Girl Talk: On Nagging

The first and only time my husband called me a “nag” invoked a cringe-worthy shudder, followed by the thought, “Am I seriously turning into my mother?!” In my personal catalog of unsavory labels, “nag” occupies a space somewhere between “brownnoser” and “snob,” insults I neither want to be called nor become, yet sting fiercely because they often embody a flicker of truth. No woman aspires to be a nag. Yet the  moniker remains synonymous with marriage, as though men across the globe all spat, “Nag!” when the word “Wife” is drawn in those psychological word association tests.

The stereotype that all wives are nags is filed neatly under another catalog of mine, the Marriage Myths List. My favorite examples include “married couples don’t have sex” (really?), “all husbands are under the thumb” (mine’s not), and “new moms inevitably let themselves go” (yes, she’s a model, but has anyone seen Miranda Kerr lately?). Since I am in the business of debunking matrimonial fables, it’s worthwhile to expose the easy and cliché tag for wives who mean well everywhere. Truthfully, nagging should be defined as a breakdown in communication that can characterize any relationship, not just marriage.

In the context of a long-term relationship or marriage, it is inevitable that couples will encounter an episode of nagging. Selective hearing is a function of time, and I feel no shame admitting that after six years with my husband, Mark, it is not uncommon to tune out his voice occasionally. For example, I am fully aware that punctual Mark despises tardy Tania, a syndrome where my unawareness towards time — nicknamed “Tania Time” —  guarantees that we are eternally late for every family function, party, and doctor appointment. While I fastidiously prepare my hair and makeup, Mark hounds me to hurry up. For me, it’s in one ear and out the other.

I’m no saint, but neither is he. A veteran of my Type-A demands, he can skilfully extract relevant requests and comments from my babble and dispose of the waste like a WWII message decoder. Typically this translates into his ears pricking up when I describe the details of new lingerie I bought, whilst resorting to a blank stare of oblivion after I’ve pleaded with him to take the garbage out for the eighth time. Whether it’s time or trash, the pattern is palpable; snubbing requests, procrastination, and frustration with our significant others captures the poor behavior and communication illustrated by nagging. Unfortunately, wives and girlfriends are usually the culprits as they tend to occupy the role of house/social life/kids/and-everything-else-that-needs-attention manager and delegate accordingly.

In my own marriage, I refused to resemble a finger-pointing, whinging doppelganger of my mother. Again, it only took one occurrence of nag name-calling — which involved asking my hubby to help with chores for the gazillionth time — to embark upon a reformation of my impetuous persona. After Mark explained that all demands blended together like that “wha wha wha wha wha” adult chitchat from Charlie Brown cartoons, we decided to establish clear ground rules. If task completion was deemed as life-or-death, I simply needed to speak up and say so. When it wasn’t quite so important — and this required a degree of discretion on my part — I needed to retreat and provide Mark with the space and trust to get the job done. We’re both adults, after all. Mark stipulated that if the job wasn’t done within two days, a simple reminder would suffice. At first, I felt as though two days amounted to an eternity. But I relented, as our nagging detente provided a natural framework for the expectations of everyday life. Forgetting a request in his two-day buffer became a rarity for Mark, as he felt guilty when he failed to lend a helping hand.

It is worth mentioning that I matched Mark’s efforts with my own anti-nagging tactics. A newfound appreciation for promptness regarding big events and a willingness to listen rather than space-out proved to Mark that nagging wives can indeed be rehabbed. Our system may not function for other couples, but clear expectations and open communication have enabled to us to enjoy a marriage sans nagging.

My anecdote corroborates my assertion that not all wives and girlfriends are nags and the broader issue of maintaining an open dialogue in relationships remains at the heart of the topic. I conducted my own investigation on the issue and was amazed. Most of my friends highlighted incidents of nagging that were completely unrelated to their romantic relationships. In fact, it was commonplace for in-laws, co-workers, and total strangers to occupy the role of aggressive nagger in their lives. One girlfriend was quick to spill the details on a mother-in-law whose hints for a grandchild metastasized into full-blown, relentless nagging. Needless to say, my friend’s interaction with her mother-in-law teeters between cordial conversations involving the weather and complete disregard when baby talk enters the picture. There is most certainly a figurative wall erected between them. Despite her attempts to set boundaries, the lack of honest communication and fear of being “a bad daughter-in-law” has left my friend feeling trapped by the berating. Instead of confronting the nagging, she believes it is simply easier to tune out the pushiness.

My favorite nagging example I stumbled across was actually between men in the workplace. Another friend of mine outlined the geography of power plays subtly disguised by nagging in his male-only workplace. He is employed in a warehouse that only has two other male co-workers. One of the colleagues nags him nonstop from 9-to-5 to check sales orders, move stock, and return messages even before he has been allotted sufficient time to complete one task. Like an episode of testosterone-fueled “National Geographic,” my friend is fully aware of the struggle orchestrated between the three warehouse workers to usurp the coveted role of alpha, and typically, nagging is a tool used to demonstrate responsibility, accountability, and dominance within the pack.

Nonetheless, my friend is adament that the only person who is paid to nag him is his boss, and the other two men can simply stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. Yet the problem remains where my friend becomes so exasperated by the nagging, he refuses to complete his daily grind to any degree that might signal appeasement. (He does have to maintain his own authority, doesn’t he?) The price of his response towards nagging often results in delays and increased stress on the job, meaning the whole warehouse suffers.

Clearly, nagging is complex — and it’s not just suffered by exasperated wives and their brownbeaten husbands. Perhaps my original definition of nagging as “a breakdown of communication” is not sufficient to capture the disrespect, political motivations, and failure to establish boundaries that nagging can further encompass. Maybe the best way to face nagging head-on is to start with small steps, such as reflecting on our expectations of others and adjust them to the reality of the situation.

And that reality? No one likes a nag — no matter who they are.

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