In more than forty years as a therapist working with couples and people with personality challenges I have distilled four attributes and their counterparts that distinguish a high-maintenance (difficult) person (HMP) from a low maintenance (easy) person (LMP) .

Tell me if you agree.

  1. Judgmental vs. non-judgmental – A HMP seems to be closeminded about most things they disagree with and will rarely change their mind, much less listen to a different point of view. A LMP seem to be more openminded about different points of view. That is not to say that they are passive. It’s just to say that they can have passionate opinions without being opinionated.
  2. Quick to criticize vs. slow to criticize – A HMP is quick to express their judgmental POV without being asked about it. A LMP more often doesn’t express their criticism, unless they are reacting to having been criticized, at which point they’ll push back. Over time, a LMP tends to withdraw just to avoid arguments.
  3. Easily disappointed vs. easily pleased – A HMP very often focuses on the 10% they perceive to be wrong and will be unhappy about it, even if 90% of what is going on is positive. A LMP often feels grateful for the 90% that is fine and will overlook the 10% that they perceive is wrong or will offer their opinion framed as an invitation such as: “Might I make an observation regarding something that I see differently”
  4. Unforgiving vs. forgiving – If you look for a reason to forgive you can always find it. If you look for a reason to not forgive, you can also find that. A HMP tends to look for a reason not to forgive; a LMP tend to look for a reason to forgive.

The above seem rather straight forward, so why would someone get involved with a HMP vs. a LMP?

  1. A HMP is familiar and reminds some people of a parent that they never received approval or love from and still feel incomplete without it. Therefore, some people will often be attracted to a HMP that reminds them unconsciously of that critical and disapproving parent, hoping that this time it will be different. But more often than not, it just ends the same.
  2. A HMP will often bad mouth prior relationships they have had and will proclaim how wonderful you are and you may tend to believe it and – referring back to #1 above – may truly believe that you will finally get the approval and love you never received from a HMP parent.
  3. A HMP often appears strong and a LMP often initially feels that that HMP will watch over them and protect them, because they won’t put up with the mistreatment from people that a LMP will often allow. However over time, what initially appeared as strength may turn out to be rigidity.
  4. A LMP is often not attracted to another LMP, because they are still looking to get from a current relationship what they never received from an HMP parent.

How to identify an HMP early before you become too attached and before it becomes increasingly awkward and uncomfortable to break it off.

  1. Since it’s rare to meet someone who hasn’t been in prior relationships, early on in your conversations ask the other person about past relationships and why they didn’t work out. The more that person blames or lays fault with the previous person(s), the greater the possibility that they might be an HMP.
  2. Ask the other person what if anything they contributed to problems in the relationship and it will often reveal how much responsibility they took for problems.
  3. Ask the other person what they learned from those prior relationships. You’re looking for responses that demonstrate self-reflection regarding their own flaws. Beware of the glib, “I learned to not get involved with such people,” as a possible red flag, although there may be actual cases where their prior partner was such a HMP that such a response might be acceptable.
  4. Ask the other person: “In the event going forward that I am frustrated and or disappointed about something regarding you, how do you want me to bring that up?” And very quickly before they answer say, “As for me, in the event going forward that you are frustrated or disappointed by something I did or failed to do, the best way to bring it up to me is (and then tell them specifically what they should do and not do, so that you don’t react defensively).” By adding this before they answer, you’re showing vulnerability which makes it easier to have them do the same.

If you find that the above makes sense, you might share it with a person you’re developing a relationship with (and this can apply to both a business as well as a personal relationship) and tell them that you’d like their opinion about it.

If they think it doesn’t make sense or is ridiculous, ask them what they would change or correct to make it work.

If they persist in thinking that such an approach is cold and logical and unfeeling, what they’re telling you is that they rely on however they feel to deal with any interpersonal issues.

What they’re also telling you non-verbally is that they are a HMP.


  • Mark Goulston, M.D.

    Author, speaker, podcast host, psychiatrist

    Dr. Mark Goulston is the inventor and developer of Surgical Empathy an approach that helps people to break their attachments to counterproductive modes of functioning and frees them to connect with more productive and healthier alternatives. He is the host of the “My Wakeup Call” podcast where he interviews people on the wakeup calls that changed who they are and made them better human beings and at being human and the host of the LinkedIn Live show, "No Strings Attached." He is a Founding Member of the Newsweek Expert Forum. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on deep listening, radical empathy and real influence with his book, “Just Listen,” becoming the top book on listening in the world, translated into twenty languages and a topic he speaks and teaches globally. He is an advisor, coach, mentor and confidante to CEO’s, founders and entrepreneurs helping them to unlock all their internal blocks to achieving success, fulfillment and happiness. Originally a UCLA professor of psychiatry and crisis psychiatrist for over 25 years, and former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer, Dr. Goulston's expertise has been forged and proven in the crucible of real-life, high stakes situations including being a boots on the ground suicide prevention specialist and serving as an advisor in the OJ Simpson criminal trial. Including, “Just Listen,” he is the author or co-author of nine books with multiple best sellers. He writes or contributes to Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Biz Journals, Fast Company, Huffington Post, Psychology Today and has appeared as an psychological expert in the media including: CNN, Headline News, msNBC, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Psychology Today and was the subject of a PBS special. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, California.