Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

Nagging is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “constantly harassing someone to do something”. This is often the go-to approach that people use to get their spouse to do something that they are resisting. The stereotype in our culture is that of a nagging wife, but in reality both genders engage in nagging. One thing that we can all agree on is that nagging does not seem to work too well. In this article, we will explore some of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of this approach and some possible alternatives. 

For the purposes of illustration, let us use a real-life example. Shimon, a middle-aged man, has lived many years with the typical Western diet, which includes foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. On an average day, he would consume about 3500 calories. On Shabbos and Yom Tov, the numbers were even higher. Additionally, besides walking to shul, Shimon does not engage in that much physical activity. His doctor informed him that he is at risk for developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and if he wants to remain healthy he must significantly modify his diet and lifestyle. Lifestyle changes, especially eating habits, can be extremely difficult to change. Devorah, his wife, was very concerned and tried her best to encourage him to change his habits. She grew increasingly frustrated after her constant reminders to eat a healthy diet were consistently ignored. Shimon and Devorah had fallen into the nagger-naggee dynamic. 

Here are some of the reasons why Devorah’s nagging did not work:

  • Devorah’s nagging put her husband on the defensive. Even though Devorah meant well, Shimon’s subconscious psyche felt this as a personal attack. This triggered the fight-or-flight system which caused Shimon to dig his heels in even more. This was not a conscious decision on Shimon’s part; it is just human nature.
  • The nagger-naggee dynamic closely resembles a parent-child relationship. When a marriage morphs into this kind of a dynamic, then the problems created may reach well beyond an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • As Devorah’s pleas fell on deaf ears, Devorah felt resentment. Shimon sensed that resentment, which drove a wedge between them. With feelings as these permeating their relationship, it became even harder for them to work together.

What are Devorah’s options? How can she communicate her concern and encourage her husband without her efforts backfiring? Here are some ideas:

  • Keep conversations about this topic brief. When it gets too long, it starts to feel like a lecture. 
  • Show your appreciation. This is one of the basic principles of behavioral psychology. Rather than punishing with negative feedback, you should reward with positive feedback. On days that he does embrace healthy habits, be sure to express your appreciation. Amazingly, appreciation that she expresses for anything works! If she lavishes praise on him for taking out the garbage, he is more likely to want to make her happy by eating a healthier diet. 
  • Set a good example for him. The more that you embrace healthier habits, it has the chance of influencing him. 
  • Don’t say, “You never…” or “You always…” Sentences that begin with those words almost always feel like a personal attack. 
  • Try to brainstorm with him in a way that he feels that you are trying to figure out a solution together.

Persistence without patience and wisdom results in nagging which usually does not work. However, persistence that is combined with patience and wisdom has at least a fighting chance.

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