This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series

How Nagging Can Kill You

Revised 5/3/21

What is Nagging?

Nagging is a conversational pattern where a request is urgently repeated 3 times or more and is deflected or ignored in return. The failure to grapple directly with the conflict surrounding the request results in both partners feeling prevailed upon with escalation a frequent outcome.

naggingEverybody is capable of nagging, and there are a number of different flavors of nagging. Research tells us that the dynamic of nagging emerges from differences in social status, gender roles, and power differences. Let’s discuss a few of them.

Anxious Nagging. Anxiety disorders are an epidemic in our uncertain times. Many of us nag the people we love because there is a mismatch of concern over real and/or imagined issues.

Critical Nagging. You ask your spouse to do something and they “complied.” They feel that they have satisfied your request, but you feel that their efforts were below par, and you’re not shy in sharing your displeasure.

Hostile Nagging – This is emotional abuse. A transparent attempt to shame or blame with contempt and disrespect.

How Nagging Kills

For most husbands, enduring a nagging wife can be quite aggravating. The word “Nag” derives from the Scandanavian word “to gnaw.”

And that’s how they feel. Picked on and criticized. But this is a toxic and persistent interpretation.

New research from Europe tells us that being on the receiving end of critical nagging from your wife is a serious hazard to your health. Recent research has suggested that chronic nagging is linked to literally hundreds of unnecessary deaths each year.

The research reveals that husbands who experience nagging from their fretful partners were more than twice as likely to die within ten years than those with less stressful marriages.

These deaths were gender-linked.

Science shows that men may become ill and die from their physiological reactions to being nagged.

Let’s be clear about this. It’s not the nagging itself that is deadly, It is rather the habitual physiological reactions that men experience, and fail to gain mastery over, that erodes their health and well-being. Failure to accept influence is a crucial factor.

Death by nagging is a deadly intersection of physiology, personality, and socialization. It is not the fault of frustrated, long-suffering wives.

Too many women feel that they have to nag because their husbands often respond in a dismissive manner.

These conversations often start badly and end worse.

Wives are Relatively Immune to Retaliatory Nagging

If these husbands nag back, their wives are far more immune to succumb to death by nagging.

Research indicates that enduring a nagging husband resulted in little impact on female death rates.

Women can tolerate a chronically nagging spouse much better than men, most likely because they process being on the receiving end of negative emotions differently, and engage in better self-care through social supports.

The research indicates that over 300 extra deaths per 100,000 people per year could be caused by persistent spousal criticism, nagging, and the incessant articulation of demands and concerns.

Nagging increases stress levels, and stress has long been identified as having a massive impact on health. Men who are nagged are at increased risk of heart disease and stroke, and being nagged also encourages poor self-care habits such as stuffing down unpleasant emotions, eating junk food, and living a sedentary lifestyle which magnifies the problem.

So How Does Nagging Kill Husbands?

Gottman’s research has told us that men and women have profoundly different reactions to Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA).

Recent research from 2014 confirms that fact.

Men react to stress with much higher levels of cortisol than their wives. Cortisol is a hormone, that at high levels, is known to be incredibly hazardous to your health.

The author of the Study, Dr. Rikke Lund, Section of Social Medicine, Department of Public Health, at the University of Copenhagen, said: “Men also have fewer people in their social network than women who tend to share their problems and worries with more people. Their partner is more important to them in a relatively small social network.” And when that partner is a chronic nagger… who does he turn to for comfort?

“It is interesting that we have identified that males who are exposed to worries and demands by their partners have higher mortality and are the ones we should focus on. We tend to struggle to reach this group with public health interventions and maybe we should be focused less on the individual and more on social networks as a whole.” Dr. Rikke Lund.

The study drew a sharp distinction between men who are employed and unemployed.

Unemployment for Men is a Huge Stressor

Jobs and Careers offer a space for positive self-worth which tends to mitigate the impact of a stressful marriage. The study also shows that the stress of unemployment and the resulting financial uncertainty combined with being frequently nagged increases the death rate for these husbands.

This is why so many young, vulnerable couples divorced during COVID.

The combined effect of frequent demands and worries from a partner and being unemployed could account for well over 4oo deaths per 100,000 people per year.

We already know from earlier studies that solid emotional support from family and friends is protective of health. This is a noteworthy study because it is one of the first studies to pose the opposite hypothesis.

This was a very large study. Danish researchers questioned 10,000 men and women aged 36 to 52 about their everyday social relationships, asking which partner was the nagger or the “naggee.”

The researchers tracked these 10,000 couples over a decade. The results were that 4% of the wives died, and a third more, 6% of the men died as well.

nagging

The research shows that about 50% of the deaths were from cancer, followed by heart disease, stroke, liver disease, accidents, and suicide. Around one in 10 study subjects reported that either their partner or children were a frequent or constant source of chronic demands and nagging.

Children Nag Too

An unexpected finding from this study was that children nag too. 6% of the study subjects reported that they were often in conflict with either their spouse or children.

The study results tell us that constant demands and nagging from children appeared to increase the risk of early death by almost 50%.

You Only Hurt the One You Love

Curiously, conflict with friends, neighbors and even other relatives had no negative health impacts.

I guess the old song “you only hurt the one you love” has some science behind it. The most dangerous impacts were from constant, ongoing marital conflict.

But not any marital conflict. Research conducted by Lauren Papp, Chrystyne D. Kouros, and E. Mark Cummings, instructed married couples participating in the research to keep a diary of their conflicts and to specifically classify them by topic.

The research revealed that interpersonal issues between spouses such as personality differences, differences in habits, communication, triggered most “nagging” episodes.

“Demand-withdraw patterns (nagging, followed by stonewalling) were consistently related to a greater likelihood of negative tactics (i.e., threat, physical distress, verbal hostility, aggression) and higher levels of negative emotions (i.e., anger, sadness, fear), and to lower likelihood of constructive tactics (i.e., affection, support, problem-solving, compromise) and lower levels of positivity.” Papp, Kouros, and Cummings.

Apparently what you talk about is also important…

Issues such as work-life balance, extended family issues, kids, work stress, etc. did not tend to result in nagging nearly so often.

The only exceptions that wives in the study pointed out were conflicts over money. Money pressures are apparently, a fertile source of nagging concerns.

Husbands who reported that marital conflict was an ever-present or frequent factor in their marriage were twice as likely to die. 

The researchers also emphasized that psycho-educational couples therapy on how to manage marital conflict, (such as what we do here at Couples Therapy Inc.), can help reduce many unnecessarily premature deaths.

Women Recognize Stress Better than Men…and are also Better at Asking for Help when they Need It

Prof Carmine Pariante, professor of biological psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry King’s College London says that wives are much better at recognizing how and when they are stressed.

They also are more comfortable with sharing their vulnerabilities with others, and more readily seek support from friends and family. This willingness to seek support has a demonstrably protective quality on their nervous systems.

“This study shows the assumption that men are more resilient to stress is incorrect. Conflict is at the clearer end of the stressful event spectrum and is probably recognized by men and women alike as being difficult, so they seek help and talk to their friends about it. But a chronic level of low stress, like this nagging, is not enough for men to seek help. This low level of stress is enough to affect mortality because it can impact on cortisol levels and the immune system, you do not need to have an earthquake or terror attack for stress to have an effect on physical health.” Professor Carmine Pariante.

There’s that “Guy Code” again. Men tend to suck up low levels of stress, along with a Cortisol Cocktail. They “never complain, never explain,” and science now tells us that they tend not to remain either.

5 Life-Saving Things to Do Instead to Do Instead

  1. Take a Time Out. Remember, escalation is the enemy, not your partner. A pattern of nagging and ignoring grows increasingly toxic over time. When you take care of your nervous system, your nervous system will do a better job taking care of you. Build resilience by thwarting your anger and fear from hijacking your discussions with your spouse. Take a time out and settle down first.
  2. Enter into “Admitting Mode.” Ask yourself “what is my partner saying that is factually true and I can agree with without qualification or defensive posturing?” Once you come up with an answer, share your agreement by taking responsibility for at least part of the problem. When your partner sees you do that directly and non-defensively, they might have a chance to calm down more quickly.
  3. Don’t Just Listen to the Partner in Your Head… Ask Questions. It’s important to ask questions, but don’t be a prosecuting attorney. When we use a softened start-up and ask open-ended questions, we make it easier for our partner to voice their concerns the concerns of the other person. Remember that asking questions provides focus on what you both want instead.
  4. Share Your Concerns and Vulnerabilities. When we reveal our needs, concerns, and feelings to one another, we can, as Julie Gottman reminds us, find the dream within the conflict. We can do this together when we teach you the importance of softened start-up followed by “I statements” that describe the triggering issue, and its emotional impact on the relationship. When your partner does this lean in and listen. It’s time for empathy….and repair.
  5. Identify a Preferred Outcome: Our brains are designed by nature to focus on the negative. It takes a deliberate act of will by the ponderously slow pre-frontal cortex to focus on what you want instead. Focus on what you want instead, and what might be a “good enough” outcome for you both to successfully navigate this issue.

Listen up, guys…that toxic masculinity you learned in your family of origin (Barry, 1993, Bradbury, 2000) can kill you. We can help you have influence with your wife if you’re prepared to accept influence as well. We can help you with that.

Have you been struggling with nagging and stonewalling? Learning how to prevent nagging and stonewalling is a teachable skill. Check out our experienced team and ask about our couples therapy intensives.

Research:

The 2014 research by Dr. Rikke Lund was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Demand‐withdraw patterns in a marital conflict in the home LAUREN M. PAPP, CHRYSTYNA D. KOUROS and E. MARK CUMMINGS First published: 05 June 2009 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2009.01223.x Citations: 32

Lauren M. Papp, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison; Chrystyna D. Kouros and E. Mark Cummings, Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame.

This research was funded in part by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant HD 36261 awarded to E. Mark Cummings.

Barry, Robin A. and Erika Lawrence, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me: An Attachment Perspective of Disengagement and Avoidance in Marriage,” Journal of Family Psychology (2013), vol.27, no.3, 564-494.

Bradbury, Thomas N., Frank D. Fincham, and Steven R.H. Beach, “Research on the Nature and Determinants of Marital Satisfaction: A Decade in Review,” Journal of the Marriage and the Family (November 2000), 62, 964-680.

Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.

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Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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