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Why Some People Will Not Stop Nagging

... and 3 strategies for dealing with them.

Key points

  • Individuals who nag others tend to do so in relationships where there is close proximity.
  • Nagging is often compulsive, meaning that the nagger has great difficulty stopping the behavior.
  • Relationship satisfaction is decreased by frequent nagging behavior.
Source: Gorynvd/Shutterstock

Few personality types frustrate others as much as the nagging personality. Established definitions of "nagging" refer to a person who scolds, complains to, or regularly finds fault with another person. When a person complains about someone who regularly nags them, the complaints typically refer to the nagger being a romantic partner, parent, or boss. The common denominators of these three relationships include close proximity and a relationship dynamic that involves dependence, meaning that these relationships are difficult to walk away from or leave.

What is the overall personality orientation of a nagger?

The nagging personality is not identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association). However, the nagging personality bears some overlap with Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder, a personality disorder that existed in previous editions of the DSM. Previously, a passive-aggressive personality was also known as a negativistic personality in the manual, and anyone who regularly interacts with a nagging personality knows firsthand how negativistic such individuals can be.

In addition to a passive-aggressive or negativistic personality type, nagging personalities can also be obsessional, meaning that they appear to get fixated on the activities of others. Nagging personalities may present somewhat similarly to those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in that the nagger has a thought they get stuck thinking about (the obsession) and then engages in a behavior (nagging, the compulsion) to reduce the anxiety the obsessive thought causes. As an example, a husband can’t stop thinking about whether his wife made a particular appointment for them (the obsession), and he continues to nag her (the compulsion) until it gets done.

While such subjective personality characteristics are difficult to research and categorize, it is reasonable to suggest that the nagging personality includes both passive-aggressive and obsessive-compulsive elements.

The effect a nagging personality has on those closest to them

Earlier, an established primary definition of nagging was shared criticizing or fault-finding, and a second definition is important to consider as well: to be a constant source of anxiety or annoyance. The second definition succinctly explains the effect that nagging personalities have on others. Put simply, people who get nagged feel anxious and annoyed. Nagging is a type of negative communication in relationships, and cross-sectional studies on romantic relationships, in particular, have consistently found that distressed couples display more negative communication behaviors than relatively satisfied couples (Bradbury & Karney, 2013).

The motivations of the nagging personality

First, it's a misconception that naggers nag because they enjoy the art of nagging. Anecdotally, patients I have worked with who have a nagging problem aren’t made happy by nagging. In fact, patients have shared that they feel it is a curse to carry the burden of caring and worrying so much about things big and small. So, what are the primary motivations?

1. Naggers nag partly because of a mood problem. Colloquially, their mood is “off,” while the clinical term is “dysregulated.” The nagger, at root, cannot feel peace themselves in a given moment and feels unable to “sit with” or manage their negative feelings. The nagger may feel anxious, afraid, depressed, or frustrated, among others, and the nagger cannot tolerate these feelings.

Not knowing what to do with their feelings, they look to the nearest person to offload their feelings because they can’t bear to feel them any longer. The task or object they focus on (e.g., whether an appointment has been made) simply functions as a carrier or vehicle for the negative feelings.

2. Naggers have what is known clinically as a high-need structure. While most people accept that uncertainty and some level of disorder are inevitable parts of daily life (e.g., the laundry will get done eventually, life won’t end if the yard doesn’t get mowed today), nagging personalities have difficulty accepting this reality. These individuals have an extremely high-need structure, meaning that they need their immediate environment to feel highly ordered and predictable. People often misunderstand the motivations of the nagging personality, believing that the nagger wants to control them or always appear to be right out of a need for power, but the nagger actually nags out of a deeply rooted fear that their world could spiral out of control if every last detail is not highly ordered.

In summary, the root of the nagging personality is typically a mix of a mood issue and a need for order because their inner world—what’s going on in their mind and the world around them—often feels unmanageable and out of order.

How to manage a nagging personality most effectively

Given such a pervasive and distorted personality foundation, how do you manage the nagging personality most effectively?

1. Seek your own space when the nagger's mood gets most dysregulated. When a nagging personality gets triggered by a negative feeling, their default will often be to find something to nag about to reduce the intensity of the negative feeling they are having. If you can remove yourself from the situation, the nagger will not be able to use you as a target to offload their negative feelings.

2. Exchange few words as opposed to engaging in an argument. Don’t get into a full-blown conversation with a nagger when they start nagging; simply share a few brief words that draw a clear and firm boundary. Say, “I will talk about this with you just before dinner, I promise, but this is something I’m not going to talk about now.”

If they continue to push you to engage, simply repeat the same sentiment; sooner or later, they will burn out and stop if you keep drawing the same firm boundary without engaging. (This technique is an example of a learning and behavior law called “extinction.”) If the nagging personality is a boss, appeal to their narcissism for the time being by complying.

3. If the nagging personality is a romantic partner, regularly broach the topic of couples counseling on occasions when you are both in a relaxed mood. Rather than suggest something that may be intimidating, such as a year of intensive couples therapy, suggest that you go for two or three sessions to work on some minor issues. When you suggest therapy, say it in a way that is positive and hopeful. For example, say, “If I didn’t love you so much, I probably wouldn’t care, but I want to deal with these issues so we can focus on enjoying each other and having more fun.”

Ultimately, the nagging personality is one that can be extremely frustrating to others, but it can be managed more effectively by regularly practicing the techniques included here and by avoiding emotional engagement in the moment when the nagging personality gets triggered.

Facebook image: Gorynvd/Shutterstock


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Bradbury TN, Karney BR. Intimate relationships. New York: Norton; 2013.

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