Clean the living room, wash the dishes, take out the trash ... nag, nag, nag. The incessant nagging you do not only drives your partner mad, it drives him or her away and hurts intimacy. How can you learn to communicate more effectively and go from being a broken record to a poster child for relationship success? The first step, say experts, is to recognize that asking for the same thing over and over again -- believe it or not -- just doesn't work.
"Nagging takes the form of verbal reminders, requests, and pleas," says Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, a marriage and family therapist. "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 Essence of Nagging
"If a person thinks, 'If I've said it once I've said it a million times,' or 'it's in one ear and out the other,' or 'I talk till I'm blue in the face,' this should be a strong clue," says Weiner-Davis, author of several relationship books, including Getting Through to the Man you Love and The Sex-Starved Marriage.
Strong clue or not, most naggers don't know they nag -- they think their nagging helps, explains Weiner-Davis. And it's not up to them to decide: A helpful reminder becomes a stinging nag when the person who is being nagged says so.
"It goes from a reminder to a nag when the person who is being reminded gets offended," says Weiner-Davis. "How the behavior gets labeled depends on how the person hears it, not on how the person who says it feels."
Feelings and emotions play a large part in nagging, which means that women usually play the stereotypical lead role.
"Women take on the lion's share of nagging," says Jamie Turndorf, PhD, a couples therapist. "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."
But like any facet of a relationship, nagging is a two-way street.
"Obviously, if a woman feels responded to she won't need to keep bringing up the same issues," says Turndorf, who is author of Till Death Do Us Part (Unless I Kill You First). "On the surface, it's easy to assume that it's all the nagee's fault -- if he responded better, nagging wouldn't be happening."
But rather than assigning blame -- is it the husband's fault for not cleaning the kitchen, or the wife's for griping so much about it -- start looking for more productive ways to communicate, or risk damaging the intimacy in your relationship: According to a study presented at the 2003 Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in February, nagging can lessen a couple's intimacy.
"How a woman presents her 'beefs' determines whether or not her partner will be responsive," says Turndorf. "Modern danger is no longer the ferocious tiger, it's the angry wife or girlfriend. When she comes at him baring her teeth, berating him with criticisms, and nagging his head off, his body sees danger and switches into the fight-flight mode. Since he doesn't want to fight her, he flees instead."
Before your partner grabs his golf clubs and heads for the door, not to be seen until 36-holes are under his belt, turn the temperature on the nagging down a bit.
"The way out is what I call 'climate control,'" says Turndorf. "Women need to learn how to properly communicate their needs, and it begins with calmly stating what was said or done and how you felt about it."
Another tactic is to take action, instead of getting on the soapbox.
"Skip the nagging, and try taking action," says Weiner-Davis. "Skills like active listening allow couples to learn how to talk to each other in such a way that they are heard. Too often, when couples talk to each other about heated issues, they are too busy defending themselves to hear on a deep level what their spouses are saying and feeling. If they can learn the tools for fair fighting, then both spouses can be heard, and nagging isn't necessary."
When the urge to nag strikes, Weiner-Davis suggests focusing on the positive experiences you've had in the past with your partner, when something other than nagging elicited the response you were looking for.
"Think about a time when you asked your partner to do something, and he did it, and then think about what you did differently that worked," says Weiner-Davis. "Learn from that situation, and change future situations accordingly so you don't need to nag."
For the partners of people who nag, some of the responsibility for improving the lines of communication falls on them as well.
"Start out by doing what your spouse is asking to you to do -- that might nip it in the bud," says Weiner-Davis. "Another alternative would be for the person who is getting nagged to avoid getting angry or nasty, which doesn't work well. Instead, have a heart-to-heart about what it feels like to be constantly hounded about something, but in a loving way, instead of a defending way."
When these techniques fail, or when nagging consumes a relationship, therapy might help.
"Try a marriage education class," says Weiner-Davis. "Or find a good marriage counselor -- anything that will help you find better means of communicating."
Life Beyond Nagging
"Bottom line: Good relationships are based on mutual care taking," says Weiner-Davis. "You really have to look out for your spouse. You have to put your spouse's needs before your own -- and that might mean doing something you're not really crazy about doing. And when you have to nag, that's a sign mutual care-taking is not happening."
Whether it's finding new ways to communicate, or seeking help from a therapist, nagging can be avoided.
"The key is finding alternative ways to reach your goals, and being more productive and more loving," says Weiner-Davis.
So how can you tell that you've become a nag? According to Weiner-Davis, here are a few key signs:
- You're increasingly frustrated because you're not getting through to your partner, despite asking again and again.
- Your partner becomes increasingly defensive each time you ask for something.
- The things that bother you tend to grow in scope -- you're more bothered by more things, more often.
- Your irritation is contagious -- the more irritated you get, the more irritated your partner gets.
- The weaknesses in the relationship, such as what your partner isn't doing despite your attempts at effecting change, become the focus, rather than the strengths in your relationship.
- The most obvious sign that you tend to nag: You've said the same thing five different ways, five different times, and yet you keep on going.
Originally published April 21, 2003.
Medically updated April 24, 2006.