Psychology: Nagging gets on everyone's nerves

Nagging can be more than just annoying – it may indicate a more serious underlying problem.

Nagging  (photo credit: MCT)
(photo credit: MCT)
Why do people nag? They nag because they don’t feel that they were heard.
Why do they feel they are not heard? Because they ask that something be done and it isn’t. Their request has been ignored. So they repeat themselves.
Why isn’t it done? Often because the “naggee” doesn’t want to do what is being asked and tunes out the “nagger.”
Why do they tune out the nagger? Because they find him or her controlling and demanding and the nagging gets on their nerves.
Why do they find it controlling? Because the naggee wants to do something when they want to (if they want to do it at all) and not necessarily when the nagger wants it done.
Well if it has to be done anyway, why not just do it? Just do it? Yup – and then no one has to nag.
Sounds like an easy solution, and in some families this actually works.
In others, though, more help is needed in order to prevent nagging.
WOMEN WIN hands-down in the nagging department. We tend to mostly get blamed for nagging our spouses and our kids. In part, this is because women have a tremendous responsibility to keep the family system and home environment in balance. Even when tasks are shared, it is frequently the woman who is the CEO and overall manager – often not by choice. As such, the woman usually has an ongoing list (which may be posted on the fridge or just in her head) and she knows that crossing things off, which she’d really like to do, involves other people on whom she depends. Sadly, the arguments which often follow have little to do with what has to be done but focus more on how her family members perceive they are being asked to do it.
Nagging is not just about the words but also the tone of voice, body language and perceived attitude of the nagger. It can involve a vicious cycle of repetition: a request being repeatedly unfulfilled or ignored. This in turn causes more nagging, which then may lead to more withholding until both people feel increasingly annoyed.
Observing the personality characteristics of the nagger, we may see a well-organized, highly disciplined, somewhat anxious, obsessive and controlling individual. Looking at the naggee, we often see a more laid-back, relaxed person who often procrastinates, at times out of laziness, or perhaps someone who is simply overwhelmed. Frequently the naggee is less invested in carrying out the request than the nagger. Hence the tug-of-war. As nagging continues, the nagger may feel unloved and uncared for and the naggee may feel bossed around and constantly picked on. Together these make for difficulties within the relationship, and whether they are parent and child or husband and wife, they often end up in my office looking and feeling miserable.
NOT TO nudge or nag, but here is a simplified list of some things that can help: Decide that you’d like to work together to break the cycle of nagging. It is important to acknowledge that neither you nor the other person feel good about the relationship at the moment and would like to change the pattern that has developed.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
When making a request: Be clear. Have the recipient of the request repeat back what was asked to ensure that the requester was both heard and understood. This prevents miscues in communication. Use “I” statements, such as “I feel” or “I would like,” to avoid blame; leave out words such as “always” and “never” and be positive and empathetic.
Keep time-bound requests reasonable. Not everything must be done immediately. Perhaps it really is okay to fix the door by the end of the day or the end of the week. Prioritize and sort out emergent from urgent. Does the room really need to be cleaned now or will Friday afternoon be okay? Ask the other person when they think they could realistically complete a task.
Work together to try and understand the deeper meaning of the request and the reason it is not being immediately fulfilled. Explain why you are making the request and why is it important to you. Try and understand the other person’s perspective as well. (They may not be nearly as invested in having the room clean or may have a different agenda.) What response does nagging or not complying with a request trigger in you and why? Work on finding solutions together. If you both feel overwhelmed, how can you work together, each have your needs met and feel that you both benefit? Think outside the box to find acceptable alternative solutions to the ones proposed. Perhaps, for example, you need to hire someone to assist with the chores.
What would you like from your partner or find helpful and how can you achieve it? Make a plan for carrying out the requested action and then follow up and evaluate how it worked. Once you both agree to the plan, there should be no reason for the request to be repeated.
If you have agreed to do a task, it is your responsibility to follow through without reminders. If you need a reminder, use your cell phone or a to-do list, not your partner or parent.
Nagging may be a symptom of a more serious underlying problem within the relationship.
If, for instance, there are issues of trust, depression, anxiety or obsessive behavior, you may benefit from the outside intervention of a trained professional. This person can evaluate dysfunctional patterns, give constructive assistance and help enable you to implement a plan for success.
Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana. Send correspondence to or visit her website at Her book, Life’s Journey. Exploring Relationships – Resolving Conflicts, was recently published by Devora Publishers.