It is one of the most common occurrences in couples therapy: a nagging, complaining wife, and a husband who feels criticized and can’t seem to please his wife.
These are of course gender stereotypes, but they are stereotypes for a reason. Statistically, it is often the woman who complains about not getting enough attention or consideration in the relationship, and the man who feels perplexed about how he can really please his wife.
From the male perspective, the dilemma of the “nagging wife” is a well known cultural fact. It is the butt of many a joke about who “wears the pants” in the family, and gets expressed in sayings such as “happy wife, happy life”. In a recent episode of Bravo’s hit series “The Million Dollar Listing”, a husband called up his real estate broker demanding to move back in to his apartment, because, as he said, “my wife wants it”. “I have to go to bed with her”, he told his broker, “you don’t”.
Crass as that may sound, many men, and of course also quite a few women, find themselves on the defense in their marriages or relationships. They get frequent complaints or demands from their partner, and feel like they are often trying to avert the next argument, or that they are always waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Of course, the roles can be reversed, and it might as well occur in same sex couples as in heterosexual relationships. The important point is that one partner often becomes the “nagger”, while the other becomes the “appeaser”.
How Can We Understand Nagging?
In relationships, nagging is rarely about the content that gets nagged about. Yes, of course it is aggravating when the trash does not get taken out, or the household chores are not shared equally, but these frustrations are really just cover-ups for underlying feelings that are rarely discussed.
A wife who nags is often missing something in her relationship. She feels a hole or emptiness in her relationship, and she is trying to fill this hole, by asking her partner to change. The hole, however, is not really filled by concrete demands. When we look a little deeper we often find that it is rooted in doubts about being valued or loved. The nagging is like a “protest” that one is not feeling prioritized or special, and does not feel like one can depend on one’s partner.
According to attachment theory this kind of doubt activates primal instincts in all human beings. At a biological level, we are all wired to react when we feel that the dependability and commitment from a loved one is threatened. Nagging is often simply an attempt to reach out and say “I need more from you”, “my secure attachment to you feels threatened”, “I need to know that you will be there for me, that I can depend on you”.
The Negative Consequences of Nagging:
In couples therapy, it is well known that couples tend to get stuck in negative patterns based on the activation of such attachment fears. When the wife or husband starts nagging, their partner may initially respond to their call for more closeness, but over time they are more likely to retreat.
As the wife or husband criticizes or complains, their partner goes into self-protection mode. They often start feeling bad about themselves or to feel like they are always falling short of what their spouse or partner wants. Nobody likes to feel they are not doing things right, and it is easy to mistake angry complaints for criticisms of one’s personality and character. Prolonged nagging from an unhappy spouse can often lead to depression and low self-esteem and can create even more distance in the relationship as the criticized spouse retreats inward or begins focus more on their hobbies, going out with friends, or retreating to the garage.
How to Stop the Nagging?
When couples come to therapy they are often stuck in this pattern of nagging and withdrawing, or complaining and retreating. With each demand for change, the accused partner takes a step back, or agrees just to appease, leaving the nagging partner feeling more dissatisfied and wanting. This then sets in motion more demands or protests, which in turn leads to less safety for the other spouse, and an increased need to withdraw.
The first step to stopping this pattern is to recognize that both partners are stuck in a negative cycle and that each are trying to meet their own attachment needs in ways that are not working. The nagging spouse is really asking to feel more wanted, desired, special, or loved, and the retreating spouse is really trying to protect the relationship from harm or destruction, fearing that the barrage of criticisms might eventually lead their partner to leave them.
Once partners understand that there is more at stake in this dynamic than simply whether or not one person comes home late for dinner, or the other feels constantly in the wrong, they can begin to address the real issues that underlie the attachments protests and fears. One common error in most couples is that they get stuck in fighting about concrete situations, rather than addressing their underlying universal human need to feel safe, liked, and cherished by their partner.
Simply beginning to let your partner know what you really feel underneath your angry complaints or your emotional withdrawing, can go a long way to break the negative cycle and reestablish a more secure connection with your partner.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., couples therapist and marriage counselor in Houston, Texas. To learn more about my approach to couples therapy, or to schedule an appointment, please visit my website. You can also sign up to get a FREE guide to making relationships work.