintenance women make good mothers?   While the theory mentions that reproductive success is the fundamental goal of any pairing, modern times and common sense need to consider the long term.  Having the prettiest girl who is completely self-absorbed might be an advantage in some situations, but possibly a disadvantage three unruly (but beautiful) kids and one messy house later.  One should consider whether a high maintenance woman is going to transition her focus from being the best mate to being the best family member.

Buss, D. (1988).  The evolution of human interasexual competition: Tactics of mate attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (54)4 616-628.
Regan, P. (1998). Whaat if you can’t get what you want?  Willingness to compromise ideal mate selection standards as a function of sex, mate value, and relationship context.  PSPB (24) 12, 1294-1303.
Buss, D. and Shackelford, T.K. (1997).  From vigilance to violence: Mate retention tactics in married couples.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (72)2 346-361.
Sedikides, C., Rudisch, E., Gregg, A., Kumashiro, M. and Rusbult, C (2004).  Are normal narcissists psychological healthy?: Self-esteem matters.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87 (3), 400-416.  DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.3.400