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‘The Nag,’ Deconstructed

A new study has found the most difficult person in your life is probably a woman. Here’s why.

New research has found that no matter who the most difficult person in your life is, she’s a woman. The study, conducted by UC Berkeley and Bar-Ilan University in Israel, discovered that participants who self-reported their most difficult relationships indicated those toxic entanglements were always with ladies, specifically wives, mothers and sisters.

The reason is simple, the researchers argue. Because women are more emotionally involved in your business, this means they’re more likely to pester you about picking up your dirty socks or leaving beer caps on the kitchen counter — and probably in that shrill voice that makes your balls shrink back up into your body. In other words, nags: Can’t live with ’em, can’t hire a hitman on the Deep Web anymore without getting caught, amirite?

“The message here is that, with female relatives, it can be a two-sided thing,” lead study author Claude Fischer said of the results in a Berkeley news release. “They may be the people you most depend on, but also the people who nag you the most. It’s a testament to their deeper engagement in social ties.”

Of course, it would be good if we actually saw nagging that way — as a more deeply engaged way to get you to take out the trash, stop drinking so much or eat better. Instead, it’s a sitcom trope and cultural stereotype that in order for some woman to get their way, they must exact a reign of verbal domestic terror from which a man can scarcely escape with his genitalia intact.

Internet explanations for why women nag offer a variety of reasons for the nagging, all of which sound like a crazy power play and not the desperate measure of someone who would just like you to clean the bathroom. Reasons offered include “to get their way,” “to hurt” and “to seek attention.” The media write hand-wringing lifestyle pieces on how shitty it is that women can’t seem to stop asking men to do things they say they will do after they don’t do them. The women in these pieces contort themselves in every direction trying to get men to do their part around the house, including refraining from asking verbally and writing pretty notes with stickers and doodles so he doesn’t have to hear their voice.

Women indict themselves in nagging too, penning essays about how they learned to finally stop nagging their husbands, like this one from Lucy Cavendish at The Telegraph. Cavendish cites a survey that find wives spend 7,920 minutes a year nagging their husbands, or nearly five and a half days annually.

That’s like an entire vacation of bitching, only instead of chilling on the beach, it’s screaming at you to help clean the house.

Over the course of a week Cavendish tries to keep her lips zipped while her husband feeds the dogs wrong, packs the wrong sandwiches for the children’s lunches, smashes the car window and never picks up his socks or shoes or puts away the laundry. Frustrated, she turns to a relationship expert who helps illuminate the issue.

“The problem is that women are highly motivated and have sophisticated needs and men are actually rather lazy,” relationship coach Michael Myerscough tells Cavendish. “They will get away with doing as little as possible unless the woman is very specific about what she wants.”

Come again? You mean, women are nagging for an actual reason?

“Basically, women are wildly romantic and optimistic and they want a lifetime love affair and men just want an easy time of it all,” he continues. “These things don’t mix and so resentments build up. When the woman finds she isn’t getting her needs met, what does she do? She shouts, screams, nags. It’s the pattern of behavior that needs to be broken.”

Nagging comes from the Scandinavian word “nagga,” or “to gnaw,” but there are examples all the way back in the Bible of the nagging woman. “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm,” Proverbs 27:15 reads. “He who would restrain her restrains the wind, and grasps oil with his right hand.” A paper in the 1960s sought to uncover the psychological state of the nagger and found it was a “weak, insecure and fearful” person whose nagging is basically a power play designed to create the illusion of superiority when in fact they feel powerless.

All this feels broadly obvious and true, in the most stereotypical sense: For most of history women have been entirely dependent on men for financial survival, and have only been granted power over children and homes. It’s here and only here where they were allowed to set the rules for behavior and etiquette and dictate the social calendar.

Women may now hold more college degrees than men, but they still earn less, and they still do more at home, especially if there are children. Getting men and women up to equal standing in both places has proven frustrating, even in an era of unprecedented equality. That leaves a lot of room for women to still be naggin’, because men aren’t doing the things. As Emine Saner puts it at The Guardian, “If women are doing the majority of nagging, surely it’s because women still do around 70 percent of the housework.”

Cavendish’s essay was in 2010, but last year at Harper’s Bazaar, Gemma Hartley wrote a viral piece called “Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Fed Up.” In it, she lays out the way women are still burdened with the mental load of keeping track of everything a house and children and relationship needs to run well, and even almost a decade later, her complaints are astonishingly similar to Cavendish’s. Her husband won’t do the things around the house the way she wants him to, whether it’s cleaning, childcare or basic consideration for picking up a box of gift wrap on the floor.

“It was obvious that the box was in the way, that it needed to be put back,” Hartley writes. “It would have been easy for him to just reach up and put it away, but instead he had stepped around it, willfully ignoring it for two days. It was up to me to tell him that he should put away something he got out in the first place.”

The point is, she writes, that she didn’t want to have to ask anymore. But this is critical: It’s not that she never asked. It’s not that she never asked clearly. It’s that it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to do the thing, either because he didn’t think it mattered, or just didn’t want to.

The perception that nagging wouldn’t be necessary if women would just learn to ask explicitly what they want pervades the literature on nagging. “Because many women find it difficult to directly communicate their needs, they fall into the fatal trap of whining and nagging about what they aren’t getting rather than directly stating what they want, need or expect from their partner,” a couples therapist writes at WebMD. “Unfortunately, whining and nagging doesn’t put a man into a giving mood, and a vicious cycle is born: The more her man starves her of what she wants, the more she nags and the less likely he is to be responsive to her wishes.”

Such advice ignores the fact that the nagging usually happens after a woman has asked explicitly what she wants, and simply not gotten it, ever, or not consistently. It puts women into a corner, telling them if they’d only learn to communicate better, their partners would absolutely deliver. When in fact, as Cavendish and Hartley’s pieces attest, it’s not the asking that’s missing — it’s the fact that men simply don’t prioritize the household the way women have, because they haven’t had to for most of history.

The advice also ignores the fact that no matter how women ask men to do things, they are often depicted as nagging regardless. Writing at Psychology Today, psychologist Susan Whitbourne explains that because of deeply ingrained gender bias about how women speak compared to men (more indirectly, less aggressively), we paint them as ineffectual and annoying at asking for what they want. When men nag — and they absolutely do nag, too (and for the same reasons) — we view it as a “request,” not a shrill demand.

“It’s not that men don’t make requests of the women who are nearest and dearest to them, it’s that the behavior is labeled differently depending on who is doing the requesting,” Whitbourne writes. “By using the derogatory term ‘nag,’ a man trivializes the woman’s request and at the same time puts her in her place. In other words, it’s a double-edged power play. It saves him actually having to do anything in response to her request until he’s good and ready, if at all. By resisting her efforts to mold him to her will, the man can look as if he’s in control of when he agrees to the request.”

The solution to nagging isn’t that complicated, it’s just difficult to unpack decades of bias and assumptions about how, when and where men and women exert power at home and in relationships in a world that continues to pit us against each other as foreign entities operating at cross purposes.

Nagging is really, at its core, a multilayered issue: It’s about whether or not two people agree in the first place on what actually needs to be done in a home or in a relationship. Then it’s about how those agreed-upon activities or actions are delegated. Then it’s about whether they’re carried out as agreed upon. If this is where couples put all their energy — what needs doing, who will do it, how will they do it, and what’s the accountability for this process — then they’d never have to get to the part where they’re asked a thousand times in a pissy voice why the thing wasn’t done.

Anyone can be a nag, but until men have just as much responsibility in the home, they won’t have to nag as much. In the meantime, maybe instead of nagging, women should put their energy toward coming up with a good derogatory word for the dude in all this: What do you call a man who promises to do something he ought to be doing anyway, but never does, no matter how many times you ask him, no matter how nicely?

I’m taking requests.