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Man nagging his wife on the couch at home

Nagging: repetitive inquiring/asking/reminding, with a tone of escalating irritability. Why, oh why, do we nag?!  It annoys the nag-ee. It actually even annoys the nagger! Plus, nagging doesn’t work. Even if it elicits the desired results (i.e., the thing we’re rattling on about actually gets accomplished), it’s with a certain weary spitefulness.

So why are we compelled to do it? And why is it so difficult to stop?

I have worked extensively with both couples and parents of kids all ages, and nagging frequently comes up as a sticking point. We all know how corrosive it is to our relationships, but all the same: it’s so hard to stop! I now cringe to think of the many wasted hours I spent earlier in my career focusing on improving communication strategies, patience, and active listening. Not that these things don’t help (they do…to an extent), but, in my opinion, they kind of miss the main point. Communication skills are not a solution to nagging any more than makeup is a solution to a black eye.

I believe that persistent nagging is fear-based. Think about the universal discomfort we feel when we don’t like a situation and don’t have any control over it. It is very counter-intuitive to feel helpless and not do something about it, even when there isn’t much we can do! Remember my blog post from a couple of weeks ago about freaking out ? When we feel unable to get the results we want from another person, the deepest recesses of our brain feels threatened, and reacts. We nag because, well, it’s all we can do.

Nagging occurring  in long-term intimate relationships is perhaps the most infamous form of the medium. A quick google image search with the term “nagging” elicited copious amounts of greeting cards, cartoons, photos of women in hair curlers (because apparently, only women nag), and so forth, all warning that a nagging wife (don’t shoot the messenger) will contribute to early death, or at least lifelong misery. The message: nobody likes a nag (least of all these poor, hapless men who have to put up with it).

To lift the curtains on nagging even further, I would suggest that when nagging takes place in long-term relationships, it is sometimes driven by a perhaps unnamed fear, likely outside our direct awareness. Relationships have their own existential questions that are always running in the background. “Can I depend on you when I need you?” “Do I matter to you?” “Did I choose the right person?” “Do I have what it takes to be in a relationship”? When things are going well, we barely give a passing gander to such lofty questions, so secure are we in the goodness of fit. But parenting, work stressors,  disappointments, and the daily grind can desensitize us to the wonderfulness of our partners, and over time it becomes easier to notice what we’re not getting.

Relationships are very much a dance, with one person’s movements informing the others. When one partner moves forward, wanting more, placing demands, the other partner intuitively backs away, recoiling from the perceived threats of these added pressures. According to Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), when we get triggered by something, we tend to organise our attachment responses along two rather binary dimensions: anxiety or avoidance. Anxiety in the context of an attachment relationship is often expressed as clinging, demanding, reaching out, and wanting more. Avoidance, as you might imagine, is characterised by distancing, distracting, disconnecting, and withdrawing. In EFT, the former is often referred to as the “pursuer” and the latter as the “withdrawer.” The degree to how forcefully one pursues or withdraws is often determined by temperament, role modelling, and early attachment experiences (and these pursuer – withdrawer roles are not gender specific).

The pursuer seems to bear the brunt of the negative press (see aforementioned google search), but pursuing exists in the context of our private world of two. Naturally, anxiety driven behaviour (like nagging) becomes more aggressive and repetitive when it is met with silence, vague responses, and disengagement.

Here is an example of this cycle:

Pursuer: “Hey, can you get off your iPad? You’ve been on it all night.”  (attachment behaviour: longs for attention and reaches out, progressively ramping up the demands; underlying existential question: Do I matter enough to you?)

Withdrawer: Absentmindedly looks up, sighs. “Give me a minute!” (harsh, annoyed tone). Goes back to iPad. Thinks to self “…here we go again. Another criticism. [Pursuer] is never happy!” (attachment behaviour: defends self from being attacked and thus feeling unworthy by shutting down and withdrawing; underlying existential question: Do I have what it takes to be in this relationship?)

Over time, the pattern may progress, and if not successfully intercepted, it could easily ratchet up a to the point where each partner goes into their respective stance in auto pilot.

“Nonsense!” you may be snorting right now, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sure, I believe that. Sometimes we nag simply because a certain behaviour is maddening to us, and we feel the need to try to effect change. Still, even that summons up an impression of someone who is triggered and is reacting to not having control (and I know of what I speak in this department).

Offering up blanket “how to” advice on putting an end to your nagging would undermine the need for a more personalised approach to such matters. All the same, I heartily encourage you to take note the next time you get triggered and feel the impulse to nag, be it to your partner or child or colleague. Pause. Check in with yourself. “What’s happening for me right now?” you might kindly wonder to yourself. Notice again – there will undoubtedly be anger, but what else? What need, what fear, what vulnerability is lurking beneath this instinctive response? Only then can you really begin to address the roots of nagging, as well as other problematic and overused stances.

Nagging is a behaviour that tends to be quite externally focused – we’re sure that it is the other that is creating this reaction, and thus only a satisfactory response from the other can alleviate the anxiety beneath the nagging. Becoming curious about the attachment needs and fears underlying how you engage with your partner is critical if you want to break this pattern – and likely make other sustainable changes in your relationship.

Withdrawers retract at the sign of demands, negative tones of voice, and perceived criticism (only to blow up later, in many cases). Although harder to engage initially, withdrawers can also scratch the surface of this defensive behaviour and come to recognise what other emotions and fears underlie their pattern. I have witnessed amazing things happen when a pursuer and withdrawer are able to break through their default responses and understand (without simultaneously clenching their jaws) where one another are truly coming from. Now, when I see couples in therapy who complain about nagging, we look at the mechanics of the relationship as a whole; we attempt to connect from a more vulnerable and honest place, and strive to find more flexible stances when triggered.

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.