Nag, Nag, Nag!

Few things are more annoying than being nagged (except perhaps being accused of it). Nagging comes from anxiety, based on the false belief that repetition creates motivation. But it never does. In fact, it lowers respect for the one who is nagging, and reveals weakness by implying, “I have failed to convince you through logic and facts. So I’ll resort to mindless babbling.” Therapist and author Michele Weiner-Davis sums it up nicely: ‘You can say it in a number of different ways, but when you say it in a number of different ways over and over again, that constitutes nagging.’

The alternative to nagging is action. In other words, holding a person responsible for what they’re not doing. If they fail to follow through on a commitment they made to you, then you’re free to stop following through on commitments you made to them. It’s right and fair. You can withdraw support and affection. Go on strike. Quit the words, and focus on action. 

People who nag usually feel entitled to whatever it is they’re not getting. ‘You promised to clean out the garage, and you haven’t done it!’ But if you scratch the surface, you’ll often find that the person who ‘promised’ actually feels that he did no such thing. In fact, he felt nagged into pretending to promise in the first place. Nagging can become a self-perpetuating cycle. In order for it to end, both parties — the nagger and the ‘naggee’ — will have to change what they are doing.

Nagging is a symptom of a breakdown of rational communication. If your spouse, partner or loved one is nagging you, don’t go on the defensive. Instead, think about what you’re being asked to do. ‘Am I able and willing to do this?’ If you are, then clearly convey that information — with qualifications, if necessary. ‘I’m willing to clean out the garage, but not before we have the kitchen painted.’ Or maybe, ‘I know you want the garage cleaned out now. How about by the end of this month?’ Or even, ‘I’ll do it, but I want your help. Are you willing to do it with me?’ Think it out, and then communicate.

Most people don’t like to nag. They’d rather just have the results they’re seeking. If the results aren’t realistic, they’ll have to get over it — but most will still prefer communication rather than embarking on the nagging cycle.

Couples therapist Jamie Turndorf, Ph.D. says, “Women take on the lion’s share of nagging. Because many women find it difficult to directly communicate their needs, they fall into the fatal trap of whining and nagging about what they aren’t getting, rather than directly stating what they want, need, or expect from their partner. Unfortunately, whining and nagging doesn’t put a man into a giving mood, and a vicious cycle is born: The more her man starves her of what she wants, the more she nags and the less likely he is to be responsive to her wishes.”

In any relationship, both partners need to feel psychologically visible. You feel visible when you’re listened to. But being listened to does not mean always agreeing. If your spouse asks you to put out the trash, you certainly make him or her feel visible when you do it. But he or she will feel just as visible if you say, ‘I’m in the middle of this activity, but I’ll do it in half an hour’ — and then actually do it. Invisibility happens if you end up NOT doing it. People who feel invisible in their relationships resort to numerous defense mechanisms, and one of the most common of these is nagging.

Research suggests that nagging reduces intimacy. No surprise there. Reduced psychological visibility and faltering communication can toss any sense of intimacy right out the window.

So, how to fix it? Therapist Weiner-Davis suggests focusing on positive experiences you and your partner had when something other than nagging elicited the response you were looking for. In other words, think positive (and true) thoughts about your spouse. Keep the bigger picture in mind. Most of us know how to communicate rationally with strangers, business associates, and even people we don’t particularly like. So why is it so difficult to do it with the most important person in your life? Remind yourself of why he or she is important to you.

Get beyond the defensive thinking. See the nagging as a symptom, not a cause. Instead of being the victim, think about a better way to respond. If you’re the one nagging, try to recognize how what you’re doing is doomed to failure. Don’t cling to old behaviors that don’t work. Instead, think of constructive ways to get your point across. Write your loved one a letter. Take him or her out to dinner. Leave a funny card. Do anything but nag. Nagging is indeed a symptom, but the good news is that, more often than not, relationships can and do improve.