There are few repetitive and discouraging relationship interactions that are as damaging as those between a partner who keeps pushing for unmet needs and the other who feels inadequate to fulfill them.
As a relationship therapist for more than four decades, I am sad to report that these unsuccessful interaction patterns are far too common, even in otherwise still successful relationships. They aren't likely to happen at the beginning of an intimate relationship but become more destructive as specific unequal needs increase. As the relationship progresses, the partner whose desires are greater than the other in any area of the relationship begins to push for more satisfaction as the other makes empty promises he or she cannot keep.
As the gap widens between need and availability, both partners initially try to compensate. Independent of gender, one may try to pull back on unreciprocated needs and the other will try harder to meet the lesser demand. Over time, that solution does not heal the difference, causing both to feel helpless and frustrated.
Unable to escape their pattern and both saddened and uncomfortable with the situation they have created, they enter couple's therapy because they want help. Who would want to be described as a serial complainer, self-pitying, and begging? Conversely, who would want to feel inadequate and consistently cover that feeling by making in-the-moment promises they can't keep?
Despite their sincere desires to stop their negative interactions, they can't seem to stop once the downward spiral has begun. The nagger/complainers feel powerless to get what they need and to continue believing in the relationship, and the passive/aggressive promise-breakers no longer have credibility.
In specific situations, it is usually one partner that becomes the nagger/complainer and the other the passive/aggressive promise-breaker, but they may also switch roles depending on the situation. Regardless of who is tagged at any one time, these repetitive patterns are never just one partner's fault. The nagger/complainer is the more obvious partner to identify, but one-sided blame will not take the relationship to a better place. Whichever roles they play, partners who are ready to take accountability for their own behaviors is the first step to healing.
Whether you are more often the nagger/complainer or the passive/aggressive promise-breaker, you can help each other stop perpetuating these negative interactions.
When You Are the Nagger/Complainer
Begging someone to meet your needs is painful for anyone. As you nag and complain, you'll feel your anxiety building as your partner seems resentful and unavailable, even if he or she is patronizing you in the moment. When you begin sinking into these painful interactions, your emotional and physical tension will increase and your hopes for success will away. Whatever capability either of you once may have had to help the other will give way to your personal need to survive the interaction.
Nagger/complainers are often able to stop their counter-productive behaviors when they feel genuinely listened to, treated with truth and authenticity, and given clear boundaries as to what to expect. If they are patronized, put-off, or continually face broken promises, they push harder and become locked-in to ineffective, self-rationalizing behaviors.
Unfortunately, their promise-breaking partners often feel guilty and blamed as they fall more into arrears, and justify withholding the compassion their partner needs. As this sorrowful pattern continues, the dismissed partner often becomes more demanding, creating a greater justification for avoidance by the other. These responses lead to irrational reasoning that negates what they once deemed as their entitlement in a loving relationship.
When You Are the Passive/Aggressive Partner
If your role in any repetitive interaction is the passive/aggressive promise breaker, you may have become a seasoned conflict avoider, not realizing you are creating the very conflicts you can't bear. You may even feel like prey on the other end of a predator, agreeing to what your partner demands in the moment, but knowing deep inside that you are probably not going to come through later. You may also find that you're having more difficulty setting clear boundaries, especially if you have conflicting desires.
Passive/Aggressive promise-breakers sincerely intend to keep their promises, but don't accurately evaluate whether they might be able to feel the same way later. They tend to overload their commitments and then feel too guilty to take responsibility for their eventual priorities. They don't want to disappoint anyone and dislike conflict. If their partners continue to press for promise-keeping, they may then blame their partners for wanting too much, using their building resentment as justification.
When partners continue in these hopeless reciprocal patterns, they feel powerless and disappointed in love's ability to heal. Those responses hurt the soul and discourage the heart of their relationship. To stop the negative interactions and replace them with an upward spiral of mutual support, they must both replace them with an upward spiral of mutual understanding and support. The Nagger/Complainers can learn to stop themselves as they lose ground and move to a different process. The Passive/Aggressive partners can learn to know their capabilities and present themselves more honestly from the beginning.
Here are two examples: The first is a negative go-nowhere dialogue between a chronic whiner/nagger and her passive/aggressive partner. The second is between two partners who have overcome those patterns and have moved beyond them. Note that the genders are reversed to show that these roles can be played by both men and women.
Nora (Nagger/Complainer): "You're never around anymore, Joe. You always have something to do that's more important than being with me. I feel like I ask and ask, and nothing I do makes any difference. Why don't you care about me anymore? You treat me like I'm going to devour you or something. I feel like a burden."
Joe (Passive/Aggressive Defender): "I try to give you time, babe. I really do. I'm sorry it's not enough and I'll try to do better. Please don't be mad at me. I never want to disappoint you, but other stuff comes up that I can't always predict. I know I mess up sometimes but it's not always my fault, you know. Maybe you could remind me more or something so I won't forget."
Nora: "There you go again, putting all the responsibility on me. Then you'll just say I'm nagging you more. You know that doesn't work. I've tried everything. Why don't you just tell me you're not going to do what you say? I don't ask that much, Joe, and you even admit that. You make me feel like a fool, begging for what I need from you. I look like an idiot while you sit there so smug, thinking you're the greatest person on earth. If I don't ask for anything, you do nothing. If I ask for something, you do nothing."
Joe (starting to show his underlying resentment): "Okay. Okay. So you're right. So it's my fault that I can't keep track of all your demands. I'm the one who has to try harder to please you so you won't have all these reasons to find fault. It seems like you get off on finding fault with me. So I mess up sometimes and don't come through for you? Have you ever thought that you just ask for too much? I'll just try harder, but I know you're watching my every move to set me up to prove how right you are."
Nora: "I give up."
Joe: "Hey, Nora. Come sit on the couch with me and watch the game. Those things can wait."
Nora: "Sure, sweetheart. I want to, but I'll be there in just a minute, honey. Just have a couple of chores to do first."
Joe: "That feels too familiar. If I don't remind you ten times, you're going to keep doing what you want to do. Then you'll tell me that I'm pushy and don't understand, right?"
Nora: "No, no. I really mean it this time. You ask me things without paying attention to what I'm already doing. I might not come right at the time you ask, but you need to be more patient. I have other things that are important to me, too.
Joe: "That's your typical excuse, babe, but I know your patterns. Please listen to me. I want you with me now. There can't be anything more important. I want you with me."
Nora: "Okay. I'll drop the long list. Just let me call my mom back and tell her about the changes tomorrow and put that load in the dryer. Then I'll be right there."
Joe (coming into the kitchen and putting his arm around her): Nora, look at me. We've been over this so many times and you aren't listening to me. I know you want to give me what I want, but you don't predict yourself very well. When you don't come through for me, I feel like hell. I don't ask for much, babe, but, when I do, I mean it. I never want you to be with me if you have something you'd rather do, but don't promise something and then let me down again. I need to be able to believe you or let my stuff go."
Nora: "I'm so sorry, honey. You're absolutely right. I mean to keep my promises to you and then I get caught up in other stuff. You're the most important person in my world and the one that gets the raw end of the deal. I guess I take your love for granted and expect you to believe me. That's not fair. I'm putting the responsibility on you to keep us close and I need to stop that."
Joe: "I love you."
How to Change Your Patterns
Questions for Nagger/Complainers
When you're the Nagger/Complainer in most areas of your relationship, ask yourself the following questions. If Write down the answers so that you can share them with your partner later. You may want to give an example or two to help illustrate your point. Do not negatively judge yourself whichever role you're playing. You're looking for self-accountability, not self-criticism.
1. Did either of your parents have nagging/complaining behaviors that you might be unconsciously copying?
2. What alternatives do you try before you resort to nagging/complaining?
3. Do you fall into those same patterns with others besides your partner?
4. How often are you successful in getting what you need when you nag or complain?
5. Do you criticize yourself when you can't seem to stop nagging or complaining?
6. Did relationship frustrations pushed you into these behaviors? If so, what could your partner have done to help you before you began whining and nagging?
7. Has your partner taken any responsibility for his or her part in these negative interactions?
8. How could your partner change his or her behavior now to help you stop whining and nagging?
9. What alternative behaviors can you do to help yourself?
10. Do you nag and whine because you would feel like giving up if you didn't?
11. Have you been labeled as a nagger/complainer in other relationships? When, and what happened?
Questions for Passive/Aggressive Promise-Breakers
If you've become the passive/aggressive promise-breaking partner, ask yourself the following questions and respond as your partner has.
Exercises That Will Help
Hopefully, after sharing your feelings and examples with each other, you will be better able to understand the frustrations both of you feel and how you mutually contribute to the problem. If you understand that it takes two to maintain these patterns, you will feel more encouraged to help each other out of them. Remember, your negative interactions have a much better chance of healing if both of you are willing to look at your own behavior without blaming your partner.
The next time you begin this interaction, switch roles and play the other person's part. Do this with compassion and support, not with sarcasm or the need to embarrass your partner. Try to feel what your partner is feeling when you act as he or she has in the past. Then tell each other how it feels to be on the other end.
Giving Each Other More Time to Respond
When these patterns begin, it is common for both partners to speed up. When you feel a destructive spiral coming on, encourage each other to slow down, and give each other time to share your feelings.
Whenever committed partners repeat destructive patterns, they have usually written the ending before the interaction is over. Unfortunately, it is easier for them to predict a bad outcome and get it over with, rather than giving things a chance to turn out differently. You will get your best results if you ask questions and explore the situation deeply from the start.
Stay in the Present
Nagging and avoidance behaviors are learned in childhood. As those patterns repeat in adult relationships, most partners revert to what they saw their parents do. Soon, neither can hear the other for fear that their own needs will not be met. Words like "never" and "always" enter the conversation with greater frequency. Refrain from bringing the past into your current interaction. Remember that you are responsible for the words you say and how they will be interpreted by your partner in the present.
Watch Your Body Language and Voice Intonation
As people become more locked in to negative patterns, they repeat themselves in endless, unproductive interactions. As they feel less heard and more erased, their facial expressions and the sounds of their voices sound distress alarms. Eye-rolling may be experienced as condescending or disgust. Crossed arms are often seen as "I'm not open to anything you have to say, so why are you still trying to get to me?" A whiny voice can sound plaintive and powerless, and is more likely to be invalidated. Bored or hostile glances communicate disgust and finality.
If partners find themselves repeating destructive patterns, they have probably stopped trying to do anything different. Rituals don't take much thought or energy, and often hide more frightening problems.
Partners who create new ways of handling stressful interactions can open up new options. For example, when important arguments get stuck, some couples try emailing each other instead. Others may try sitting back-to-back so they can't automatically react negatively to each other's expressions. Some find that holding hands when they begin a downward spiral can change the tone and help them remember to stay connected. Whatever breaks old patterns is worth trying.
One of the first things that couples notice when negative patterns take hold is their ability to laugh at the situation decreases measurably. Any innovative changes that make you start laughing again have a great probability of aiding the healing process.
Most committed couples don't want to repeat negative patterns that hurt their relationship, especially when they still care. They may not recognize those patterns in the beginning, and fail to see them worsen over time. When resources diminish, it is always harder to turn things around.
The good news is that even long-standing negative interactions can transform into positive ones, often creating a better foundation for future challenges. Every successful resolution of a long-standing problem gives a couple more strength and options to fight for better outcomes when new challenges arise.