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A New Look at Nagging

When wives are complainers, it's usually because husbands dodge communication

The nagging wife is not just a sexist stereotype: Researchers have shown that women take the role of primary complainer in relationships twice as often as men. But a study at Ohio State University suggests that this nagging tendency may have more to do with the power structure of marital relationships than with wives' supposedly demanding nature.

In the study, psychologists Nadya Klinetob, Ph.D., and David Smith, Ph.D., asked 50 couples to discuss issues each spouse felt needed to be addressed. When the topic was chosen by the woman, the researchers found, she made most of the suggestions while her husband attempted to avoid discussion. This was a classic example of the "demand-withdraw" pattern often exhibited by couples having communication problems: When one partner voices a complaint--nags in other words--the other partner remains silent, attempts to change the subject, or leaves the room altogether. But women weren't always the ones who griped. When the issue for discussion was chosen by the man, he made the demands while his wife dodged communication.

So why are men rarely perceived as "nags"? Women may tend to complain more simply because they have more to ask for. For example, even in dual-income homes wives are often saddled with most housekeeping and child care tasks. Men may tend to withdraw from criticisms and requests because it's advantageous for them to maintain the status quo. However, in domains where women typically have more control--like the bedroom--it seems that men turn into nags, while women become evasive.