In the days in which our relationship saw this pattern play itself out with great frequency it was pretty easy for each of us to see ourselves as victims of the other’s wrongdoing. As many of us have noticed, it’s much easier to see and focus on what the other person is doing wrong than it is to recognize and address one’s own part in the scenario. Consequently, it’s easier for the nagger to see why the other person needs to be reminded, corrected or reprimanded, and for the naggee to feel justified in responding with defensiveness, resentment and anger. Unfortunately in our case (and in most cases), such responses do little to address the underlying issues that need to be attended to.
Generally in cases like this, there are needs that are not being fulfilled, leaving one person feeling unseen, unheard, unimportant, devalued, neglected or uncared for, and the other person feeling resentful, guilty, harassed, violated, and irritated. At first glance, it can appear that the nagger is the perpetrator since her demands (it’s more often than not, the woman who brings up relationship problems — more about this later) and repeated reminders are an obvious source of tension in the relationship.
Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the breakdown in the relationship is a function of an imbalance in the system itself. The unpleasant emotions that each partner is feeling are not being caused by either person, but rather by a failure on both partner’s parts to participate in the relationship with respect, trustworthiness, and genuine concern for each other’s well-being.
In other words, something has become more important to each of them than the deepening of goodwill, trust, and respectfulness in the relationship. Examples of these “competing commitments” include the desire to “prove” that “no one can tell me what to do,” the fear that the other can’t be trusted to keep his or her word which gives rise to the desire or control them into behaving differently, the desire to avoid feelings of guilt and shame by passively defying the other person’s requests, or a response to feelings of frustration that have arisen out of repeated experiences of disappointment.
John Gottman, renowned researcher about successful couples, claims that women bring up relationship issues 85 percent of the time. Men seem to be able to more easily put these issues in a compartment and be less bothered by them than women. Simply bringing up a relationship issue can be for some men considered nagging. Gottman suggests that the way the issue is initially presented, particularly in regard to whether or not there is blame, which is either implicitly or explicitly expressed, significantly impacts the response to the introduction to the complainer’s concern. When the conversation is initiated with what Gottman refers to as a “softened start-up,” that is without threat, blame or accusation, there is a much greater likelihood that the cycle of nagging, defensiveness and resentment can be minimized and even avoided.
When this occurs, there is a much greater likelihood that the man will be much more inclined to accept influence from his female partner. And a man’s willingness to accept influence from his partner is perhaps the most telling factor in the determination of a positive outcome of an unresolved issue. Accepting influence is not the same thing as accommodating or agreeing with everything that a partner thinks or wants. Rather, it involves a willingness to listen respectfully and attentively to his partner’s concerns and to respond non-defensively and non-coercively with an intention to come up with a mutually satisfying resolution.
Since it is often the desire to fulfill an unmet need that motivates one partner to repeatedly attempt to address an issue, until that need is acknowledged and met (not necessarily by one’s partner) the cycle will continue to repeat itself with increasingly painful results. Attending to the unfulfilled need that lies beneath the presenting complaint, to be loved, valued, respected, reassured, or acknowledged will address the real issue that underlies the presenting complaint.
When we begin to get curious rather than defensive and seek lean into rather than withdraw from the presenting situation, things can begin to change rapidly. Bringing a sense of wonder and genuine interest enables us to ask the kind of questions that can transform an impasse into a breakthrough. Questions like: “What is it that you need from me right now?” and really listening with full attention rather than planning your defensive response and trying to figure out ways to “win” the argument or get your partner off of your back.
Deep, compassionate, committed listening is what breaks the dark spell. Out of the emotional connection, understanding, a newfound cooperation, more trust, peace of mind, and ease is present in the relationship and in your life in general. In establishing this connection, the kinds of action steps that will deepen trust and understanding will become evident to both partners. And it is rarely if ever, the case that only partner has responsibility for implementing those steps. Doing so is a labor of love, not one of obligation or struggle. Whether we view our circumstance as a curse of a blessing is entirely up to us. And as we see the extraordinary possibilities that arise out of willingness to embrace our situation with love and gratitude rather than resentment, it becomes almost impossible to continue to keep our heart closed with defensiveness. The nagging cycle is finally over. May it rest in peace.