Nagging is our subject for today. We’ve got some insights for you today! For example, did you know that there is a good reason why wives nag more than husbands? And that it is not actually because there’s something wrong with the wife? This is like mythbusters for marriage!
Nobody likes being nagged by their spouse. And no one likes having to nag their spouse over and over about something. But, as we’ll see today, there are often some real and honest reasons behind nagging, and getting to the root of them will definitely benefit your marriage.
What is Nagging?
Nagging is “pestering others with demands, pleas, and/or requests for compliance when they are not doing what we would like them to do[i]”
Typically, in order for something to be qualified as nagging it needs to have a negative effect on the target of the nagging too. It usually needs “to annoy by constant scolding, complaining or urging[ii]”.
So typically it is a persistent attempt to persuade or request something but it is not overtly aggressive in nature. Usually what happens is nagging is prompted when someone fails to comply with a request (there’s a hint for the myth busting part of this episode…we’ll get to that below), so the request is made again.
Nagging in Marriage
Within marriage, nagging is motivated by a desire for your spouse to change some aspect of themselves or their actions. So it is therefore different to complaining or simply venting emotions. Common topics for nagging within marriage include[iii]:
- Household task completion
- Personal habits
- Amount of love/affection displayed
- Work or work/life balance
- Time spent together
So how does it actually work or what does it look like? A study in 2008[iv] describes the process of nagging, and why it can become common:
- One spouse (the “initiator”) makes a request for a specific action from their spouse
- The other spouse (the “responder”) refuses the request, for whatever reason: perhaps they aren’t motivated to do it, they weren’t paying full attention to the request, the request wasn’t worded clearly or the responder didn’t agree that it needs doing.
- The initiator must now choose either to persist with the request or to abandon it. For the interaction to be considered nagging, the initiator would choose to persist in making the request
- The responder now chooses either to comply with the request or continue refusing
- Steps 3 and 4 continue until either the initiator gives up or the responder complies with the request
So you have this back and forth, perhaps over ten minutes or maybe over several days, of a request being met with a refusal. Sound familiar?
Nagging can become a common behavior because it is very likely that the responder will eventually succumb and do what the initiator is asking. They’ll do what is being asked just to shut their spouse up, in other words. If this happens then the initiator has been “rewarded” for nagging by getting what they want. So the behavior is reinforced: therefore they become more likely to use nagging in the future. In the mind of the initiator, more nagging=more likely to get what I want.
Do Wives Nag More than Husbands?
The general stereotype is that wives are more prone to nagging than husbands, and the majority of people believe this to be true. But what does the research say?
A study in 2006[v] tested whether this was actually the case and found that women are more likely to nag both men and other women, whereas men are more likely to only nag other men. So in the general population, nagging is equal between sexes, but within a marriage the wife is more likely to nag the husband than vice versa.
But, here’s the myth busting part where us guys kind of have to hang our heads and stop pointing the finger at our wives: a study in 2014[vi] found that in most marriages women are more likely to comply with a request the first time they are asked than men are. So women being more nagging is in good part down to the fact that men have less need to nag. So if your wife is constantly nagging you… maybe you need to consider whether part of the problem is your own attitude to helping her out.
No More Nagging!
Now if this is part of what you guys do: you nag and you ignore until eventually you cave in an reinforce the behavior, our bonus guide this week has some questions to really help you break down what you’re doing, figure out what you want, and then figure out how to get there without nagging and ignoring each other. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Responses to Nagging
The other part of this we have to look at is not only the nagging itself but also how we respond to nagging.
Reactance. A study in 2006[vii] found that in married couples, frequent nagging leads to an increase in reactance: the responder getting annoyed by the repeated requests. Again… sound familiar? Nagging creates anger at the fact that they are being nagged and makes them less likely to comply with the request. The more frequently a spouse is nagged, the more resistance they are likely to show.
Attribution. Frequent nagging also causes a shift in the responder’s attribution of what the problem is. The first time a request is made, the responder may feel guilty that they have not met their spouse’s needs or have let them down in some way. But the longer the nagging goes on, the more the blame shifts to the initiator of the nagging: the responder starts to think that their spouse is the problem, not them.
Escalation. These two processes of angry reactance and shifting attribution create a cycle of escalation. When nagged, the responder becomes less and less motivated to comply, causing the initiator to keep making their request in increasingly strong terms. Both spouses become more angry and less motivated to “back down”.
Eventually this creates a “stalemate” where nagging keeps occurring without getting anywhere, or sometimes it can boil over into more severe arguments.
Effect on Marital Quality. A study in 2014[viii] found that low levels of nagging are linked to higher levels of marital quality. This effect was found for husbands and not wives: probably due to the gender differences noted above. This is not saying you should maintain a low level of nagging — it is pointing out that the less nagging, the greater the correlation to improved marriage quality.
What is so helpful about understanding response patterns is that whether you are initiating the nagging or responding to it, either one of you has a chance to start to shift the pattern in your marriage.
How To Stop Nagging
Respond to the Issue First Time Around
This first one might seem a bit obvious. Once nagging has started, complying with the request reinforces nagging as a valid way of getting you to comply.
NOT complying leads to conflict.
So the best thing to do is to deal with the request properly the first time it is mentioned. We’ll look at this thoroughly in the bonus content. We’re not saying you have to give in to your spouse every time they ask you something, just that if you’re going to say yes or no you should do it right away and get the discussion done. Or even if you cannot get to it right away, tell your spouse when you will do it: make a commitment and follow through.
Behavioral vs Verbal Noncompliance
Here’s a subtle but important issue to take note of. When your spouse makes a request, you can refuse in one of two ways:
- Verbal noncompliance: simply saying no, and/or giving your reasons why you will not comply.
- Behavioral noncompliance: not complying with the request without definitively stating that you won’t do it. For example simply ignoring the request, or saying that you will do it but then not actually complying, or putting off the request by saying you’ll do it later.
Research in 2006[ix] interviewed 101 married couples and found that behavioral noncompliance was much more likely to lead to nagging. Without a verbal expression of what you intend to do, the initiator doesn’t know if you intend to help or not, leading them to repeat the request. If you don’t actually definitively say yes or no, you leave things open. You’re probably familiar with this kind of thing: telling your wife you’ll take the trash out tomorrow, and then saying the same thing the next day, and the next…
So verbally stating that you will not comply (and giving a good reason) is less likely to lead to nagging than leaving things uncertain. I’m not saying be a brute and just tell your spouse to take a hike. I’m just saying: be assertive. If you are not going to do it, be open and honest about it and have a discussion: why is this important to your spouse and not to you? What’s at stake?
Understand the Motivation
Nagging is often driven by a desire for your spouse to change, but this desire for change can be based on your care and love for your spouse. For example nagging your spouse about their health or the choices they make because you care about their wellbeing, or nagging your spouse to be more open with you because you care about creating intimacy in the marriage[x].
Many people report that while they find their spouse’s nagging annoying, they recognize that they do it because they care. So recognizing the real and positive motivations behind the nagging can help the responding spouse to be more willing to listen, and may help the initiating spouse to phrase their requests in a more positive way.
Sometimes this is something that is coming out of a wholesome space right? But maybe because of how requests were modelled in your family of origin, you default to nagging. Or, you default to hearing a request as nagging even if it really isn’t. Getting in touch with the care, the concern, the love — and then seeing the request through that lens — that really can help. The other part of that may also be tweaking the language or body language or tone of voice slightly to really make sure you’re avoiding the negative trigger associated with nagging.
So: there you have it. We actually just busted another myth: that people nag because there’s something wrong with them. Maybe your spouse is nagging you because there’s something right about them! Figure that out. It may mean having a conversation that says “I can really tell you care about me when you keep coming back to my lack of exercise, but the way you bring it up makes me bristle. That may be because my mom always nagged my dad and that bothered me, but sometimes I think I do hear some disrespect in your voice and it’s hard for me to see the care behind that.” These kinds of conversations can pave the way for personal growth in the marriage, while also cutting down on nagging. Talk about a win-win!
[i] Katie Neary Dunleavy and others, ‘Student Nagging Behavior in the College Classroom’, Communication Education, 57.1 (2008), 1–19 <https://doi.org/10.1080/03634520701678679>.
[ii] Kari P. Soule, ‘The What, When, Who, and Why of Nagging in Interpersonal Relati0nshipS’, Communication Quarterly, 8 (2006), 331–52.
[iii] Dunleavy and others.
[iv] Dunleavy and others.
[vi] Kristine Marie Knutson, ‘The Effects of Collaborative and Non-Aggressive Communication on the Relationship between the Division of Labor (s) and Marital Quality for Dual-Earner Couples’ (University of Kansas, 2014).
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