Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Fall 2003

Stop Nagging

A Special Thank You To all our clients, friends, and audience members who have been in our lives this year. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to live our mission of helping you live lives of greater peace and happiness in your families and the world.

No one ever lists nagging or being nagged as a life goal. Yet the nagging trap persists in some marriages - frustrating for those who nag because they never get what they want and frustrating for those who are nagged who wish the nagging would stop.

Studies at the University of Washington and at the University of North Caroline can shed some light on the nagging trap. The studies show that we all nag from time to time if nagging is defined as recurrent complaining about something your spouse won't change - either neglecting to do something you want or continuing to do something you don't want. The researchers found that persistent nagging can lead to a particularly dysfunctional pattern, the demand-withdrawal cycle. In this destructive pattern, one spouse demands change while the other spouse withdraws from conflict either by tuning out or by leaving the room. His/her withdrawal frustrates the demanding spouse who escalates the demands which poisons the marital atmosphere which prompts the nagged spouse to withdraw even more. Sometimes the cycle erupts into violence as the demanding spouse pursues the partner with increasing passion and the withdrawing spouse feels increasingly overwhelmed. These high emotions can lead either spouse to initiate violence.

Contrary to the gender stereotype that wives do all the nagging, the researchers found that both hus-bands and wives nag about the same amount. The scoop about gender differences is that husbands are more likely to withdraw in response to nagging. The researchers say that this difference is probably related to the finding that that males experience more physiological arousal during conflict and sometimes withdraw when they don't know how to manage intense emotions associated with conflict.

How Nagging gets Started-and What to Do About It

There are several reasons that nagging starts:

  1. Lack of skill:

    Spouses who nag are frustrated with some situation, don't know how to get the changes they want, and start complaining with the hope that their partners will "get it" - similar to the way natives of a country talk louder to foreign visitors who don't speak their language. The strategy doesn't work - but you think, "Well maybe something will get in." Occasionally something does get in and you get reinforced for the nagging so you try it again the next time. By the way, just in case you love to be nagged, an effective training method to get your spouse to nag is to ignore the nagging most of the time but occasionally respond to it and spring into action.


    Instead of nagging, ask for what you want. Use the formula "I want_____, can you give me______?"

    Your spouse has these options.

    • "Yes, I can do that."
    • "I can do part of ____, if ______, would that be OK?"

    If your request turns out to be more complicated, your spouse can respond: "Your request is not a simple request given what I want. Can we problem-solve about how both of us can get what we want?"

    Some special cases need extra accountability.

    • If you have a well-intentioned spouse who agrees to decisions but doesn't get to the action steps, you might need to get specific about deadlines and consequences. "So let's see, what if you don't get to the bathroom remodeling? Could we say it needs to be done by September 1 or we will hire someone to do it?

    • In the special case of one spouse (or both) with symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder: develop a reminder system that does not involve nagging. Palm Pilots, e-systems for managing projects are great tools for this problem.

  2. Lack of equity:

    Sometimes spouses nag when they perceive that they are underbenefited in the marriage, giving more than they are getting. When both partners feel underbenefited it is because they fail to recognize and appreciate each others' contribution to the partnership. They both feel that they work harder, contribute more, care more, and make more sacrifices than their spouses do. In other cases, one partner really is underbenefited in a marriage where power is unbalanced.


    The key in the first case is for both partners to express appreciation regularly for the contribution each makes. An effective daily ritual is to thank your partner for three things. You can include global traits "I appreciate how responsible you are with the children" and specific, "I appreciated how you took care of the kids so that I could go to the gym to work out."

    The complexity of an unequal power distribution usually requires the help of a professional to determine if the overbenefited partner has the best interest of the other at heart and is willing to change.

  3. Unclear expectations:

    Sometimes couples do not make explicit what they expect of each other. They marry certain that because they love each other, they both agree on what a good spouse does. Then when the partner doesn't do what a good spouse does they are surprised to learn that love is not enough. Some couples even feel it is unromantic to make expectations clear, "If he loves me, he should just know what I want."


    Strategic planning sessions (see below) will help clear up unclear expectations.

  4. Hidden agenda:

    When spouses are ambivalent about what changes are needed they send confusing messages about the "itch that can't be scratched." This results in double bind communications. "Work longer hours so you get your promotion and make more money, and, by the way, get home early and have dinner started when I get home."


    If you are being nagged into double binds, place the double bind back into your spouse's lap, "Now how would I be in both places at once, staying at work late and being at home early to start dinner?" It is important to stay calm and not use sarcasm. If you are the spouse creating the double binds there are two things you can do to get clear about your needs. First, you can ask yourself, "What do I really want in this situation?" Second, you can ask your partner if you can talk aloud about the ambivalence to clarify what is needed.

The Marital Sit-down: A Powerful Tool for Mutual Change

Just as businesses use tools like strategic planning and board meet-ings to establish goals and have accountability, couples in Extraordinary Marriages develop processes for planning together.

The Marital Sit-down is such a system. It will stop the demand-withdrawal cycle by developing a shared vision with both persons' needs being important. It is a tool to set goals and to evaluate the benefits and expectations of the relationship. It makes expectations clear and encourages healthy accountability. Since we teach the Sitdown process to our clients and in our workshops, you probably have already have a copy of our Sitdown handout. If not, send an e-mail to with "Sitdown handout" in the subject line.


Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers managing emotions and finding meaning & purpose.

Copyright 2003 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information.

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