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According to Tracy B. Richards, a couples counsellor and psychotherapist based in Toronto, nagging is a way of reducing your own anxiety. "When there's something that's not feeling right – a mess or something that's left undone – it can be a source of anxiety due to control issues," she explains.
Nagging is a natural response to that anxiety. Even though we know nagging isn't effective, it is our strongest anxieties that often drive our actions. Here's how to stop acting on your anxieties and kick the nagging habit, once and for all.
1. Step away from the situation
The minute you feel the urge to nag, take a step back from the situation.
"When you're in a threatened place, you're not in a rational place," says Richards. "You have to remove yourself from the situation to get yourself back into the rational mindset."
Think about why you're responding to this particular situation with anxiety and try to clear your head. You'll then have the power to return to the situation and handle it accordingly,
"Once you understand what's really bugging you, you will have the power to take the next productive step," Richards explains.
2. Address the underlying issues in the relationship
When it comes to an ongoing case of nagging, there is usually a bigger issue fuelling the anxieties of the nagger.
"The reason nagging doesn't work is because it doesn't address the underlying issues," says Richards. "Why was the request ignored in the first place? You wouldn't necessarily be nagging if the other person did what you asked. The other person is contributing to this dynamic by not doing the task – for whatever reason."
Ask yourself: Is there an ongoing theme of ignorance or indifference happening in your relationship? Do you feel disrespected? These are both examples of bigger issues that may fuel your desire to nag when a small issue arises.
3. Get the issues out in the open
Nagging will never produce a satisfying outcome unless you get those bigger issues out in the open. "It all comes down to communication," says Richards. "That's what is at the basis of helping people get beyond nagging," she explains.
Letting underlying issues cause tension in your relationship will only give rise to resentment and won't allow for positive progress.
"If one person thinks, 'I always do the dishes,' but it's not discussed for whatever reason – why do you not discuss it? Probably because you don't have the skills to do it," says Richards. "Learning to have a productive dialogue about any sensitive issue is the key to healthy communication in any relationship."
Both parties need to understand why the issue being nagged about is, in fact, an issue. Talk about the assumptions around whose job it is, as well as where both your and your partner's reactions are coming from.
4. Foster compassion with a productive dialogue
Communication should not involve attacks. Rather than accusing your partner of ignoring you, acknowledge that both of you are contributing to this dynamic.
"Each party needs to understand that nagging is a defence. Ignoring is also a defence. So is arguing," says Richards. "These are all defences we use when we feel threatened."
She recommends starting a dialogue to help foster compassion, so that each person can understand where the other is coming from when they act defensively. The result will be a deeper understanding of the underlying issues that ultimately fuel both the nagging and ignoring urges.
5. Break the big issue down
When the underlying issues have been voiced, work toward progress gradually.
"Break it down into smaller steps," says Richards. "Instead of expecting others to embrace the whole problem, get them to be really good at one part of it," she advises. "For example, maybe your partner doesn't have to load the dishwasher, but ask them to rinse their plate and leave it in the sink. That would be a help and it would be positive progress."
You and your partner can meet in the middle, but you have to take into account his or her particular ways of doing things.
"The other part of nagging is that you want it done your way," says Richards. "You're not facing the needs and strengths of the people you're addressing. You think – 'I might as well do this myself' – and the whole cycle starts again."
Break free from the nagging and ignoring cycle by cultivating honest and ongoing communication – not only with your partner, but also with yourself. Understanding the reasons you nag is the first step to nipping the problem in the bud. By getting to the root causes of your anxiety and frustration you'll be able to handle frustrating situations more effectively.