Nagging: 6 tips to break the habit and improve your relationship

Why nagging is so damaging to a relationship and tips on how to let go of the urge to nag and let love bloom

Did you remember to take out the recycling? I thought I asked you to clean the bathroom? You said you’d quit smoking!

Sound familiar? It should. A nagger’s script is about as full of surprises as a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez. And like a crummy Hollywood rom-com, nagging brings little satisfaction. Not only is nagging ineffective, it erodes love, says Denver-based relationships expert Marcie Pregulman.

Here are six tips letting go of the urge to nag and letting love bloom.

1. You’re not right; you’re just angry.
Nagging isn’t smart; it’s an expression of negative emotion, says psychologist Robert Meyers, co-author of Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading, and Threatening, and a specialist in addictions. Though anger may be justified and borne out of serious concern for your partner—maybe your husband won’t quit smoking or your girlfriend has started drinking again—you should know one thing: Nagging doesn’t work.

“People get so frustrated when people continuously do something negative—whether it’s gambling or drugs—and they don’t feel they can stop it so they just increase the amount of negative energy they pour towards someone,” explains Meyers. “In our research we’ve found that’s the exact opposite of what needs to be done.”

2. Accentuate the positive.
What is a more effective technique for altering human behaviour? Positive reinforcement, says Meyers who believes non-confrontational support is a more powerful tool for change. Though you may want to berate your partner out for coming home late, don’t do it. Walk away, says Meyers. Or call a friend and vent. Later, when you’re calm and your partner is more receptive to a discussion, tell them how much you miss those nights when you used to eat dinner together and laugh and talk. By emphasizing love rather than anger, you’ll have a better chance of twigging your significant other’s heart rather than tripping their hair-trigger temper.

3. Don’t make a metaphor out of a crumb-y countertop.
‘Can you please wipe the crumbs off the counter when you’re done making a sandwich, honey?’ That’s a request. It only becomes nagging—‘Don’t forget to wipe the crumbs off!’—when the request isn’t fulfilled. And while being talked to like you’re a kid is annoying, what the person being nagged may not understand is that those crumbs symbolize a lot of emotional weight.

“If after a while the request isn’t being taken care of, the nagger starts wondering why? Their mind starts wandering: ‘He doesn’t love me. He’s lazy’. And then those turn into ‘I can’t trust you’, or ‘I can’t depend on you’, or ‘You don’t respect what I have to say’,” explains Pregulman.

Naggers shouldn’t make crumbs or coffee grinds in the sink a metaphor for the relationship, says Pregulman. It’s not that your partner doesn’t care about you; it may just be that he or she couldn’t give a toss about crumbs or coffee grinds. But on the other side, those being nagged might want to consider how their partner feels when their feelings are ignored. See how easy it is to think of other people’s feelings!

4. To the person being nagged: Just do it!
Newsflash for those being nagged: it takes two to tangle. If you’re annoyed that your partner won’t quit bugging you about picking up your wet towels after you shower, then here’s a suggestion (and from an expert no less!): “Just do it,” says Pregulman. “I mean, if it is only going to take five minutes then what’s the point of fighting and bringing disharmony to the house?” Hmm. Even a slob should find it hard to argue with that logic.

5. To the nagger: Let it go.
Pregulman has similarly practical advice for the nagger. Rather than rant and rave to your spouse or beloved one more time about leaving their wet towels on the bathroom floor, why not just pick up the towels and get on with your day? Is the hassle of another supercharged domestic dustup really worth its weight in damp towels?

6. Have some fun, Mr. and Mrs.
Don’t have one more emotionally charged heart-to-heart. If you and your partner are bickering and fighting more than laughing and talking, do something radical and productive: have fun together. Forget about crumbs, coffee grinds, damp towels, hurt feelings, and sneaking surreptitious cigarettes, and reconnect with one another as loving partners in a relationship rather than as testy roommates. It’s an investment in positive emotion that will pay off in the leaner, less cuddly times that couples face.

“Building up a bank of positive [emotion] is really important to relationships,” says Pregulman. “We make the analogy to a bank account where if you’ve got a lot of money in the bank, pulling out a dollar or two isn’t going to hurt. But if you don’t, pulling out a dollar is really going to hurt.”

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