one of those women: overcoming the impulse to nag

I never wanted to be one of "those women." You know, one of those nagging, critical, bossy women. But since my husband and I have become parents (of twins!), my ability to not become this woman has been tested. I write and write and write on this blog about breaking free of gender role stereotypes, being positive, engaging in successful conflict interactions, and avoiding gatekeeping. But I can't even follow my own damn advice.

This dilemma that I face makes me think of something that I always tell my Interpersonal Communication students, "When it comes to being communicatively competent, in any context, you have to have the knowledge about what to do, the skills to be able to implement that knowledge, and be motivated to use your knowledge and skills. Additionally, it's also important to then actually enact the proper behavior." Even though most people probably think that I, an Interpersonal Communication scholar and Romantic Relationship researcher, should always communicate effectively in my relationship with my wonderfully patient and supportive husband, the fact of the matter is that while I usually possess knowledge, and even skills, I often fail to have enough motivation to actually initiate and hold an effective conversation. It's unfortunate, I know.

Why have I lost my motivation? Time. I don't have enough of it. And when I don't have enough time to flip through my rolodex of competent behaviors to think about what I should say, I take the easy way out. Nagging and bossing is easy. It doesn't take up a whole lot of energy.

You may feel like you're in the same boat as me. Believe me, many women are. It's an epidemic. The first step to dealing with any bad habit is to admit that one has a problem, which, by the way, has been heavily influenced by the dominant ideology. Okay...


There it is. I admitted it. Let's move on.

The next step for me, one of many ashamed nag-a-holics, is to become more motivated to use my knowledge about appropriate behavior and to implement my skills about how to engage in these conversations. In order to start this process, I think it's important to first discuss three types of motivation that have been identified by researchers (e.g., Burleson, Holmstrom, & Gilstrap, 2005). These include goal motivation, effectance motivation, and normative motivation.

Goal motivation is defined as the desire to attain a specific goal or outcome. In this specific context, I usually want my husband to do something that he is not yet doing or I want him to do something that he is already doing in a different way. In addition, I genuinely want to achieve these primary goals without hurting his feelings, demeaning him, or emasculating him, which are also goals of mine. I guess it would also be nice to achieve all of these goals while also bringing us closer together as a couple, respecting him, and making him fall even deeper in love with me than he was before (ha!). Even though I have this nice list of goals in my head, barriers to achieving these goals still exist, which is why having a lot of goal motivation is extremely important. You need to have enough desire to achieve your real goals (not your "in-the-moment" goals- you may think that you want to hurt your partner's feelings or that you want to put your partner down, but I would bet that if you took a step back and really thought about what you wanted to achieve during this interaction, making your partner- the man who you love and are fully committed to- feel devalued doesn't make the cut!). If you have this desire, you can push past those barriers (like a lack of time, energy, and/or enthusiasm) and actually use your knowledge and skills to have an effective conversation (which is usually defined as an interaction that achieves your goals).

Effectance motivation involves an individual's perception of his or her own ability to achieve the desired goal or outcome. In order to increase this type of motivation, you should brush up your communication skills and increase your knowledge about what is and what is not suitable for these types of conversations. It is also important to learn about WHY certain messages are more and less effective at achieving goals. One way to increase your knowledge and polish your skills is to learn about how to create a "let's talk" night. Seriously, having a set time once a week where you are both required to hash out one issue that you each have can definitely help alleviate your need to nag on a daily basis. How? Well, if you and your partner are able to create a safe zone for communication about difficult issues and you follow the guidelines outlined in this article on, you can openly discuss your problems and hopefully avoid the day-to-day bossiness- because hopefully your partner will listen to what you had to say on "let's talk" night and respond appropriately. To understand why achieving your real goals is important, read on. The truth of the matter is that if you nag and boss another human being around, you run the risk of developing a parent-child relationship, instead of a peer relationship, with this individual. Subsequently, this can negatively impact (1) your ability to have fun with this person (it's difficult to have fun when you're being told how you should or should not be having fun all of the time), (2) your ability to romantically love and be romantically loved by this person, and your sex life (would YOU want to have sex with someone who treated you like a parent or child?). If that's not enough motivation to change your nagging ways, I don't know what is.

Normative motivation concerns an individual's motivation to comply with role-specific social norms by behaving in the "correct" or generally accepted way. This is where society screws us as women. If we're following prototypical gender role stereotypes, then it's completely natural for a woman to be a nagging, bossy individual. And it's hard to break free from this stereotype. We see examples of how women should act everywhere. As I've said in a previous post, many people unfortunately "believe that a wife is destined to nag everyone in her family, every single day of her life (Think: Malcolm in the Middle, Desperate Housewives, Everybody Loves Raymond, & Roseanne)." Typical media relationships create a skewed perception of how partners should and should not communicate with one another. And, whether you like it or not, these relationships on television and in movies greatly impact how we, in turn, interact with our mates. FYI, this is NOT how it has to be. We can dispel these myths about acceptable gender behaviors right here, right now. You are not doomed to nag and I am not doomed to nag. Done.

Understanding how to increase your motivation in these three areas has the potential to really help you stop the seemingly endless boss-lady cycle. What can you do instead?
  • Implement a "let's talk" night. Among other tips (you can read all about the "let's talk" night in this article on, you want to bring up only one issue, listen, be positive, and help each other solve the problem.
  • Show your appreciation. Whenever your partner does something well, compliment him. If he, or anyone for that matter, knows that you appreciate what he is doing, he will likely continue that behavior. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way.
  • Don't do it yourself. If he said he would do it, let him do it. You will just build up resentment towards him if you take charge and just do it by yourself. Be patient and wait for him to do whatever it is that he said he would do. And then, if he still doesn't do it, bring it up on your "let's talk" night.
  • Be specific and use "I feel" language. Talk about how his actions make you feel. Instead of saying, "You are making me late for work AGAIN!", you could say, "When you make me late for work, I feel disrespected. I feel like you don't care about me or my job. What can we do to fix this?"
In past posts, I've said things like, "Bossing him around, nagging him to do things, and telling him what he should or should not be doing emasculates him and makes you look like a total bitch (sorry, but it does). So don't do it!" I was completely right. But, it's hard to ALWAYS follow this advice. Make sure that you enhance your knowledge about what to do and say, polish your skills about how to have the conversation, and increase your motivation to actually have an effective conversation. Set aside time to talk about your problems so that they don't just keep piling up. And maybe, just maybe, you can break the mold with me and not become one of "those women."

  • Burleson, B. R., Holmstrom, A. J., & Gilstrap, C. M. (2005). “Guys can’t say that to guys”: Four experiments assessing the normative motivation account for deficiencies in the emotional support provided by men. Communication Monographs, 72, 468-501.

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