What is Nagging?
Nagging is persistent harassment. It’s asking someone to do something repeatedly, in a hostile manner.
In some ways, when a person is nagging they are a broken record, with a constant refrain. For example, a wife could just continuously ask her husband, “Will you take the garbage out?”
However, the metaphor doesn’t quite fit because of the increasing hostility involved with nagging. It’s not just words, now it’s an eye roll and a sigh. The nagger becomes increasingly agitated and resentful. Next, it sounds more shirl. Until finally someone is yelling.
Meanwhile, the person being nagged, the naggee, becomes increasingly irritated himself. The naggee digs his heels in. Actually taking the garbage out, would feel like he is losing a battle.
Generally, women are the ones nagging and men are the ones getting nagged, but it can happen the other way as well. Nagging in parenting is rampant as well.
Why Nagging Is Abusive
Nagging is abusive because it escalates. Simply reminding someone to do a task, even more than once, isn’t nagging because it is straightforward. Reminders don’t demean.
However, when criticism and contempt come into the picture, it’s nagging and abusive. Abuse happens when someone is being unjustly vicious, cruel, and punishing.
You might say, “But he should have taken the garbage out! He deserves to be punished.” No. Your husband is a grown man, and punishing him is disrespectful. Just as it would be disrespectful for you to be punished for forgetting to do some task that is your responsibility.
In intimate relationships, we don’t need to punish one another. When you are connected, you are so close to one another, you only need to speak in a whisper to be heard. And rolling your eyes can be as painful as being screamed at.
The Cycle of Criticism and Defensiveness
When you nag, a cycle begins. Nagging is a form of abuse which makes the person being nagged defensive. When he is defensive, often being critical and abusive right back at you, things escalate. The back and forth happens until someone shuts down, stonewalling.
This cycle is detailed in the work of John Gottman, who has done extensive research on relationships in his famous “love labs.” Gottman was able to look at a couple for less than three minutes and predict with 94% accuracy if the couple would divorce.
He wasn’t psychic; he was able to look for specific behavioral markers when a couple was in conflict. The number one marker that predicts divorce is contempt. Contempt is kryptonite to marriages.
Which brings me back to the issue of nagging. Nagging is riddled with contempt. As we discussed above, nagging isn’t simply asking someone to do something. It’s repeatedly tearing them down. He didn’t just forget to take the garbage out, he is a deeply flawed person for “always” shirking his responsibilities.
What makes criticism corrosive in a relationship is that it’s not just about the behavior. It’s about who he is as a person. This is how Brené Brown defines the difference between shame and guilt.
- Guilt: I did something bad.
- Shame: I am bad.
Nagging attempts to inflict shame on your partner and this will lead to the demise of your relationship.
Emotions as Evidence
Emotions are important. We should listen to our feelings and honor them. However, when we feel something, we don’t always know the cause.
For example, you may feel annoyed when your husband doesn’t take the garbage out, but it isn’t fair to blame him for that annoyance. It might not be about the garbage at all. Maybe you had a difficult day, and you’re feeling helpless. That doesn’t have anything to do with your husband.
When it comes to emotions, you have to take a holistic view. Often the emotion is unrelated to what is happening now. For example, emotions are influenced by the body. Sometimes when I feel depressed, I’m actually just tired.
Emotions can also be the result of the past. It’s not about your husband not taking out the garbage, it’s about your dad not taking the garbage out.
Don’t use your emotions as proof that someone is wrong. Your feelings may have nothing to do with them.
The Antidote: Curiosity
Rather than telling someone to do something without asking them any questions about their experience, try curiosity instead. Ask how their day was. Seek connection.
I know, you’re just trying to get tasks done. You’re tired. The last thing you have time for is to sit down and have a conversation. But the tasks can wait. The tasks will still be there, your marriage may not.
You can’t be efficient with people or rush connection. It takes time. But in the end, relationships are what matters. Not that the house looks perfect or that you marked everything off your to-do list. Your marriage is more important.
“Empathy takes time, and efficiency is for things, not people.” – Stephen Covey
So, instead of doubling down, start with curiosity. Why does your spouse not want to take the garbage out? Did he have a rough day? Is he struggling with a stressor? What is going on in his life?
Maybe it’s as simple as he’s watching a gripping news story or is on a level in his video game he’s never been before. The garbage is more important to you, but whatever task he is engaged in is important to him right now.
Consider sitting down and watching him take down Ganon. Cheer him on. When he’s done, he’ll be a lot more likely to conquer that garbage.
Stating Desires Rather Than Complaining
There is curiosity for your partner, but also for yourself. Why is the garbage so important to you right now? Can it wait? Can you do it yourself? Can someone else? Is there another solution that you haven’t thought of?
When you are caught in a nagging cycle all you can think of is one solution. He should take the garbage out right now. But the truth is there are plenty of other solutions that could make you both happy.
And maybe you don’t even need to come up with the solution. Men are born problem solvers, and they love to help.
Rather than complaining about the garbage “never” being taken out on time, state your desires instead.
- “I would love this kitchen to smell fresh.”
- “I’d love to feel relaxed right now.”
- “I love feeling taken care of.”
Complaining isn’t proactive, and it rarely makes people feel good. But taking the time to consider what it is you actually want and why you want it, can be transformative.
Be open to an alternative solution and letting yourself be taken care of. The solution your man comes up with might not be what you would have done, but that doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, it could be even better.
Power and Connection
Nagging manifests because you’ve lost power with your partner. By power, I mean the ability to influence one another. You could call it power, credibility, or trust. But when your partner feels your love for him and knows you have his interests at heart, he will be eager to help you around the house.
The power doesn’t come from yelling louder, it comes from being connected. If you give your husband validation for his fatigue and desire not to take the garbage out, he will hear you more than if you were screaming at the top of your lungs.
Acknowledge that he had a hard day and offer to take out the garbage tonight. Being generous and virtuous is a powerful place to be. If you want your husband to take responsibility, start by taking the responsibility yourself.
In the end, just stop nagging. Nagging could destroy your relationship.
I want to reiterate, nagging isn’t just a wife to a husband. It can happen the other way around as well. In a past relationship of mine, it was the guy who was nag and me who was the naggee.
Because of that experience, being the person nagged, it shifted my perspective on the concept, and helped me see that I never want to be that person. The nagger or the naggee.
Nagging is contempt, and therefore it’s abusive. You don’t want to be a nag. No one does. Slow down, take a breath, and think about your personal values.