Family Matters

Why We Nag. And Why We Shouldn’t

Nagging can wreck a relationship. So why is it so hard to just stop?

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Nagging, that age-old art of bugging — er, gently reminding — someone to do something over and over again, insinuates itself into most relationships. “It’s more common than adultery and potentially as toxic, so why is it so hard to stop nagging?” wonders The Wall Street Journal.

Good question. Psychologists say it boils down to faith. One person fears the other won’t follow through, and that compels her to keep asking her partner to complete the task. Her partner, in turn, gets annoyed, which doesn’t make him incredibly likely to want to cooperate. And the cycle repeats.

Pair up an uber-organized, chop-chop kind of person (me) with an “I’ll-get-to-it-when-I-get-to-it” partner (my husband), and it’s no surprise that different approaches to getting things done can cause a robust degree of conflict.

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Saith the Journal:

It is possible for husbands to nag, and wives to resent them for nagging. But women are more likely to nag, experts say, largely because they are conditioned to feel more responsible for managing home and family life. And they tend to be more sensitive to early signs of problems in a relationship. When women ask for something and don’t get a response, they are quicker to realize something is wrong. The problem is that by asking repeatedly, they make things worse.

Men are to blame, too, because they don’t always give a clear answer. Sure, a husband might tune his wife out because he is annoyed; nagging can make him feel like a little boy being scolded by his mother. But many times he doesn’t respond because he doesn’t know the answer yet, or he knows the answer will disappoint her.

A little understanding might go a long way, says Howard Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Denver and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies. Although some nagging is unavoidable, research Markman published in 2010 in the Journal of Family Psychology found that those couples who minimize it stand a better chance of finding happiness. “Nagging is an enemy of love, if allowed to persist,” Dr. Markman told the Journal.

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You could pay for counseling — or you could try a low-tech method that my husband came up with a few months ago: the Complaint Box. An empty tissue box upon which he scrawled “The C.B.,” it’s housed on our dresser, hungry for scraps of paper upon which we scrawl something that’s bugging us.

I just looked in there so I could offer an example of the things we complain about. But — surprise! — it was empty. I guess sometimes merely identifying the problem and making light of it can go a long way toward nipping nagging in the bud.