Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

How Relationships Can Turn Literally Unhealthy

It's always about much more than chores. Find out what's really going on.

A new study of 100,000 subjects found that men are three times more likely to die prematurely from  complications brought on from the stress of living with a nagging spouse. This study by Dr. Rikke Lund of the University of Copenhagen, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, defined nagging as "the interaction in which one person repeatedly makes a request, the other person repeatedly ignores it, and both become increasingly annoyed."  

"It is interesting," Lund noted, "that we have identified that males who are exposed to worries and demands by their partners have higher mortality and are the ones we should focus on."

Similarly, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Elizabeth Bernstein writes that "women are more likely to nag, experts say, largely because they are conditioned 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."

What's really going on when nagging enters a relationship?

For many couples, nagging is a sign that their relationship has hit the Disillusionment phase in what's known as the Mirage Man Syndrome (in which a man who has sold himself as something he's not to his partner eventually reveals his true, less-appealing self). For men who have previously denied their feelings and even dreams to please their mate and achieve commitment, companionship, and physical satisfaction, the strain of keeping up the charade that their lover's tastes are their own begins to take its toll. Their seamless performance begins to slip. Their mate begins to see disturbing glimpses of another, more unpleasant man as the ecstasy of the Honeymoon stage begins to wane. For these "mirage men," the annoyance of living with someone of few common interests, differing world views, and clashing personality types will become acute. Physical intimacy will lose its pain-killing potency as relational differences emerge into the harsh light of day.

Withholding information worked so well for these mirage men during the initial stages of romance, but now it is the relationship's agent of destruction. The wife or lover experiences a long slow slide into disllusionment as her once affectionate Prince Charming now seems distant, oozing resentment in his actions and manner as he complies with the most mundane requests to perform household chores he used to jump into eagerly.

These mirage men will snap into a trance of irritating behavior when the wife interrupts them to ask why a certain necessary responsibility wasn't completed. These men will agree to take the family on a Sunday drive into the country instead of watching the game, but may drive 10 miles below the speed limit to signal their anger at having to do one more thing they hate doing. The wife cannot understand it—"Didn't he say he was a devoted family man when were were dating?" she will muse. The children may never understand why their father is so touchy, as the wife or partner begins to lose faith in the union as Prince Charming morphs into an unpredictable grouch.

The Impact of Nagging

Howard Markham, professor of psychology at the University of Denver and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies, says that "nagging can become a prime contributor to divorce when couples start fighting about the nagging rather than talking about the issue at the root of the nagging."

But mirage men can never talk about the root of the problem. As therapist and author Marvin Allen puts it, "[T]he real surprise for me in my marriage was that my wife wanted more from me than money and sex. It wasn't enough for her that I was working as hard as I could 16 hours a day. It wasn't enough for her that I was an indefatigable lover. It wasn't enough for her that I had given up seeing my buddies, chasing women, playing sports and going fishing. She wanted something more from me, something I found impossible to give: intimacy. I was keeping such a tight rein on my feelings that there was no way I could let her get close to me."

Mirage men feel they must remain alienated from their real selves to perpetuate romances born of not being genuine. Over the long haul this destroys the union.

Marriage and family psychotherapist Sonya Rhodes has observed that women see sex as a natural result of a healthy relationship, while men consider sexual relations to be unconnected to the interpersonal aspects of the romance. When a marriage or cohabitation is ailing, sexual relations tend to be withheld by the woman, while a man wants to have sex even when the relationship is under stress.

The man will discover that a primary reason for creating his mirage relationship—sex—will diminish as the wife's opinion of the relationship wanes. He will become even less likely to listen to her and do what she asks. Then the woman becomes more likely to "nag" him to do the daily chores he used to do without being asked. As the woman finds her efforts at communication cut by her emotionally frozen and resentful mate, she may become increasingly withdrawn. In a snowball effect, both partners will end up completely miserable. 

At this point the couple will enter the Crisis phase, in which the very future of the union is a stake. If the couple agrees to a truce and continues in the relationship without addressing underlying issues, the husband may learn to live with the nagging.

But, as Lund's study found, the stress of being nagged will take its toll on him physically. We urge men to seek healthy relationships based on shared interests, goals, a common world view, and compatible personalities, to avoid a marriage that will be hazardous to their health.


J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.


Subscribe to Repairing Relationships

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.