Nagging: Love Destroyer, Marriage Killer

Nagging is a symptom of deeper conflicts.

The media are not providing the level of intelligence on psychological issues that our world desperately needs. A recent article on relationship disharmony in the Wall Street Journal —titled “Meet the Marriage Killer”—illustrates the point. The content of the article fails completely to get to the heart of the widespread nagging problem.

Both my headline and the one in the Journal are not precisely correct. Nagging is just a symptom of a deeper psychological conflict, so nagging in itself is not the real marriage killer. Nonetheless, the problem of nagging is widely experienced and dreaded, and the Journal article was well-read (it had 472 comments at one point).

The article starts out satisfactorily, and it provides an adequate definition of nagging:

Nagging—the interaction in which one person repeatedly makes a request, the other person repeatedly ignores it and both become increasingly annoyed—is an issue every couple will grapple with at some point. While the word itself can provoke chuckles and eye-rolling, the dynamic can potentially be as dangerous to a marriage as adultery or bad finances. Experts say it is exactly the type of toxic communication that can eventually sink a relationship.

However, never at any point does the article ask (let alone answer) the question of how “toxic communication” arises in the first place. The author of the article summarizes the views of experts with this paragraph:

The first step in curbing the nagging cycle, experts say, is to admit that you are stuck in a bad pattern. You are fighting about fighting. You need to work to understand what makes the other person tick. Rather than lazy and unloving, is your husband overworked and tired? Is your wife really suggesting she doesn’t trust you? Or is she just trying to keep track of too many chores?

Let’s take a look at that simplistic summary, sentence by sentence. It’s true that couples caught in the nagging cycle “are stuck in a bad pattern.” But what exactly is this pattern? There’s usually a large unconscious component to behavioral patterns. Such patterns, when self-defeating, are caused by our compulsion to repeat what is unresolved in our psyche. We can be recycling and replaying, through our partner, the conflicts that are unresolved within us.

We are, the article says, “fighting about fighting.” It is much more precise to say that we are taking our inner fights with ourselves and fighting them on the wrong front (through our partner). In other words, the fights we have with each other mirror the fights we’re having with our self. The external conflict—the nagging from one partner and the resistance from the other—is an externalized rendition of conflict that happens in our own psyche. Often the inner conflict is between our inner critic and our passive-aggressive resistance to our inner critic.

The next sentence in the above excerpt reads, “You need to work to understand what makes the other person tick.” This is poor advice. It’s based on the faulty premise that “He or she causes me to feel upset. The other person is the problem, not me.” This perspective fails to see clearly enough our own role in the dysfunction. What’s important is not what makes the other person tick—but what makes you tick. When couples chronically act negatively to each other, each is being compelled to play an emotional drama that is unresolved from his or her past.

Three sentences remain in the quoted paragraph that I’m analyzing. The sentences are questions focusing on what one’s partner is experiencing:

Question One: “Rather than lazy and unloving, is your husband overworked and tired?” Now if one’s husband is “overworked and tired,” how is knowing that going to change anything? As a solution to the problem, it’s unbelievably faulty and simplistic. Does this mean the wife is supposed to coddle him because he’s tired? Does this mean she has to bottle up her resentment as she does all the housework?

Question Two: “Is your wife really suggesting she doesn’t trust you?” Isn’t it obvious that the wife isn’t trusting her husband to do what she asks? That fact of her distrust is just another symptom of the couple’s compulsion to act out their unresolved issues with each other. Focusing on symptoms doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

Question Three: “Or is she just trying to keep track of too many chores?” Indeed, she may be trying to keep track of chores, but what is too many? Who’s going to keep track of them if she doesn’t? Again, this point about “too many chores” is far removed from the much bigger issues at play.

The Journal article quotes a couple in California who said they had been helped by a specific approach to understanding their nagging problem. Here is the passage:

Noreen Egurbide, 44, of Westlake Village, Calif., says she used to give her husband frequent reminders to take out the garbage, get the car serviced or pick up the kids from school. “I thought I was helping him,” she says. Jose Egurbide, 47, often waited a while before doing what she asked. The couple would argue. Sometimes Ms. Egurbide would just do it herself.

A few years ago, they got insight into their nagging problem after taking a problem-solving assessment test, the Kolbe Assessment. Ms. Egurbide, a business coach, learned she is a strategic planner who gathers facts and organizes in advance. Her husband, an attorney, learned that he is resistant to being boxed into a plan. Now, Ms. Egurbide says, “I don’t take it personally when he doesn’t respond.” “There is a sense of recognition about what’s happening,” Mr. Egurbide says. “It’s easier to accommodate each other.”

Obviously, this couple feels they have received help, and they might not be interested in any deeper understanding of their situation. That, of course, is up to them. The problem is that none of the experts, to judge by the superficial Journal article, are providing them with an opportunity to explore that deeper psychological knowledge.

There is a danger for this couple that underlying issues, if not made conscious, will reappear or be acted out in other harmful ways. What would be possible underlying issues? Of course, I can’t say with any certainty, not having interviewed them. But I will offer examples of vital insight that could conceivably apply in a case such as theirs. In such a situation, a wife could be nagging because she is ready to feel, repeatedly, that her needs are not important and that her value as a person is not being recognized. This could be an unresolved feeling from her relationship with her mother, father, or both. Without understanding transference and her compulsion to continue to feel what is unresolved emotionally, she would be driven to repeat this pattern with her husband, even though her feeling of not being valued is very painful for her.

A husband in a situation of this kind might be resistant to feeling controlled or boxed into a plan. This could mean that he is emotionally attached to that feeling (it is unresolved from his past, and possibly related to his relationship with his father or mother). Because the feeling of being controlled is unresolved, he is compelled to continue to keep feeling it, even though his wife may not actually be trying to control him but only trying to keep her household organized. His resistance to her overtures for help is a passive-aggressive defense that covers up his unconscious willingness to remain entangled in the old, familiar feeling of being controlled or boxed in. Both husband and wife are “conveniently” acting out their unresolved issues with each other, locked into a painful battle that complements their inner issues.

As the article notes, women are more likely to be the naggers, men the resisters. However, the underlying issues affect men and women equally. Men are more likely to be the resisters because of their lingering emotional associations with the mother-figure who once made them submit to toilet training and childhood socialization. The narcissistic offense felt in the process of early childhood development is typically more pronounced in men than in women. Women are tempted to nag because it does give them some sense of power, however illusionary, when faced by passive-aggressive resistance.

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