Many of us grew up with cartoons of Wilma nagging her husband, Mr. Flintstone, for any number of reasons – her frequent disapproval and Fred’s childlike reactions to it. This wasn’t the only model of a nagging wife I was treated to growing up. There were the Honeymooners, the Ropers, Home Improvement, King of Queens, the Jenners… Wait! Now, we’re getting into “reality” stars. Could the nagging/stonewalling dynamic I saw in the Flintstones be something that occurs outside of fiction?
Yes! Apparently, there was even a woman in the UK who was ordered to refrain from nagging her husband for five years, based on the noise nuisance it caused her neighbors. The woman reportedly “became overtired after working 12-hour shifts on four consecutive days and sometimes had to ‘let off steam’ to her husband of 23 years.” Most instances of nagging do not result in injunctions, but this does not mean they do not cause damage, and most of us have probably either nagged or have been nagged at some point in our lives.
If this is so common, why do we do it? Do we really care that much about the toilet seat being left up or the trash not getting taken out? Yes – we want things to get done and done right, but do we really care so much about those particular things that we would invest so much of our time, breath, and emotional energy into demands that are largely ignored? If so, why wouldn’t we do it ourselves?
No – like most silly things we do in relationships, nagging is not about what it purports to be about. Nagging, pushing, complaining, passive-aggression… they are all forms of protesting our loved one’s disconnection from us. We sense that we are not important, that our needs are not important, that they will not have our backs when we need them… that they are not there for us. Unfortunately, these feelings are typically not conscious, so we can’t clearly verbalize our worries to our partner. And even if we could… why would we expose our vulnerable feelings to someone we don’t feel like we can trust? Intuitively, it feels safer to criticize, demand, and disapprove.
Tragically, criticizing, demanding, and disapproving tends to elicit exactly the opposite reaction as we’re wanting in a self-respecting partner. They are more likely to defend themselves (why not explain why other things were more important that finishing the dishes?), close off, call us irrational, or grudgingly complete the complained-about task before flipping on the television to regain a sense of independence. When we are feeling disconnected, any of these reactions would reinforce our fears: our needs are NOT important, we are NOT important, we are emotionally abandoned… alone. What do we do then? Criticize more? Talk louder? Close off? Yeah – that’ll work.
So, what can we do to get these needs met? The first thing to do is to realize what you really want. If you find yourself triggered, you are probably reacting to what your partner’s actions symbolize to you, rather than the actions themselves. Instead of criticizing, try to express your feelings to your partner along with a request for what they can do that you would love.
Yes – you will be more vulnerable and yes -they might say “no”. Surprisingly, though, we humans tend to respond to vulnerable messages from those we love much more lovingly than to angry demands or passive aggression. Our partners will also get the chance to help us and feel good about their part in our relationship, rather than just trying to work themselves out of a hole. When they feel better about their part in the relationship, have a chance to take care of us, and get our appreciation in return… it’s a win-win.