We often hear that nagging is one of the worst things a woman can do in a marriage.
It makes her husband feel infantilized, undermined, talked down to.
But what if nagging is not the real issue? What if we’re making too big a deal out of nagging, and not enough of a big deal out of other things?
We’re talking about direct communication this month–how to express what you want and feel clearly, and how to give your spouse room to respond. We’ve looked at what direct communication looks like; why direct communication can be difficult for women; why direct communication can be difficult for men; and so much more.
Today, let’s tackle nagging, and let’s begin with a definition.
Nagging is persistently insisting that someone do something, or persistently pointing out fault in someone.
Now, a pattern of behaviour where you are constantly finding fault with your spouse is not a good dynamic. John Gottman found that in order for a marriage to feel safe and healthy, you need five positive interactions for every one negative one. If most of what comes out of your mouth towards your spouse is negative, that’s going to have a very negative impact on your marriage.
However, what about the first element of nagging? What if the issue is that one spouse keeps repeating that the other spouse needs to do something? Does this represent something that is damaging to the marriage?
Well, yes. But also–perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions. Here’s how a commenter described it earlier this week:
Nagging is a sign that a person has been treated disrespectfully.
If I ask my husband to do something and he says, “sure, I’ll do that today,” and it’s still not done a week later, it is ok for me to say, “hey hon, you said you’d get that job done, what’s going on?” If he responds with, “oh, I forgot, I’ll do it today,” and another week goes by, it is not out of the realm of normal for me to be frustrated. It is disrespectful to say you’ll do something and then not do it.
We had big talk a few years back and he admitted that he would agree to do the job without making it a priority even though his words indicated he did. I pointed out that he was lying, then. I told him if he’s not going to do it, say so. The talk involved him admitting that he doesn’t think it’s fair that I have to do everything but he doesn’t want to take on unpleasant jobs, either. Nor does he think it’s fair for me to do all the unpleasant jobs while he takes the easy ones. I told him it’s time to acknowledge that we are both the adults in the home. I’m the mom, yes, but he’s the dad. Time to just get it done.
Things are so much better now. He was infantilizing himself with his behavior. He has so much more self respect, now.
Another woman expressed a similar frustration:
As for all the exhortations and warnings against wives nagging their husbands, where are all the exhortations and warnings against husbands being lazy, forgetful, uninterested liars? If a husband agrees or volunteers to do something but then never does it, whether through laziness, busyness, forgetfulness, or simply trying to keep the peace when he was asked or volunteered, then doesn’t that make him a liar? If said husband would keep his word, his wife would never have to bring up the issue again, would she? So why is all the responsibility for the husband’s utter lack of follow-through put on the wife keeping her mouth shut rather than her husband doing what he said he’d do?
Nagging has been given an unfairly negative connotation, without addressing the underlying issues.
Yes, it is unpleasant to live with someone who is constantly reminding you of things that need doing and of how you are failing.
But what if you are, indeed, failing to live up to your word? What if someone is, indeed, being lazy and irresponsible? Let’s take a look at an all-too-typical evening for Sandra and Mark:
Sandra and Mark’s Nagging Dynamics
When dinner is over, Sandra says to Mark, “It’s your turn to do the dishes tonight, Mark.”
Mark sighs and says, “Yes, I know. I’ll get to it.” He gets up from the table and heads to the living room.
Now, Sandra and Mark have little counter space, and Sandra can’t get the kids’ lunches ready for school the next day (or the kids can’t get their own lunches ready) until the dishes are done.
Tonight, Sandra was planning on her evening looking something like: giving the kids a bath and getting them ready for bed; finishing up half an hour of work that still needs to be done; making the kids lunches; and relaxing for an hour or two before bed.
As Sandra clears the table, she can hear her husband start the video game player. She knows he’s had a busy day at work, and figures he just wants to goof off for a little while, but she’s afraid that little while will become hours. “Remember that I need the dishes done soon, Mark!” she calls out. He doesn’t reply.
Once the table is cleared, she gets the kids in bed, finishes up her work, and heads down to make tomorrow’s lunches–and the counter is still a mess. She calls into Mark in the living room, “Mark, you said you’d do the dishes.” He calls back, sounding annoyed, “I know. I’ll get to it in a minute!”
Sandra feels a little lost. What is she supposed to do? She was going to make the lunches and then relax. She’s finished everything else on her plate. But she can’t start relaxing until the lunches are made.
She sits down in a huff and waits for a few minutes, but Mark still isn’t coming. Walking into the living room she accuses him, “You said you’d do the dishes and I’ve been waiting.”
He replies, “And I said I’d get to it! What is your problem? You’re always nagging me!”
Frustrated, she goes and does the dishes herself so that she can get the lunches made and then still have some time to relax before bed.
In that scenario, what was the issue? The fact that she was nagging him? Or the fact that he never followed through on what he was supposed to be doing?
I realize that this dynamic can definitely go both ways, and there are things that wives can fail to follow through on. But research has shown that this type of problem is largely a male-female one, where the woman is the one who is criticized as nagging. Indeed, “nagging” tends to be a word with a female connotation. And yet what if the problem is not nagging itself but the dynamic that often leads to nagging?
Again, I do believe that constantly criticizing someone is not good for the marriage, and some spouses do consistently find fault with one another. That does need to be addressed. But when the nagging is less about finding fault and more about asking a spouse to follow through with their promises, then is the issue really nagging?
I don’t think it is. However, I also don’t think that the solution is persistently reminding your spouse to do the task either. In Sandra and Mark’s case, the real issue is not Sandra’s nagging. But it’s also clear that Sandra’s “nagging” (for lack of a better word) isn’t solving the problem either.
Addressing The Practical Dynamic that can Lead to Nagging
The dynamic around nagging usually starts because the wife “assigns” a task to the husband, which is already demeaning. She is telling him what to do, like she is a mother instructing a child. He often doesn’t understand the bigger picture, and so he may not know HOW the task needs to get done, WHY it’s such a big deal (she can’t make the lunches until the dishes are done), or even WHEN it needs to get done.
He may do something half-heartedly, thinking it’s enough, only to have her grow frustrated with him and tell him he needs to do it over again. Or she constantly reminds him because she needs this done.
To a large extent this may be a mental load issue. She is carrying all of the mental load that goes into running the house. She knows what needs to get done when. She has a giant family plan in her head that organizes everything, and she is constantly keeping several plates in the air at once, trying to get everything done before it all crashes down. She can’t do it all alone, though, so she does ask for help. But because no one else understands the big picture, and because no one else takes ownership, it’s rarely done the way she needs it to be done.
As we talked about in our mental load series last year, the answer is often to assign different areas of household responsibility to different people. They’re not just responsible for doing the task (the dishes), but they’re responsible for the whole thing–the dishes, the cleanup, maybe even the lunches–so that they get that bigger picture and can do it when it needs to get done, without someone having to assign it to them. We all know it’s his job; he owns it; he gets it done.
If you haven’t seen the mental load series, I encourage you to read it, and look again at the post specifically on ending nagging! And in that series we also address how to set “minimum community standards” for tasks, too.
Addressing The Mindset Dynamic That Can Lead to Nagging
I really believe that sitting down and having that mental load talk can bring so much practical healing to a marriage, and that may be all you need.
But if it’s not, there is another element that contributes to the nagging dynamic, and it’s this one: Often one person feels as if the household is a place of responsibility, while the other person feels as if the household is a place of leisure.
One spouse feels responsible for keeping everything going and getting stuff done, and only relaxes after it’s done, and the other just wants to relax all the time, and will only work if they have to. This mindset can be due to either immaturity or gender role assumptions where men just don’t have to do any work in the home.
It is very, very difficult to bridge that gap when one person simply doesn’t see the house as an area of work. This isn’t always a gendered thing, but it is primarily a gendered thing. I have known many men who have said, for instance, “I work outside the house, so you work inside the house,” as if they don’t have to do any housework or childcare because the entire family is her responsibility.
We must start raising our boys to feel responsible for the household as well. Give your boys as many chores as you give your daughters. Teach your boys how to clean and cook in the same way as you teach your daughters. Chances are your son will marry someone who will also work outside the home, at least some of the time. If they don’t share chores, it’s going to be difficult on their marriage. And it’s just a matter of fairness.
Even if she does all of the housework because she stays at home, children are not tasks. Children are people. And he needs to have a relationship with them, which means being involved in daily tasks like homework, giving them a bath, reading to them, and more. He can’t just disengage because “it’s her job.” No, they’re kids.
If he feels this way, I still suggest going through the emotional labor and mental load series with him, and even getting the book Fair Play (there is some language in it). It helps you talk the household responsibilities through and shows how to approach your spouse if they just don’t see it the same way that you do.
A Game-Changing Solution for Sharing Mental Load and Emotional Labor--
that will transform your marriage!
How to Handle it Without “Nagging” When a Spouse Isn’t Pulling their Weight
Okay, let’s say that you’ve done all of that and your spouse still is not following through on what they’ve said they’ll do. He (or she) has assigned areas of responsibility that are clearly delegated. You’re not just making requests on the fly. Your spouse clearly knows that it is his (or her) job to get something done, and is still not doing it. There have been timelines and expectations set, and those timelines and expectations have not been met.
It is okay to bring this up as an issue.
It is okay to say, “You said you’d do this, and you didn’t do it. I am not happy. I am disappointed and I feel taken for granted and used, and I would like to talk about this.”
And maybe you all need to hear me say this, too: It is okay to be disappointed when your spouse said they would do something and then didn’t follow through. It is even okay to be angry.
I know a lot of marriage advice will tell you to let it go, and not to let bitterness reign in your heart. And I certainly don’t think you should get bitter, either! And quite often when you are upset about something, they are also upset about something else, and talking through what you each can do to build the relationship is very healthy.
But when a spouse truly and repeatedly treats us poorly, then that spouse has compromised intimacy. They have made it so that we feel as if we can’t trust them, and as if our feelings and needs don’t matter to them. If this doesn’t have repercussions on your marriage and how you feel about your spouse, then that’s a sign there could be something wrong! You should feel hurt when someone treats you badly.
Think about how often in the Old Testament God describes blessings and cursings for the Israelites–when they do what’s right, they’ll be blessed. When they do what’s wrong and treat God badly or cavalierly, bad things happen. Now God also has grace, and loved us and gave Himself for us while we were still sinners. But in intimate relationships, how we treat each other does affect intimacy. That’s how we’re made!
What you do with that hurt is another story, but it is not a sin and it is not wrong to feel hurt, and you are not being a bad wife or husband.
You now have two questions ahead of you:
- What will you do about the thing that your spouse has failed to do?
- How will you handle the rift in your relationship?
Handing the thing that your spouse refuses to do
I have a longer series on how to draw boundaries with a spouse’s bad behavior, and allow them to feel the consequences of their actions. It’s part of my longer iron sharpens iron series, and that’s a good one to read about making changes in marriage.
Handling your disappointment in your spouse
This is really the bigger issue, isn’t it? How can you have a warm, close, affectionate relationship with someone that you can’t count on, and that consistently takes you for granted?
Can I suggest that the answer may be, “you can’t”?
I know that’s harsh, and I’m not saying that you can’t have a decent marriage, where you do things together and raise kids together and find a modicum of contentment. In fact, if your spouse consistently refuses to step up to the plate, you may need to find ways to emotionally deal with this that don’t depend on your spouse changing, because your spouse may never change.
And that means that you may need to come to terms with the fact that your marriage will never be as warm, affectionate, and close as you had hoped, because you can’t build a warm, affectionate, close relationship all on your own.
So, yes, keep trying to do hobbies together and spend time together. Build your emotional connection. But you may also need to plug in to a great women’s group to get your emotional needs for friendship met elsewhere. You may need to start developing some hobbies outside of your marriage so that you have something else that makes you happy. Because your marriage may simply be a disappointment.
I wish I could paint a happier picture. But some people do disappoint us, and to try to pretend that isn’t true doesn’t help.
Also, to treat your spouse as if you are still best friends when your spouse is treating you badly rewards your spouse for bad behavior and grows your own wounds. When you have to ignore the very real hurts you feel, and pretend they don’t matter, eventually that’s going to catch up.
You can still have a decent surface relationship. You can try to build a genuine friendship. But yes, your marriage has been hurt by this, and it’s okay for you to acknowledge that and to tell your spouse that (and hopefully go to a licensed counselor about it!).
If he never follows through with anything he said he would do around the house; if she consistently refuses to stick to the budget even when she’s promised, and continually drives you into debt; these things are problems! And problems should impact your marriage.
In 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, I spend the first four thoughts helping women look at themselves and change any attitudes that need changing, and look for ways to take responsibility for her own happiness.
Then we look at three thoughts that can help address these chronic issues–and why it’s okay to address those issues. It doesn’t mean you’re being selfish or bitter or angry.
And then we turn to two thoughts to help keep the relationship feeling close! If you’re finding this series resonating with you, 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage is my book that will help you go deeper!
I do think there’s hope!
Many, if not most, marriages can actually be turned around when we tackle problems well.
Rebecca and I were talking today about how we may not actually know what happy marriages look like, because marriage books tend to focus on how if you’re upset at your spouse, you need to let it go and recognize that you’re a sinner, too. To a certain extent there is some truth there–the John Gottman Institute, for instance, did find that you need 5 happy communications for every 1 negative one if you’re going to have a happy marriage. So as you’re working on dealing with something difficult, build some fun in too, and encourage where you can.
But research has also shown that not dealing with small things causes them to become big things. And setting the groundwork early in your marriage where there are some things that you just won’t tolerate can bear great dividends in the long run.
The most unhappy marriages are not those where there is no conflict; the most unhappy marriages are those where conflict is suppressed.
So if you need to have conflict over something–have it. Quite often that conflict can be resolved.
But it will never be resolved if, when your spouse treats you badly and takes you for granted, you swallow your disappointment, pretend everything is okay, and stop expecting anything more.
What do you think? What’s the best way to stop nagging while actually dealing with the issue at hand? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Direct Communication Series
- 5 Reasons Direct Communication is Difficult
- 6 Elements of Direct Communication
- Why Direct Communication Feels Mean--and Why It's Not
- 3 Reasons Christian Resources Tell Women Direct Communication is a Sin
- 5 Reasons Christian Teaching Discourages Men from Communicating Directly
- The Direct Communication Podcast
- The Real Solution to Nagging
- 10 Tips to Talking to Your Spouse About Your Sex Life
- 10 Ways to Show Appreciation to Your Spouse
- How to Have that Conversation You've Been Putting Off
And please see my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, with lots on having difficult conversations and resolving conflict!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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