Is a nag the worst thing that a woman can be?
Nagging, toxic for a marriage or necessary? Photo: George Marks
That great bastion of chivalry and equality, shock jock Rush Limbaugh, recently dubbed the National Association of Women – an activist group in America who push for equality – the National Organization of Gals. Or, NAGS. Hur hur, good one. You know, because women who ask questions and be anything other than accepting of the Way Things Are, are nags. Or shrews, or harpies, or you know, “a lesbian”. Whatever insult that is sufficiently sour enough to diminish any point that the ‘nagging’ might have been making, be it that women deserve equal pay or why should I have to keep picking up your stinking socks.
Nagging has long been a uniquely sexist problem. When you think about it, nagging, the art of continuously asking for something because we fear not getting what we want, has long been pinned almost solely on women. A quick look around the internet allows one to happen upon dozens of articles with headlines such as “how to get your wife to stop nagging” and a Facebook fan page for “I hate nagging women” with 500 odd “likes”. The nagging woman is an entrenched stereotype in popular culture too, she ruins the good times in everything from Everybody Loves Raymond to any of the bro movies where the women rain on the dudes parades. It’s safe to say that being a nag is hardly something for the pool room.
In a divisive Wall Street Journal article earlier this year, Meet the Marriage Killer, journalist Elizabeth Bernstein put forward the argument that nagging in a marriage is almost as toxic as infidelity. And according to Bernstein, women are mostly to blame.
“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,” she writes.
The offensiveness lies in assuming that all wives and all husbands are the same, and the implicit message that the woman’s kingdom (queendom?) is her home/kitchen. It also highlighted, as Slate pointed out, that the personal is very much the political. By framing the woman nagging in a relationship as a common relationship currency, we’re all damned; doomed to shrivel away as nagging shrews while henpecked men lose their manhood one vacuuming session at a time.
As the article pointed out,
“ ...the analysis assumes that there's no political angle to this, the solutions to a nagging cycles are--surprise!--mostly on the backs of women. Ironically, women nag because they're trying to get their husbands to do their fair share of household chores, but of course, the solutions for nagging always translate to women doing more work.”
There is truth of course to the adage that nagging is, at its heart, a toxic enterprise. But it shouldn’t be a “women’s problem”. Nagging is a breakdown in communication. It’s a big old “you’re talking to the hand” because two people are not listening to each other, both the nagger and the nagee.
As Elly Taylor, a psychologist and author of Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together, the Essential Relationship Guide for Parents, points out,
“I think true nagging is a passive/aggressive response. There’s a critical, dogged, deliberateness to it and a sense of pleasure from making the other person squirm. I have seen it many times (and been guilty of it myself!). Rather than tackle the reason for my displeasure or resentment with my partner up front (sometimes because I haven’t worked out what the issue actually is yet) I can find myself being narky. It’s related to feelings of frustration, resentment or powerlessness. These are signals to myself that something needs to be addressed. The next step is what. And then how.” And says Taylor, this is very much applicable to both men and women.
But not nagging, holding your tongue or giving up on nagging and choosing to prune the hedge yourself because it’s easier or whatever, is just as, if not more, toxic.
Over brunch with a friend the other day the talk, as it often does, turned to who was knocked up, shacked up or breaking up. It turns out that three couples in my friend’s orbit had all separated in the past few months. The reasons for the splits were remarkably similar. Their boyfriend’s didn’t want to stop boozing, sleeping all day, avoiding adult decisions et al. The women didn’t want to “nag”.
For Elly Taylor, the reasons why we nag are threefold – communication, the possibility of hidden concerns and relationship dynamics. The concept of hidden concerns is particularly interesting. As Taylor notes,
“You might be arguing for weeks about whether the bookshelf should be on the left or the right, but underneath you might be telling yourself something like “he doesn’t respect my opinion” or “he doesn’t care what I think”. So the energy is not actually coming from the issue of the book case but deeper concerns that aren’t given a voice about care or respect. “
So in a sense, nagging needs to make a comeback. But maybe it could come under the radical banner of “open conversation” or “equal distribution of boring household stuff” or “respect and sharing.” Because if nagging continues to be demonised as an unflattering and peculiarly female quality, it’s a certain that we’re going to get so afraid of asking for too much that we’ll never get what we deserve.