Q: My partner drives me crazy, and the only way I know how to deal with it is to nag.  What else can I do?

A:  Relationship and marriage research continues to pinpoint nagging and criticism as one of the least effective ways to communicate and reverse unhappiness with our partner. 

Yet, almost all of us at one time or another has become a member of the Nitpickers and Perfectionist Club.  I mean, it just seems so obvious to us that just telling someone once should do the trick in fixing whatever is the problem. And when that doesn't work--what do we tend to do? You got it:  We say it again--and again and again.  Sometimes, we even get louder in the hopes that a greater decibel level of our voice was the missing ingredient that now will make our partner hear, understand and suddenly act differently.

Unfortunately, nagging and criticizing usually make the other person act in predictably unproductive ways.  Look at these typical relationship scenarios and see if you can understand better the other person's reaction--and yours as well!  Even though your details are unique, the core of the problem is usually widely shared. 

Let's look at the top scenarios that seem to drive people to nag and criticize. Each scenario includes an explanation and solutions that have worked for many of my clients.  Invent your own and see which ones work.

Situation #1. Marcy tells her husband over and over to pick up his shoes that he loves to strew all over the house.  She's tried screaming, storming off and even piling his shoes at the front door.  She accuses him of "having no class" and turning the house into a "pigsty." Her husband reacts by doing nothing.

Solution:  Marcy is a perfectionist and needs to assess the root of the problem. Here are the steps Marcy could take to remedy the issue.

  • Examine why you react with intensity.  Remember, the cause lies in your past.
  • Explain to your partner what you've learned.
  • Get a perspective and "pick your poison" of what you choose to drive you nuts.  On a scale of 1-10 rank the problem according to its importance.
  • Say to yourself:  I don't have to be perfect to be loved. 
  • Also say to yourself:  If my partner doesn't do everything I want all the time, it doesn't mean that he doesn't love or respect me.
  • Develop with your partner a plan.
  • Hold hands while you talk. Physical contact reduces anger.

Situation # 2.  Frank hates that his wife spends too much of the household money on expensive clothes for their toddler daughter.  "What does she know about the clothes she's wearing?" Frank says.  He describes his wife's reaction as a "hurricane."  She "goes nuts," he says.  She yells, throws things and brings up everything she hates about him.

Explanation:  Frank is a Control Freak.  He wants every penny to be accounted for.  Like Marcy in the scenario above, he came from a rough childhood.  His father was extremely frugal and worried all the time about where the next dime was coming from.  Even though Frank is now wealthy, old habits die hard.  He thinks baby clothes are frivolous.  However, like many couples, he married a woman who also comes from a background of hard times.  His wife is over-invested emotionally in her daughter's happiness.  The wife wants her daughter to have everything she lacked.

Solution:  Frank needs to control every situation. Here is how Frank could resolved the problem. 

  • Each person recognizes and admits that your past needs for control (Frank) and emotional repair (the wife) are out of control.
  • Hug each other.
  • Work with your partner to develop a reasonable budget.
  • Establish separate accounts for the household, children and you and your partner.  Even a few dollars a week into the account for you will soon build.  Experiment with how much money should be in each fund monthly.
  • Don't question or grill each other on what you spend for yourself, as long as the expense fits in with the guidelines you establish.
  • Don't borrow from one account to pay for the other.

Situation# 3:  Lindy works all day and then, as soon as she gets home, she says she works all night in her second and third jobs--mother and housekeeper.  She hates that Simon doesn't do the dishes or the laundry. She's tired of complaining that he's lazy.  Instead, she just does it all herself. By ten o'clock at night, she's exhausted--too tired for the sex and closeness that her husband now wants.

Explanation:  Lindy has chosen to be a Martyr.  She follows too closely the maxim, "if you want something done right, do it yourself."  Her husband feared doing things incorrectly and experiencing her wrath that he ended up doing nothing at all.  She gets trapped in the Hands-in-Air-Frustration rut where she's "had it" with Simon.  She lets him know she is angry by turning off to sex.

When Lindy was sixteen, her parents divorced.  Her mother blamed her for the break up and told Lindy that her "teenaged moods" drove her father into the arms of another woman.  From the moment Lindy's father left, she became the bad daughter.  The mother favored the baby sister.  Lindy worked too hard to gain her mother's love.

Lindy turned into Cinderella and cooked and cleaned and did laundry and everything else to prove to her mother she was worthy.  Her mother was never pleased, and she continued to favor the younger daughter.  Lindy feared that if she gave up trying to please and actually asked something of someone else, then that person would leave.  At first, Lindy's husband was more than happy to have Lindy do all the housework.  Now he's paying the price by not enjoying sex with his wife.

Most importantly, Lindy realized her marriage was a classic example of resenting having to do all the household chores and not being able to ask for help.  Soon, her anger escalated, and she began to resent that she also had to tend to the emotional needs of the relationship. 

Solution:  Lindy has chosen to be a "martyr" of sorts. She follows too closely the maxim, "if you want something done right, do it yourself." Lindy and Simon really do love each other and their three children; however, they got stuck in a rut of old fashioned behavior where, regardless whether the wife works. Here is how they could solve their problem.

  • Ask for help--and withstand the avalanche of unpleasant feelings such as guilt and anger.
  • Understand that the behavior and feelings have more roots in childhood than the present.
  • Work on a plan together. 
  • Delegate responsibilities for household tasks to other family members.  Follow through to make sure spouses, partners and children comply. 
  • Act with kindness.  Treat others as you would like to be treated.
  • Give up perfectionism.  Other people will never do it just like you.  So, get a perspective on the importance of that task.  And don't confuse "doing it right" with "loving you right."