How to Stop Nagging Your Spouse
Last week’s Marriage Improvement Monday gave you a strategy for forgiving your spouse of past indiscretions. Someone rightly asked in the comments, “But how do I forgive my spouse for something he’s doing right now—and keeps doing over and over again?” I’m glad she asked.
You can’t forgive until you see a change in behavior, and you can’t see a change in behavior until you ask for one.
But then, sometimes, even when you ask for a change in behavior, you still don’t seem to get it. So you resort to nagging. “Could you PLEASE vacuum the floor? I’ve already asked you 10 times!” And nagging usually leads to one thing: you planning your spouse’s funeral.
I went through this with my husband with two issues. One was housework. The other was The Voice, and the way he talked to me as if I were stupid. There was a time in my marriage when I didn’t think either issue would ever be solved. There was a time when I thought that I’d be doing 90 percent of the housework for the rest of my life. And I thought he’d be talking down to me for the rest of my life, too.
But now neither is the case. Although he certainly regresses every now and again, we’ve addressed both issues. The rest of this post explains how we did it.
Pick One Grievance
You probably have 2 or 3 or 168 issues that you’d like to solve in your marriage but, for now, pick just one. Discussing more than one issue at a time is not only overwhelming, and it sets you and your spouse up for failure. Your spouse is probably capable of changing one small aspect of his or her behavior in the short term. She or he probably isn’t capable of changing 60 million aspects of it.
Explain How the Problem Affects You
It’s important not to blame here. As soon as you go down that “you are a bad spouse because you do this” road, your spouse will check out. Therapists will tell you to talk in “I statements,” which are great if you can pull that off. I never could. Trying to talk in “I statements” made talking seem too dang hard, so I almost stopped talking all together. Instead, now I just try to explain how a behavior affects me. Sometimes I don’t even mention the behavior. I just state a problem.
For instance, about housework I might say, “I’m stressed and overwhelmed right now. I wish I could spend more quality time with you and Kaarina, but I just can’t get on top of things. Could you help more with the housework? I was thinking that we might all work on it together at the same time. Like every Sunday morning we all do housework together until it’s done.”
Actually I did say that, and that is what now we do.
About the talking down to me, I said, “Sometimes when you talk to me, I feel like you think I’m stupid.”
My husband had no idea. He really didn’t. He felt horrible that he’d been affecting me that way and he promised to stop.
Create a Code Word
Now, your spouse is going to regress. Expect that. And understand it. It takes an enormously long time to change a bad habit. If you are a parent, you already know this because you know just how long it took to, say, teach your child not to whine at the dinner table. Also, think about any self-improvement you’ve done in the past. Have you ever tried to stop gossiping or to stop lying or something else? Then you know it took a very long time before you completely stopped. You regressed a lot.
Your spouse will, too.
The irritating problem with regression, though, is that you will start to feel like a broken record, saying things like, “You agreed to do the housework and now you are sitting on the couch watching football!”
That’s why you need a code word, code sentence or code phrase regarding this change in behavior—and you need your spouse to know what it is. When I was trying to get my husband to stop talking down to me, my phrase was, “Please don’t talk to me like that.” Toward the end, when he hardly did it at all, my phrase was “you did it again” with a playful smack on the ass. It was just enough to help him see and correct the behavior, but not so much that I felt as if I was nagging.
With the housework, it was, “Can you help me with this?” and “I could really use some help.”
Reward Your Spouse
Too often in marriage, we function only with punishments. He doesn’t do the housework. You decide that you no longer wish to have sex. She nags you about the housework. You decide to ignore her because she knows you hate it when she nags.
After a while, the punishments fail to motivate.
Instead, switch to rewards. Whenever your spouse does what you’ve asked, say, “Thank you.” If appropriate, offer a hug. Or a kiss. Or the beauty of your naked body.
This is important. People don’t change overnight. Keep reminding yourself of that. Try to notice the positive changes and forgive the backsliding. Eventually, you’ll solve this problem and you’ll be able to tackle another one.
Let me know how it works for you.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.