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When Harry met ‘high maintenance’

Q: Someone mentioned to me that the terms “high maintenance person” and “transitional relationship” come from the film When Harry Met Sally. I find no confirmation of this. Do you have any information about it?

A: No, those expressions didn’t originate with the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. In fact, the 1988 screenplay, by Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, and Andrew Scheinman, doesn’t include the exact phrase “high maintenance person” or “transitional relationship.” But the film, directed by Reiner, uses similar wording and may have helped popularize the two usages.

In the film, Harry (played by Billy Crystal) says, “There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.” Sally (Meg Ryan) later asks, “Which one am I?” And Harry responds, “The worst one. You’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”

In another scene, Sally tells her friend Marie (Carrie Fisher): “Look, there is no point in my going out with someone I might really like if I met him at the right time but who right now has no chance of being anything to me but a transitional man.” Later, Sally tells Harry that her ex-boyfriend is marrying a paralegal in his office: “She’s supposed to be his transitional person, she’s not supposed to be the one.”

The phrase “high maintenance” has been used adjectivally since the early 1980s to describe someone “requiring a great deal of care or attention; esp. very demanding or fussy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation refers to a child with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder in which bones break easily: “An O.I. child is a high-maintenance child” (from People Weekly, April 19, 1982).

The first Oxford example for the expression used to describe a demanding adult is from an essay on friendship: “None is what I think of as a high-maintenance friend—someone, that is, who requires regular ministering to in the form of visits, daily telephone calls, or lengthy letters” (from “A Former Good Guy and His Friends,” an essay by Joseph Epstein, writing under the name Aristides in the spring 1985 issue of American Scholar).

The OED doesn’t include the expression “transitional relationship,” nor does it have any citations for “transitional” used to modify “man,” “woman,” or “person,” as the adjective is used in When Harry Met Sally. However, we’ve found two examples for “transitional person” from well before the movie opened:

“A transitional person performs the same role as the confidant, but sticks around longer. It can be a lover, a child, a lawyer or a good friend. No matter what, they’re on your side” (from “The Stages of Splitting Up,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1986).

“Eventually, the initiator may find a ‘transitional person,’ someone helpful in the separation process. ‘Usually people think of the transitional person as a lover, but it also may be an acquaintance, a counselor or therapist, a minister or even a brother or sister,’ Dr. [Diane] Vaughan said” (from “Drifting Apart: A Look at How Relationships End,” New York Times, Dec. 8, 1986).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “transitional relationship” used in the sense we’re discussing is from a self-help book on romantic relationships, published the year the movie opened:

“The distinguishing characteristic, then, of the transitional relationship is that it reflects growth, often profound growth. It allows a great leap ahead, that clear forward movement toward the close-to-perfect, enduring, perhaps permanent love” (Choosing Lovers, 1989, by Martin Blinder).

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