Nagging Power in Relationships

Nagging Power in Relationships

No one likes to be nagged. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of nagging power will probably tell you that without nagging the world would be a better place. And so would their lives. 

Yet, despite its bad reputation, nagging works; it often gets things done, can uncover an unhelpful relationship dynamic or an unfair division of labor, and reveal a power differential in a relationship.

Even though nagging is universally disliked, most people will acknowledge its power. hence the term “nagging power” is used throughout this article as a shortcut.

Maybe you have these types of conversations with your spouse:

She:  Please take out the trash.

He:  Silent.

She: (10 minutes later) Is the trash out?

He: In a minute – –

She: Please do it now. Tomorrow is pick-up day.

He: (sharply) Stop it. I’ll get it done. 

She: (exasperated) OMG, it’d be easier to do it myself so I know it’s done.

He: (blowing-up as he goes to take trash out). Why can’t you just relax? I’m sick of your nagging!

Sound familiar?

Nagging is a repetitive and persistent form of persuasion. As the example illustrates, nagging expresses urgency, ramps up emotions, and can lead to unpleasant exchanges – and nagging is effective.

The Secret to Nagging Power’s Punch

Nagging derives from the word “nag”, which means a horse that is old or in poor condition. Calling someone a “nag” is more weapon than word

Some say the word “nag” puts a woman in her place, that the word is all but inscribed in the male DNA, ready for deployment when he loses patience or endurance, or doesn’t want to open a can of worms by talking about a problem. 

Nagging power unleashes a curious if not insidious dynamic. Women, who haven’t embraced the word “nag”, would rather retreat than be nag-tagged. 

The mere utterance of the word throws her into a quandary: She is desperate to avoid the nag label …and desperate to get her partner to comply with her wishes. 

The real rub is that she recognizes nagging power’s effectiveness in helping her maintain order in the household. Why give it up?

You might think nagging power, like nuclear weapons, would bring about detente. The potential nagee would be hell-bent on getting the job done before the nagging starts. Or that the would-be nagger would remind in a pleasant way to avoid the nag label and keep her positive self-image intact. 

If only it were always that simple. 

The threat of nagging power motivates. It gets the chores done and chides the nagger to use restraint, be polite and pleasant – but nagging power is more nuanced and complex.

Nagging Power Increases Productivity in Business

Perhaps not surprisingly, nagging power is used effectively in business. It has been defined as a means of persuasion and “…a redundant communication, coupled with an escalated sense of urgency, and integral to communication because it gets the job done.” 

Researchers delved into why managers who nagged/used redundant communication got employees to listen up and deliver. Asking multiple times got results. And managers that nagged got their projects done more quickly, even if they were perceived to have less power than managers higher on the ladder.

Interestingly, in business nagging power performed better than hierarchical power in getting tasks accomplished.

How can couples take a page from business and harness nagging power for the good?

Nagging is a powerful tool that can be a positive force if it is kept friendly, non-aggressive, and used to encourage communication. Like successful managers, couples can learn to use nagging as a strategy of repetitive communication that underscores the significance and urgency of getting tasks done.

Of course, as every couple knows, spousal nagging can differ wildly from business nagging. Spouses can be impolite, use an unpleasant tone, raised voice, and words tinged with criticism, all without getting fired. A nagged spouse often objects more to the delivery than the content of a nag.

A requesting spouse needs to be mindful of the delivery of her request and focus on the level of assertiveness. He/she runs the risk of being called bossy if the assertion is too strong (or negative or aggressive) and being ignored if the assertion is too weak. Reaching the right balance can be tricky.

Achieving balance in the three most common nagging scenarios.

Nagging Power of the Household Chores Manager

In many households, one person assumes the role of The Household Chores Manager (HCM). Ideally, the HCM organizes and controls the home environment and schedule. Family members, including spouses, agree to do certain basic chores. Together, they keep the household operating smoothly.

In a relationship with a positive balance of power, one spouse (often the male) agrees to take responsibility for certain repetitive chores such as taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and doing the dishes. 

A smart spouse recognizes his/her part in the household organization and takes responsibility. Doing so recognizes the HCM’s reliance on them and is the best way to avoid being nagged. 

A spouse who doesn’t do daily jobs without reminders sets him/herself up as a target of nagging. Sometimes spouses feel that their personal household chore burden is unmanageable and shirk responsibility as a passive-aggressive revolt. They may be unwilling to talk about who does what in the household. 

Talking about how the division of labor is working (or not) in the household can bring clarity, possible shifts in labor loads, and hopefully nagging reduction.

If left unaddressed nagging can escalate into an unhelpful relationship dynamic, add up to criticism, and create a negative atmosphere in the household. 

One way to keep the nagging dynamic from setting-in is for couples to be proactive about making sure their personal to-do lists are realistic and fair. Spouses benefit from keeping the conversation open and re-negotiating to-do lists as needed. 

The wise HCM and his/her spouse will talk in advance about household projects like Marie Kondo de-cluttering, renovation, redecoration, and landscape. Participation is best a joint decision. The HCM should not assume a spouse will choose to participate in every project HCM wants to initiate. Timing, scheduling, priorities, the extent of help, and time constraints need to be addressed in a balanced and reasonable discussion. These kinds of projects are optional and require the buy-in of both spouses. 

Nagging Power of the Caring Parent

Nagging can be a powerful way to save lives. Researchers have found a gap in survival rates between married and unmarried cancer patients. Cancer patients who are married are 20% less likely to die.

Is this because married people get on each other’s case just like a caring parent? If a spouse is coughing and losing weight, the other spouse may request repeatedly that the spouse get a medical check-up. Having someone second-guess your health choices can be annoying – and -life-saving.

Spouses nag each other to take better care of themselves. Have you taken your vitamins? Are french fries the best thing for your fatty liver? Come take a walk with me. You said you wanted to lose weight and exercise helps.

The Caring Parent can be a nurturing collaborator that offers constructive criticism when feedback is requested. He/she helps their spouse become a better person, move ahead in their career, or improve their relationship with an adult child or parent. The Caring Parent will work hard helping polish a speech, focus a strategy, or widen a perspective. 

The Caring Parent must tread softly. They need to ask if feedback is wanted. Even when this kind of nagging comes from a place of love, there are those among us who resist. The resisters may look past the loving intent and see the feedback as an infringement on their autonomy and criticism of their ability to make their own choices.

Some people invite collaboration while others prefer doing things on their own. It’s a matter of personal preference that needs to be understood and respected.


Nagging Power of the Makeover-Artist

The Makeover Artist wants their spouse to be different. Talk, dress, react and think differently. To be different. To be someone else.

The Makeover Artist is the spouse who says on the way out the door, is that what you’re wearing? It’s the woman who says to her engineer husband, why can’t you talk to me like my girlfriends? The football fan who wants his spouse to be a devotee too. 

The Makeover Artist is a boundary crosser. Intent on changing their spouse rather than accepting them as they are, The Makeover Artist tramples on a spouse’s individuality and autonomy.

The Makeover Artist hounds the spouse repeatedly and repetitively to change. They nag their spouse about his/her character, habits, personality traits, and appearance. Laden with negativity and criticism, this type of nagging crosses a line from helpful to noxious. 

Criticism is corrosive, breeds resentment, and destroys relationships. If relentless,  it wears a person down and makes them feel like a disappointment, disapproved, unloved and unacceptable.

Suffice it to say, The Make Over Artist can easily slide down a slippery slope from seemingly innocuous nagging to beratement, belittlement, and destructive, toxic criticism. If left unchecked, this type of nagging creates conflict, toxic communication, and an unhappy relationship.

Pros of Nagging Power for the Nagger

Nagging power may benefit the nagger (or seem to) in a variety of ways: 

  • by lowering anxiety, at least temporarily
  • giving the illusion of control or promise of household order
  • feeling like they’ve checked something off their to-do list
  • being effective in getting stuff done
  • providing a way to connect or get attention from their spouse (albeit unhealthy), or
  • if nagging is repetitive, a misguided way to feel heard or significant to their spouse.

Cons of Nagging Power for the Nagged Spouse

Nagging can cause the nagged spouse to:

  • feel like a child or servant 
  •  feel un-trusted and resentful 
  •  tune-out the nagger 
  •  engage in passive-aggressive and resistant behavior
  • feel disapproved of and like a disappointment
  • withdraw and disconnect from the relationship. 
  • comply under duress to stop the nagging 
  • feel captive to their spouses preferences, choices, and desired way of doing things
  • set up a power struggle in which nobody really wins. 

Pros of Nagging Power in a Relationship

Nagging power can serve as a catalyst and invite the thoughtful couple to:

  • move beyond the nagging/resisting dynamic
  • renegotiate the division of labor in the household
  • talk about better ways to communicate
  • assess whether spouse’s feel heard, understood, and significant
  • appraise the quality of a couple’s connection and commitment
  • shed light on matters of concern that need to be dealt with and not tossed aside 
  • discuss notions of personal style, boundaries, freedom, and autonomy
  • to create a more truthful and connected conversation about personal and relationship priorities, goals, and dreams

Nagging power can be a catalyst of personal accountability and meaningful conversations that will bring a couple together and deepen their connection. If being mindful of when nagging is present and talking about it can bring your relationship to a new level and enhance intimacy, then indeed nagging power can be transformative. 

Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats