You see it all the time in sitcoms. The “I don’t have a clue” husband whose wife is constantly telling him what to do, or reminding him what he is not doing. While we may laugh at this comedy routine, there is nothing funny about it in real couple relationships. It’s called nagging. And it is a relationship killer.

Nagging works like this. You make a request, the request is ignored and you make it again. And the more you badger the person to do what you want, the more he or she withdraws. In fact, nagging has been shown to decrease a person’s motivation to get something done. To most people, it feels controlling. Repeated asking just doesn’t work. Or it works at a cost to the relationship. It usually ends in more distance between a couple. Yet many couples are locked into this pattern: nag, withdraw, and nag some more.

Nagging is part of an overall negative communication pattern. And for some people it feels compulsive. One of  the problems with nagging is that you become the parent to your partner. And no one wants to be intimate with their parent! Nagging is irritating and feels like you are being scolded. Also, the nagging person becomes frustrated and anxious, and the person who is being nagged may become angry and resentful.

Additionally, what Dr. Markman at the University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies found was that when couples start fighting about the nagging, and not the issues that created it, couples are in danger of divorce. So, if you find yourself caught in this pattern of nagging, just STOP it! It will eventually lead to lost love.

How do you make a change?

First, listen to the tone of your voice. Check your body language. Don’t begin a conversation with, “You…” Use, “I…” instead. Then, begin a request with a softened tone. For example, “I have been bothered by the pile up of dishes in the sink. Could you please help me clear this out?” If your partner doesn’t do the task, drop it and wait for a better time to talk about what needs to get done.  But make sure you say your expectation out loud and don’t assume your partner knows what you are thinking.

Second, check your language. Make sure blame, criticism, manipulation, demeaning and attack are not the vocabulary of the request. In other words, think about the words you use and if they are building up or tearing down.

Next, figure out what is behind the nagging:

  • Are you afraid you won’t get what you want from your partner?
  • Are you overloaded with too much to do?
  • Are you overly obsessive about things getting done immediately?
  • Are you expecting your partner to think and be like you?
  • Are your expectations realistic?
  • Are you uncomfortable sitting with negative feelings or with things being unfinished?
  • Are you Type A living with Type B?
  • Do you not trust your partner? Does he or she keep their word?

Now, examine what prompts you to nag. Is it really about an unmet need? If so, you need a different approach. If you look at the list above and one of the reasons hits home, talk with your partner about the underlying reason. You may need some reassurance or to work through a few areas in your relationship.

At the least, look at whether or not nagging actually works. If you have decided it does not, what is the impact of continuing this? Most often, this negative cycle of communication will lead to resentment and pulling away. Nobody likes the feeling of being nagged. It undermines our confidence and competence. Is this the direction you want your relationship to go?

Finally, add positive reinforcement to your relationship. Take all that nagging energy and focus it on the good things your partner does. Compliment and express fondness for the person. Basically, build back the positives to balance the negatives that have dominated the relationship.

OK, you have a plan. Today is the day to begin to turn this negative behavior around.

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