Few things are more annoying than being nagged (except perhaps being accused of it). Nagging stems from the false belief that repetition creates motivation. It never does, and in fact, it lowers respect and reveals weakness by saying, in effect, “I have failed to convince you through logic. 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 ways over and over again, that’s nagging.”
The alternative to nagging is action, i.e., holding a person responsible for what they’re NOT doing. If they fail to follow through on a commitment they made, then you’re free to stop following through on commitments you made to them. It’s right and fair. Withdraw support and affection. Go on strike. Quit the words and focus on action.
People who nag usually feel entitled to whatever they’re not getting. “You promised to clean out the garage, and you didn’t!” But if you look closer, the person who “promised” often feels that he or she 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 — have to change.
Nagging results from a breakdown in communication. If you’re being nagged, first decide if you’re willing to do what’s being asked. If you are, then say so, 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. How about by the end of this month?” Think it out, and then communicate.
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.” She continues, “Unfortunately, whining doesn’t put a man into a giving mood, and a vicious cycle is born: The more he starves her of what she wants, the more she nags and the less likely he is to be responsive to her wishes.”
Partners of both sexes need to feel psychologically visible. You feel visible when you’re listened to. But being listened to doesn’t always mean agreeing. If your spouse asks you to put out the trash, you make him or her feel visible by doing it. But he or she will feel just as visible if you say, “I’m in the middle of [whatever], but I’ll do it in half an hour.” And then actually do it. People who feel invisible in their relationships resort to defense mechanisms like nagging. Reduced psychological visibility can toss intimacy right out the window.
Therapist Weiner-Davis suggests focusing on positive experiences you and your partner had when something other than nagging elicited a good response. 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.
Go beyond defensiveness. See nagging as a symptom, not a cause. Instead of playing the victim, think about a better way to respond. If you’re the one nagging, try to recognize how it’s doomed to fail. Think of constructive ways to get your point across. Write a letter. Take him or her out to dinner. Leave a funny card. Do anything but nag. The good news is that, more often than not, relationships can and do improve.