Recently my research was featured in a thoughtful and provocative column on nagging by outstanding Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein. In this Huffington Post blog post, I elaborate on some of the points I made in discussions with Ms. Bernstein. I have also decided to talk more about nagging (and how to stop it) in my next couples retreat (February 25-26 in Denver).
What is Nagging and Why is it Harmful?
Nagging is a major problem for relationships compared to other relationship issues because virtually all couples nag compared, for example, to relatively rare but traumatic problems such as adultery. Nagging is like being in a falling rock zone where rocks frequently tumble onto your relationship and chip away at love where as deciding to have an affair is like triggering an avalanche. Nagging starts with a simple request: "Honey, please put the laundry soap in the washing machine before the clothes," "Please put the cap back on the toothpaste," "Please stop at the stop signs," etc. The list of requests is endless. Because there are always going to be requests that are made that are not complied with, the person who makes the request is going to make it again, and if not complied with, again, and again, and so on. Nagging is the persistence of this pattern, and over time the "nagger" is going to express his or her requests more and more negatively and the "naggee" is going to dig their heels in.
Over time, the nagger understandably may think thoughts such as "if she cared about me she would get this done." These thoughts can fuel an explosion of accusations about the partner ("You're lazy!" or "I can't trust you!"). From the perspective of the "naggee" who often has very good reasons for not fulfilling requests at a certain time ("I'm exhausted after work"), he or she starts getting upset about the other person's angry, nasty way of bringing these things up and about the accusations that he or she feels are unfair. When such nagging patterns persist, they can get very destructive to a relationship and put the relationship at risk for unhappiness and at times even divorce (e.g., "He, or she, is not my soul-mate, I made the wrong decision"). Nagging can be a "marriage killer" and an "enemy" of love.
There isn't much relationship science on nagging per se, but there is quite a bit on negative patterns that are consistent with nagging. I have conducted research with my colleagues for over 30 years at the University of Denver on destructive conflict patterns and divorce -- and how to treat and prevent it. In one study we tracked couples from before marriage through the first five years of marriage and found that couples who started happy but became unhappy over time showed about a 20 percent increase during the early years of marriage in patterns of negative communication (as measured by having observers code the couples while talking about their major issues in their relationship), consistent with patterns of nagging, and they also showed a decrease of about 12 percent in positive interactions. These results are consistent with the theory that nagging attacks love and increases risk for marital unhappiness and even divorce.
Who Nags More, Women or Men?
While many people associate nagging with women, that view predates the women's movement and the explosion of research on couples, and is, in my opinion, one of the myths about marriage!! Nagging is a naturally occurring pattern in most relationships that both partners play a major role in keeping going, eventually allowing it to erode love, friendship, commitment and relationship happiness. You can't have one partner pursuing the other partner when that partner withdraws from the pursuit. The more one withdraws, the more the other pursues, and vice versa. This cycle of nagging has been called a "mutual coercion" pattern in an important book, "Reconcilable Differences" by Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson. In this pattern, nagging becomes cemented over time until the pursuer stops or the withdrawer gives in. Moreover, these authors note differences between partners, including differences between women and men, which are viewed as deficiencies that lead to destructive fights, name calling, character assassination and/or retreat to an icy distance.
The good news is that couples can learn skills to stop nagging and learn how to appreciate and deal with differences. In our book, "Fighting For Your Marriage," which is based on over 30 years of research, we teach couples research-based skills to talk safely about the unresolved issues that are the roots of nagging. You can also build "reservoirs of love" in your relationship that will spill over to dampen nagging patterns.
In sum, nagging patterns are normal. Even the happiest of couples over time engage in these patterns. It's not the nagging patterns per se that are the issue for couples, as much as how couples handle the nagging patterns when they start to occur. We can teach couples how to handle the negative emotions that fuel nagging and to use the signs of nagging to deepen love.