Ken Mac Dougall bit into the sandwich his wife had packed him for lunch and noticed something odd—a Post-it note tucked between the ham and the cheese. He pulled it out of his mouth, smoothed the crinkles and read what his wife had written: “Be in aisle 10 of Home Depot tonight at 6 p.m.”
Mr. Mac Dougall was renovating the couple’s Oak Ridge, N.J., kitchen, and his wife had been urging him to pick out the floor tiles. He felt he had plenty of time to do this task. She felt unheard.
“I thought the note was an ingenious and hysterical way to get his attention,” says his wife, Janet Pfeiffer (whose occupation, interestingly enough, is a motivational speaker), recalling the incident which occurred several years ago. Her husband, a technician at a company that modifies vehicles for handicapped drivers, didn’t really see it that way. “I don’t need a reminder in the middle of my sandwich,” he says.
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.
Why do we nag? “We have a perception that we won’t get what we want from the other person, so we feel we need to keep asking in order to get it,” says Scott Wetzler, a psychologist and vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. It is a vicious circle: The naggee tires of the badgering and starts to withhold, which makes the nagger nag more.
Personality contributes to the dynamic, Dr. Wetzler says. An extremely organized, obsessive or anxious person may not be able to refrain from giving reminders, especially if the partner is laid back and often does things at the last minute. Other people are naturally resistant—some might say lazy—and could bring out the nagger in anyone.
It is possible for husbands to nag, and wives to resent them for nagging. But women are more likely to nag, experts say, largely because they are conditioned to feel more responsible for managing home and family life. And they tend to be more sensitive to early signs of problems in a relationship. When women ask for something and don’t get a response, they are quicker to realize something is wrong. The problem is that by asking repeatedly, they make things worse.
Men are to blame, too, because they don’t always give a clear answer. Sure, a husband might tune his wife out because he is annoyed; nagging can make him feel like a little boy being scolded by his mother. But many times he doesn’t respond because he doesn’t know the answer yet, or he knows the answer will disappoint her.
Read more: WSJ