How do you know when it’s OK to keep bringing something up?
As a marriage and family therapist, hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear a wife ask if she is “being a nag” or hear a husband accuse a wife of the same. (Curiously, I rarely hear husbands worry about this or hear wives accuse husbands of this “crime.”)
To be fair, there are times when a person can be a nag. For instance, if you have articulated a concern or need to your spouse and they are actively working on addressing that concern but you are criticizing their sincere effort, micromanaging their otherwise perfectly legitimate approach, and trying to rush their otherwise reasonable time table, well then, you may, indeed, be guilty as charged.
Nagging? Or Asking for Respect?
BUT that’s not usually when I hear the accusation of “nagging” being leveled. More likely, I hear wives questioning their own behavior or a husband accuse a wife of “nagging” when the wife has raised a concern the husband doesn’t want to address. He shines her on, ignores her, says “I’ll get to it” (but never does anything), agrees with her just to shut her up, or completely stonewalls her. Of course, that puts her in the position of needing to bring that issue up again (and again, and again) just to get some simple feedback on whether the concern was heard and how it might be effectively addressed.
In this scenario, the offense isn’t nagging. It is a lack of respect on the husband’s part (of course, the situation could be reversed, but we’ll use the husband for purposes of illustration). Each of us has a basic human right to be heard, to have our needs acknowledged and addressed. When we are in a loving relationship, it is legitimate to assume that the people who say they love us actually want to work for our good. When they refuse to do this (either directly or passively) it’s confusing. We feel like we’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone where things are not what they seem, but we can’t put a finger on it. This other person is supposed to love me…so why are they behaving so unlovingly? We often think it must be something we’ve done wrong (Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear? Perhaps the other person is upset with me about something?) The confusion we feel in this situation makes us want to seek clarity, which requires us to raise the issue again. If we get an effective, honest, respectful, response then, most likely, we can let it go. But when our attempts to get clarity simply lead to more confusion, uncertainty, or frustration we tend to get caught up in an obsessive cycle of questioning that leads to constantly diminishing returns on our emotional investment.
If you find yourself in this position, stop blaming yourself. YOU ARE NOT NAGGING NOR ARE YOU A NAG. You are expressing a basic human right to have your needs heard and responded to.
So what do you do when they aren’t responded to? You increase accountability. Don’t leave a conversation until the other person gives you a specific plan and timetable for meeting the need. Don’t let them distract you from your need or shame you into silence. Respectfully, but firmly INSIST that you are not asking permission to have this need. Rather, you are asking your partner to help you meet your need. If your spouse still refuses to engage, then you will need to do two things.
1. Make a Plan
First, you will need to go ahead–as best you can–with your own plan for meeting the need. It’s OK if your spouse objects or disapproves of your plan. That doesn’t mean you intend to spite them but it does mean that by opting out of your request for help, they lose their vote. You’re an adult. Adults meet their needs. Doing so in this context sends a strong message, namely, “I will not be ignored. If you want to have a say in how my needs get met, then be a partner when I come to you. If you don’t, then you lose the right to complain after-the-fact. I’m very interested in your help and partnership. I have no interest in playing games.”
Chances are you will feel guilty about this. Assuming that you are simply making a plan to meet your need, you have nothing to feel guilty about. Work to get past this. Even if your spouse acts offended, their offense is unjust. They simply don’t want you to get that particular need met and they are outraged that you insisted on being treated as a person who has rights. That is unacceptable. You must refuse to take responsibility for their misplaced offense-taking. Hopefully, next time, they will work with you now that they realize you will not be ignored.
2. Get Help.
Regardless, having to engage in such a power move to get your needs met speaks to a potentially deep level of disrespect in your marriage that will only continue to undermine the relationship. Rather than letting things deteriorate, it will be important to seek professional help early so that you can address this lack of respect that makes you feel like a beggar in your marriage. Don’t ask your spouse’s permission. Counseling is just one more thing they will drag their feet on. Again, you are an adult. If YOU feel there is a problem, there is a problem. Chances are, the only reason your spouse would resist counseling in this dynamic is that the marriage actually works for him and he’d rather not change. You’re going to have to force the issue of you want to see any difference in the future. Make an appointment with a trained marital therapist (not just some individual therapist who happens to also see couples sometimes) and go. Even if your spouse won’t join you, a trained marital therapist can do a lot to change the marriage even if they are only working with one spouse. Most couples wait 4-6 years from the onset of a problem to the time they seek professional assistance. The sooner you seek help, the quicker the problem will be solved.
We do a great deal of this kind of work through the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Telephone Counseling practice. You can learn more about our services here or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment to speak with a counselor.
Keep in Mind
Regardless, the most important thing to remember is that asking your spouse to help you meet your needs or address your concerns–especially with a spouse who is disrespectfully stonewalling–is NEVER nagging. You have a basic human right to be heard and if that God-given right is being consistently denied, then get the help you need to learn to affect the respectful change that needs to occur.