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Is There Ever an End to Nagging?

You may win, but your relationship will lose.

Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock
Source: Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock

I learned everything I know about nagging from my mother, a champion of the verbal sport. For the past 30-something years, my life has been narrated by her unsolicited advice, incessant reminders, and panicky warnings regarding everything from insisting I take a jacket out in 90-degree heat (in case of a freak snowstorm?) to forcing me to list the contents of my refrigerator (to ensure that I am eating healthy).

Many of us are accustomed to the trials and tribulations of a nagging parent, but we are less accustomed to is one day becoming the (so-called) nag ourselves. This metamorphosis is slow and gradual — almost indiscernible — until one day someone you love accuses you of being "a nag, just like your mom."

Of all the cruel insults one could hurl at me, this had to be the worst. As much as I love my mother, her incessant complaints, suggestions, and worries (잔소리 in Korean) have not exactly strengthened our relationship. On one level, I recognize that all of her concerns are rooted in a desire to be helpful or protective. Still, a big part of me can't help but feel irritated every time I am told there is something I should/need/must do, which is why I pledged long ago that, unlike my mother, I would never become a nag.

Until, of course, I became one. I didn't even notice it at first:

One day, you realize that your loved one does something wrong. Out of love, you gently correct him, and he says he'll fix it, but later on, he continues to do it anyway: He forgot, or he'll do it next time. But the next time, nothing changes, and the cycle repeats; your gentle prodding slowly becomes louder and angrier — until both of you are in a screaming frenzy. Welcome to Nagging 101.

Why We Nag

Both sitcoms and psychological research tell us that women are more likely to be nags than men. Per The Wall Street Journal:

"It is possible for husbands to nag, and wives to resent them for nagging. But women are more likely to nag, experts say, largely because they are conditioned to feel more responsible for managing home and family life. And they tend to be more sensitive 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. The problem is that by asking repeatedly, they make things worse."

Too often I have found myself in a Groundhog Day scenario in which I have the same exact argument, each time coming to the same exact unsatisfying, unresolved conclusion. Of course, no one wants to be asked the same things over and over and over (and over and over) again, but what else are you supposed to do when you never, ever, ever come to a real resolution?

Freud called this desire to rehash familiar situations repetition compulsion theory: We develop familiar patterns in our lives and become addicted to reliving certain situations, even if they are terrible for us. It's why people always seem to date the wrong kind of guy or find themselves — time after time — in the same rotten situations. Weirdly, familiarity doesn't breed contempt; it breeds comfort.

And despite the inevitable acrimony that comes from nagging, there is still some comfort in being a nag. When you are a nag, you are always right. Everything you say or believe is pure, incontrovertible fact — obviously. So when some poor fool has the audacity to disagree or to do something that goes against you, you can't help but want to set them straight, to help them see the light. From the nag's point of view, it's not nagging; it's a favor. You are being loving, helpful, and thoughtful. In other words, the problem lies within your target, not you.

Suggested Cures

The most effective solution to out-of-control nagging may simply be to end a relationship. Marriage counselors agree that "nagging is the leading cause of discord and divorce." It shouldn't come as a surprise: Naggers never just stop nagging, even if they get their way. There is always something new to nag about.

An alternate route to minimize nagging is by maximizing gratitude. Relationship expert Tammy Nelson writes:

"Appreciation is the opposite of disappointment. We always get more of what we appreciate. If we are frustrated that our partner doesn’t take the garbage out, but we like that they do the dishes, then tell them. Appreciating that they do the dishes means they are more likely to do the dishes and wipe down the counters as well. If you appreciate that they wipe down the counters and do the dishes, they are more likely to sweep the floor, too. And frankly, wouldn’t you rather live in a relationship where you are each appreciating the other, than one in which you are constantly pointing out the other’s faults?"

Gratitude as a cure-all for life's woes — from depression to high blood pressure — is reliably good, albeit not-so-original advice. But it's not so effective when faced with fiery frustration that cannot be quelled with a simple, "I'm grateful for [fill in the blank]." Sometimes just contemplating gratitude in the heat of the moment incenses me: Why should I have to force myself to be grateful when he's the one being selfish?

Forgiveness is another gesture that can mitigate the harmful effects of nagging. When we find ourselves in committed relationships, Nelson writes, we "regress to the fantasy that our partner will love us unconditionally and yet, interestingly, we don’t forgive them unconditionally for their behaviors that we find annoying." While unconditional love should be a two-way street, most of the time we want it only one way, as in, heading in our direction. This very reasoning is, perhaps, why I nag — to quench my unquenchable desire for total, unconditional love, which I interpret as having all my needs met.

And therein lies the problem: One person, no matter how much you love and trust them, can never meet all your expectations and needs. And just because they are the right person for you doesn't mean they will always do right by you (or even do what you consider to be right). In one relationship, after many, many months of marathon nagging sessions, I finally came to the bleak realization that no amount of prodding, pleading, or begging would ever change that. People will not change for you — and more importantly, you should not ask them to. Love, unconditional or otherwise, should never require supplication or submission, no matter how compelling the reason.

Once a boyfriend accused me of "loving to fight with him," a statement that couldn't be farther from reality — or science. In fact, most women despise conflict, says neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain. When females engage in a fight with a loved one, she says, the brain is sieged by chemicals that mirror the experience of having a seizure.

The only thing more unbearable than engaging in warfare, Brizendine says, is no warfare at all: "If she doesn't get the expected response, she will persist until she begins to conclude that she's done something wrong, or that the person doesn't like or love her anymore."

To a more emotionally-gifted woman, an Energizer Bunny-level of persistence is a completely justified call for help, support, or love, but to an emotionally-challenged man, it is a cruel, interminable attack. Sound insensitive? It is, but it's part of our biological programming, Brizendine says: "Men are used to avoiding contact with others when they themselves are going through an emotionally rough time. They process their troubles alone and think women would want to do the same."

Whose Fault Is It, Anyway?

The reason men do not confront emotions — yours, theirs, the cat's — is that throughout their evolution, they never have. They have never wanted to. They have never known how to. They have never needed to. Conversely, women have always sought to sustain intimacy, especially emotional intimacy, in relationships. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that men's self-esteem was linked to personal achievements and success, while women's self-esteem was most contingent on "connections and attachments" to loved ones.

In a perfect world, men and women would take equal responsibility for their inability to understand each other's emotional needs and take steps to become better communicators. The obvious problem is that many men lack the ability to fully understand emotional needs (as evidenced in the prior paragraph). I know it's a sexist cop-out to say that men are emotionally lacking, but then the onus lands on women to sacrifice their emotional needs and keep their mouth shut. I have tried being a martyr in the past and it hasn't been particularly effective or appreciated.

Recently, I have worked to adopt a different perspective — one rooted not in sacrifice, but in real love. So no matter how often my mom nags me and/or I fail to acquiesce to her every demand, we still love each other unconditionally, and any residual resentment is short-lived. We will never stop talking or end our relationship because of it. So perhaps I should adopt a similar approach to romantic partners: Rather than feeling justified in constantly complaining (because if they really loved me, they would change), shouldn't I recognize that they are entitled to the same argument: That if I really loved them, shouldn't I change, too?

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