To Nag or Not To Nag

The more I work with women around their relationship issues and the more deeply I spiral into the shadow layers of my own psyche, the stronger my conviction becomes in the following statement: the need to nag is embedded into the historic and genetic code of most women. I say this not with judgement or criticism but with great love for my half of the human race and an instinctual knowing that it’s time for us to break this negative and unnecessary habit that creates stagnation within ourselves and restricts the flow of love in our relationships.

As I write this I see my own legacy of nagging, controlling, and criticizing floating in front of my mind. I see my maternal grandmother’s lips pursed in a thin, tight line that said, “I’m not happy with you right now.” I can hear her complaining about my grandfather and see the result of her years of nagging: him quietly reading in his Barcalounger encased in an invisible protective shield that he must have erected years earlier to protect himself from her need to control and silently communicated, “Leave me alone, woman.” I can feel the cellular memory of my great-grandmother, who I never met but after whom I’m named, as she filled the doorway of the house with her bulky frame and waited for my grandmother to come home from her dates so she could castigate her for “being bad”. I see my own mother and sense into what I consciously know and what my body unconsciously carries about her need to control (and how hard she’s worked to let it go). And finally I feel how it has all filtered down into me and shows up in ways that are both blatant and subtle but which are defined by a constriction in my heart, a tightening in my voice, and usually the beginning of an argument with my husband.

For all of my clients who are in relationships – whether dating, engaged, or married – the need to nag inevitably appears as a core issue that needs attention. The nagging can take many forms: controlling, criticizing, thinking you’re right, thinking that your way is better, complaining, but, again, is defined by a tight feeling that communicates to your partner that you know better. You may not think that have a tendency to control, but if you’ve ever heard your partner say something along the lines of, “Get off my back!” or “I can’t do anything right”, you’re probably a nagger.

The impulse to control often stems from fear: the fear of loss, the fear of losing ground, the fear of letting go, the of losing control. It’s an attempt to have control over time, money, socializing or a way to avoid sitting with the existential truth that you cannot control another human being. As I’ve stated above, it’s also a learned behavior, a negative habit that many women adopt simply because it’s what they witnessed growing up and absorbed as part of their genetic legacy. It’s not a pretty thing, but it’s not something to judge ourselves for either. Like any shadow aspect of one’s personality, the work is about shining the light of consciousness onto the wound and breathing into the habitual behavior with softness.

As I shared my latest realizations with a friend the other day about my own subtle yet insidious forms of controlling, I said to her, “I truly believe that part of the liberation of our planet depends on women letting go if their need to nag.” I see this time in history about each sex coming into their full power, which requires breaking out of the old paradigms which, in turn, requires vast amounts of courage. In order to embrace the fullness of our power as women, we need to find the courage that understands that softness is power. It takes courage to trust someone enough that you don’t have to micro-manage their lives. It takes courage to dive into the sometimes murky waters of intimacy and trust that your partner won’t let you drown. It takes courage to let down our guard, to crumble the brick walls, and to allow our beautiful men to be their own people and to communicate to them, “I trust you to make good decisions about your life and our life.” It’s not about staying silent around important issues. It’s about picking your battles: knowing when and how to skillfully speak up when something really matters and then to let the rest of it go. We owe it to our partners. We owe it to our children. We owe it to ourselves. And, dare I say, we owe it to the planet.

16 comments to To Nag or Not To Nag

  • SB

    This is a wonderful post and one that points to something I have been working on for months. Like you, I believe women struggle with this more often (or maybe it comes out more often) than our male counterparts. The true problem with that is that more than your love and affection, I believe our men want respect. Whether or not we actually respect our men, nothing communicates more deeply that to them that you don’t respect them when we judge their choice of clothes, route to work, or way they load the dishwasher.

    I believe that constantly nagging or even suggesting alternative ways of doing things that truly don’t matter (i.e. loading the dishwasher) is sending the message to our men: If she can’t trust me to load the dishwasher, drive to work, or call my mother, how can she trust me with our children, her love, and our life. Our culture’s sitcoms make a joke of women nagging but it’s truly not funny. Yes, have opinions about what really matters, but just as you wish your partner would (in everything they do) be loving and affectionate, men want their partners to respect and admire them. The easiest way to do this is to trust them as Sheryl said with their own lives.

    • Beautifully said. And I have a big, knowing smile on my face because I’ve had to shut my mouth to avoid suggesting an alternative to loading the dishwasher! Oh my goodness…!

  • MH

    This is very timely for me as I had a bout with extreme nagging after a ‘boys night out’ of Saturday. Now he is on edge, I am on edge, the kids are on alert, and he did nothing wrong .. it was just result of my own perceptions and insecurities. I believe the nagging is just my standing in judgement of what I believe is the ‘right’ way he should behave. And, if he is rude to people, standoffish, sullen and remote, shouldn’t I be focusing on the good qualities instead?

  • Maya

    I inherited the nagging from my father. Explain that to me! 😉

    • Hah! Well, it’s certainly a MASSIVE overgeneralization to say that nagging is exclusive to women. It’s just what I see in my circle of friends and clients – but that doesn’t mean that men don’t nag and certainly control in their own lovely ways!

  • I read a fantastic book on this subject that helped me greatly in recognising and breaking out of the fear/nag/control cycle in my marriage: The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle. I have to re-read it periodic intervals to keep myself on track 🙂

  • Sarah

    This is a great post! As someone with her own legacy of nagging and controlling, I can say I too have seen the negative effects it has on men. I’ve been doing a lot of work with noticing my emotions, setting boundaries, and in general getting a feel for who I am, and what I’m responsible for in life (my feelings, emotions, actions, reactions, needs, etc) and a profound thing I’ve been mulling over is the idea that what’s needed so often is to just let go of the outcome. Whether I’m setting a boundary, or expressing a need to my husband, or having a conversation with my mom, I can’t control other people…not their thoughts, or actions, or words…and if I try it’s not going to result in anything good. Not that that’s easy, mind you….it’s not particularly something the women in my family are good at. Letting go means maybe you’ll have a messy house, or you’ll never have any alone time with your husband, or you just plain won’t get your way. What I’m quickly realizing though, is life isn’t measured by how often you get your own way…it’s measured by the depth and beauty of relationships and you’re not going to get much of either by nagging and controlling:) Thanks for the post…I liked reading your thoughts!

  • SB

    Mangala,

    I second your recommendation of Doyle’s book. It is an excellent read and if you can look past early judgments that most folks have about the book, you can learn a LOT about letting go and being okay with not always being in control. Isn’t that what learning to grow from transitions is all about?

    As I learn to stopping nagging my wonderful, honorable, amazing man, He is actually setting up more and together we are creating a safe space for both of us to talk about our feelings, fears, and dreams. One of my biggest fears is that I have not allowed him to open up to me for fear of getting nagged, yelled at, or seeing tears. The more I focus on deep fears that surface to be nagging, the more I grow and see all his positive traits.

  • The feminist in me has always resisted reading “The Surrendered Wife” but yesterday, upon your recommendation, I read through as much as I could on Amazon and was surprised to learn that the message is not anti-feminist at all! As you said, it’s actually completely aligned with the message of this post. Thanks for suggesting it.

  • Tara

    WOW. Exactly what I needed to read right now. In the middle of a huge transition time in our marriage (raising a 7-month old – our first child – selling our townhouse, moving into temporary housing, looking for our “forever” home, and both working full-time), my husband and I have been arguing like crazy. I’ve been struggling to take ownership of my role in the arguments, but when I’m honest, they are usually about (as always) my fear of inadequacy, of losing control, and my difficulty in truly trusting that my husband loves me and believes in me and our marriage. Your words about picking your battles and learning when to let go and trust in our partner are especially poignant. Thank you, Sheryl.

  • SB

    Tara,

    “My difficulty in truly trusting that my husband loves me and believes in me and our marriage” really hit home for me and has been something that I have been dealing with throughout our engagement. My man and I have been together for almost 5 years and I realized just last week (of course it took me that long) that all of my worries and fears and doubts were not based on my fear if I loved him enough, but I feared that he didn’t love me enough.

    This led to every little look, argument, or meaningless comment being taken as proof that he, in fact, didn’t love me. How damaging to my mental health and our relationship! It wasn’t until I saw this fear that I had of him leaving me or falling in love with someone else that I could label it for what it was and start to separate myself from it. This past week has been one of my most peaceful times because after talking about it with him, I felt renewed, separated from this fear and able to see how wrong it was.

    Fear is so powerful and can take over how thoughts and emotions but when we separate ourselves from it, we see that we don’t have to control our men to get them to love us the way we want them to. They already do and more often than not, its just fear that is holding us back from seeing it.

  • october12

    Love, love, love this. I never thought I was a nag, but lately I have been. Thank you for writing this, Sheryl. You have a way of inspiring me to let go of all of my unhealthy behaviors. So grateful for this work!!

  • Glad it hit the spot, October!

  • StephanieG

    Really needed to read this right now!