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The Cure for Nagging

What causes nagging in relationships — and how to stop it.

Maggie: I've asked him a million times to finish the fence and he still hasn't done it.

Rick (with a sigh): Well, if she would get off my back about it, I would. Doesn't she think I have anything else to do?

Maggie: I asked him last summer to do it! If I stop reminding him, he'll never get to it.

Nagging could be the most common relationship complaint I hear in my couples' therapy practice.

It's not the most serious, but it is decidedly vexing to both partners. Over the past 30 years, I've heard many descriptions like Maggie and Rick's.

I have learned two important secrets about nagging: The first is that it takes two people to establish this pattern; neither the nagger nor the nagged is fully to blame. The second and more important secret is that the best solution lies with only one of the people. Hint: It's not the nagger.

Let me tell you first about how nagging develops. Any pair of people can get stuck in the respective roles of nagger or resister (parent and child, boss and employee). For ease in identifying players, I'm going to talk about a heterosexual couple.

One member, let's say the woman, asks her partner to clean out the garage or pick up the dog's prescription or find out about his family's holiday plans. Often, he feels reluctant to comply immediately. This is especially true if either she occupies the role of keeping track of these things, i.e., manages the household (and therefore makes similar requests frequently), or she uses a demanding, critical tone.

In order to prevent the sense of being controlled or acting like an obedient child, the man sometimes feels compelled to delay compliance, even if he fully intends to satisfy the request. This is an attempt (sometimes unconscious) to preserve a sense of choice and self-control, even identity, and in no way signals unwillingness to complete the requested task.

So the potential chore-doer pauses for a moment. Of course, the asker not only doesn't know what the duration of the pause will be, she doesn't know the stalling is going on at all. What is evident to her is only that the task has not been completed. So she keeps it on her mental "to do" list.

Then, somewhere during the pause — it could be just before he is about to do the chore — she reminds him. "Honey, have you unclogged the downstairs shower yet?" This, of course, triggers another delay, even if he had been planning to fix the damned drain, because he still can't bring himself to comply on her timetable.

His partner again only notices the lack of action and becomes impatient, reminding him again, usually sooner this time, which starts another pause period. And so on. Annoyance and tension build on both sides.

The nagging pattern is a demonstration of the remarkably consistent but dumb belief we all have that, if what we're doing isn't working, the solution is to do more of it. This pattern is self-perpetuating, with each person repeatedly reacting to the other's behavior in virtually the same way.

Not surprisingly, the ideal solution is to do something different.

Either person can initiate a change in the pattern, but altering one's behavior in this kind of cycle is very challenging. We all become accustomed to our roles. We actually begin to think of ourselves in these terms, so that changing them means losing part of ourselves.

For example, the "I do everything" person believes that she must do it all, because of the exaggerated sense that her partner never does anything she asks him to do. Or the "fun" parent, who believes he is the opposite of the perceived taskmaster and the only one around whom the kids can relax and have fun. Or the "loser" partner who feels he can never do anything the way she wants.

Now let me tell you about changing the pattern. Some couples can break out of it on their own, but many need a third party, someone who isn't taking either person's side over the other's. I suggest they find a common friend, trusted family member, or therapist who can help them see that there are more appealing options available than "giving in" or continuing to resist the other's position.

The general possibilities include negotiating a new plan, including a new role for the nagger (so her behavior doesn't triggering the cycle of resistance-and-pushing). If they're lucky, they can establish divisions of labor that insulate her from the effects of his procrastination. The resister can take a step toward his partner, something different from doing the requested task. He can also ask for reminders, which he will experience very differently since he's asked for them. The woman can ask for a deadline or she can step back and make room for him to initiate a solution (which she almost always has already tried, without success).

But the best, most effective, foolproof solution is for the resister to set a timetable himself, to let his partner know when the task will be completed, and then to do it, on time. For example, he can say, "I will make the reservations by 4 p.m. on Monday. I promise." His partner’s job: to do and say nothing, which is harder than it sounds.

Even though lots of people get stuck in the nagging pattern, most of them don't enjoy it. And it's safe to say the relationship isn't bringing out the best in anyone at these times. When people are able to get unstuck and change this one routine, the entire relationship becomes infused with more energy and interest. Most notably they begin to enjoy each other's company more.

When we are stuck in the nagging-resisting pattern, most of us view it as a result of the other person's limitations, not our own. However, some version of the same pattern can show up in future relationships as well. That's because we train the other person to play the complementary part in our drama. Sadly, even though we don't want this outcome, we repeat it by playing our familiar role, which evokes predictable responses in the other.

Over time, one's sense of oneself (as the nagger or resister) becomes effectively true, but the real truth lies more in habits, many of which can be changed. Interestingly, although most stuck couples blame their partners for the problem, most freed couples credit the success of a changed pattern to both members. They feel better, both about their relationship and themselves.

Written by guest blogger Molly Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and (mostly) reformed nagger who has practiced in the Boston area for 30 years.

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