Recently in the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein wrote an interesting piece about relationships. Her article talked about what really happens in the day-to-day life of a married typical couple and the frustrations that lead to what we commonly call "nagging. Titled, "Meet the Marriage Killer," her report suggested that both partners in a relationship get tired of the vicious cycle of asking for what they want, being ignored and getting angry and having to ask again. Nagging more doesn't help and withdrawing from each other makes the situation worse. Being told what to do makes both partners then feel like children. Funny, I just had a session today with a couple who were complaining about the same thing. I have been a couples therapist for many years, and I see many of them complain every day in my office about what they describe as nagging behaviors that are killing the love they once felt for each other.
Bernstein says that there are certain tips to change the way that couples talk to each other about what they want. I agree. But I look at it from a slightly different perspective. The real reason that nagging happens is twofold. The moment we commit to forever, after the initial "in love" phase of our romance ends, which it does for all of us, we decide we are finally safe with the one person who we can live with for the rest of our life. And yet almost the second that we make that commitment to forever, we regress. We regress to what we know of forever: our parents.
All we know of love and relationships and forever is Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad were supposed to love us unconditionally -- hey, they're our parents and they probably will. But marriage is not unconditional. There are conditions. I can't get away with everything in my marriage that I might have been able to back at home with Mom and Dad. With my husband, there are certain conditions. In fact, now as a Mom I would probably visit my son in prison every day if he, for instance, robbed a bank. But if my husband pulled an armed robbery? Not so much. Marriage is very conditional.
All of us begin at that moment that we commit to regress to the fantasy that our partner will love us unconditionally and yet, interestingly, we don't forgive them unconditionally for their behaviors that we find annoying. Very quickly after marriage our partners begin to show signs that they are not living up to our expectations. And we start to point out the many ways. We begin to parentify our partner: "pick up your socks," "stop driving so fast" or "you are so messy," are examples. Once we start acting like we are the grown up and our partner is the child who doesn't know how to manage their life, then we have gone from being equals to being in a parentified and, by the way a totally desexualized, relationship. I mean who wants to have sex with someone who is nagging them like their mother, right? Or bossing them around like Dad?
The answer might surprise you; it is not necessarily to compromise. No one wins with compromise -- everyone has to give up something. The answer is appreciation. Appreciation is the opposite of disappointment. We always get more of what we appreciate. If we are frustrated that our partner doesn't take the garbage out, but we like that they do the dishes, then tell them. Appreciating that they do the dishes means they are more likely to do the dishes and wipe down the counters as well. If you appreciate that they wipe down the counters and do the dishes they are more likely to sweep the floor too. And frankly, wouldn't you rather live in a relationship where you are each appreciating the other, than one in which you are constantly pointing out the other's faults?
Take a few moments when you are frustrated with your partner to recognize that stress comes from feeling that you have a long list of things "to do" and you may believe that if your partner would just help you get to the bottom of that list you would miraculously feel relaxed and joyful. But you probably will never get to the bottom of your list. There will always be things to do. In our busy lives and busy homes we can always find things we are stressed about. Focus on what works and makes you feel less stressed. Point out how your partner helps when they do, and focus on ways that each of you can bring less stress into each other's lives. Go with your strengths and remember you didn't get married to be great roommates. You got married because you loved each other. Being good roommates takes practice. And kindness.
The problem in marriages is not so much that we nag each other; the problem is that we forget to appreciate what we have. Taking one another for granted means we neglect to say out loud the positive things we notice, the things we love and the parts of our partner that we are grateful to have around. Remembering to mention these things is a habit. Just like getting into the habit of pointing out what's not working, reminding each other what is working takes practice. Remind each other every day what's positive in your relationship. Take the time to say at least three things you appreciate about your partner every day.
Especially on days when they forget to take out the garbage.
Tammy Nelson, PhD is a sex and relationship expert and the author of Getting the Sex You Want and the upcoming The New Monogamy. Find out more at www.drtammynelson.com
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