"Steve, speak up. You always sit there and let everyone else do the talking." "Jan, did you mail the mortgage payment? We'll pay a huge penalty if it's even one day past due. Turn off your Walkman, Jan. I'm trying to talk to you."
Sound familiar? We're all tempted to nag now and then. I've been known to follow my wife around the house demanding that she remember the amount of a missing check or a recent cash withdrawal. I figure if I just repeat the question enough she'll remember. (I've also been known to discover that I wrote the missing check.)
There are two big nagging myths to debunk. First, that nagging is a feminine fault. Both men and women engage in this annoying practice.
The second myth? That nagging is the exclusive fault of the nagger. The truth is that while one spouse may be more prone to find fault with the other, both partners share responsibility. Nagging is a lot like that spiteful teeter-totter game gradeschool kids play at recess. When I was that age, if there was underlying hostility between you and your seesawing partner, one of you would push off the ground with all your might. When done correctly, it propelled the person at the other end of the plank as hard as possible straight into the pavement. And it almost always resulted in your partner returning the favor.
In marriage, the seesaw duel looks more like this: Mary asks Ted to do something he doesn't want to do—at least not right now. So he responds by pretending not to hear Mary's request, or by offering an unsatisfactory answer like "Yeah, I'll get to it later . …"
Mary repeats her request, accentuating each syllable to increase dramatic effect. Ted, feeling put upon (and put down), doesn't respond.
Infuriated, Mary resorts to rapid repetitions of her demand. Ted, observing Mary's agitation and frustration, indulges in a moment of carefully concealed delight. Her ridiculous behavior makes him feel, momentarily, morally superior. For a passive-aggressive personality, this is a moment of supreme triumph.
Both the nagger and the "naggee" play an essential role in keeping this destructive game going. So if there's a whole lotta naggin' goin' on at your house, consider what role you're playing.
If You're the Nagger
I'm not saying you're always the nagger, just that you sometimes fall into a pattern of wrongly insisting that your spouse immediately obey your stated will. You've been inconsiderate and presumptuous. You've failed to appreciate that your spouse may want to fulfill your desires, but has valid reasons not to respond at that moment.
Nagging is, at its root, profoundly disrespectful. A nagger acts like a parent, insulting a partner's intelligence (or at least his "hearing") and policing his behavior, making sure he minds. A nagger also indulges in an unhealthy attitude of entitlement. You assume your spouse has no say in when or how high he or she should jump when you issue the command.
If you're the nagger, try some of these strategies.
- Acknowledge any arrogance or insensitivity that has colored your approach to your spouse.
- Reject the expectation that your spouse will always fulfill your desires immediately. Use your imagination to think of legitimate reasons why your spouse may be unable to respond to your request right now. Give your heart a spiritual adjustment, remembering Jesus' intent "not to be served, but to serve."
- Value your spouse's input. Maybe your spouse has valid reasons for not acting on your "suggestions." Be open to seeing things from his or her perspective because "two are better than one" in the long run.
- Stop repeating yourself. Learn to state your needs, and practice receiving your spouse's response graciously—even if the response doesn't fully address what you asked for.
- Put your needs in God's hands. If your spouse's first response is disappointing, pray about it. Give God time to work in your spouse's life apart from your nagging. Make it a matter of faith.
If You're the Naggee
It's easier to admit being the naggee, but that doesn't let you off the hook. If you're on the receiving end of the nagging, you may have developed a pattern of avoidance. You might find it easier to withdraw from the conversation, or to ignore your spouse, than to establish true adult-to-adult respect. But by not acknowledging your spouse's request, you're minimizing it. You're sending this message: "I don't respect you enough to address your need or to give you honest and sincere answers."
Many naggees, oddly enough, endure nagging for years without openly challenging it. Why? As long as it goes on, they can blame the nagger. They can hang onto the resentment they feel when their spouses go ahead and make decisions without them. Have you allowed the nagging to go on without doing anything to solve the problem?
If you are a naggee, you can stop the destructive teeter-tottering.
- Examine yourself for any fear or reluctance to engage in legitimate confrontation with your spouse. Do you avoid forging solutions so you can escape the tensions that might arise?
- Search your own attitudes for hidden anger or bitterness. Do you lash back inside even though you don't do so verbally?
- If you find you are angry or resentful of your spouse's nagging, pray for the courage and poise to express your anger lovingly and truthfully. Be specific about which of your spouse's words and actions created your negative feelings.
- If you've been nurturing a smug sense of moral superiority as the put-upon naggee, acknowledge that as false pride. Driving your mate to foolish behavior is no accomplishment, it's shameful manipulation.
- Ask yourself honestly if you've done anything to change the destructive pattern of communication. Then ask God for the strength to say to your spouse, "We love each other too much to continue down this road. Let's work toward a win/win outcome.
Robert Moeller is interim pastor of First Evangelical Free Church in Chicago. He is the author of numerous books, including Marriage Minutes (Moody).
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.