Death by a Thousand Nags

You’ve forgiven an affair. You’ve put up with violations of the marriage’s budget. You’ve been bored, irked, and ignored.

But if he mentions picking up a goddamned wet towel off the floor one more time, you’re out of there.

That’s the gist of recent research about the real “marriage killer,” which is summarized in an interesting Wall Street Journal piece.

It’s nagging. Researchers have found that unhappy couples nag much more than the happy ones, and that this nagging can constitute as grave if not a graver "death by a thousand cuts" threat to a marriage than the more cataclysmic eruptions of adultery or financial collapse.

The research looks at ways to break the nagging conversational habit. That seems like a useful enough strategy.

And, heaven forbid that life, or marriage, should present us with a problem that can’t be solved with 10 bulletized advice tips that can fit in a mauve-colored sidebar in a women’s magazine, one of which is invariably some version of “take a deep breath and calm down” and another is invariably some version of “tell your partner what you’re feeling.”

The premise behind changing the nagging conversation, of course, is that the problem really is a snarky discursive style, rooted in insecurity or obsessiveness, for example. In other words, when it comes to the nag, a “cigar is just a cigar,” as Freud tells us.

I totally believe that in some cases, this is true. Nagging doesn’t connote anything more ominous than the nagging habit itself, and a sense of insecurity, perhaps, about getting what you want.

Having been around lots of nagging couples and spouses, though, I also feel that in other cases, the nag is more like a secret code, or language, that only the marriage entirely understands, or even hears. The nag broadcasts a message on a frequency that the spouses hear but not outsiders.

Most relationships of any duration have secret decoder ring elements: they have idiosyncratic ways that they talk about truths that are simply too hard or obdurate to unpack, so they handle them through safely-coded discourse. The nag takes a chisel to that big, hulking rock of a problem, rather than a pack of dynamite.

My hunch with some nagging couples is that the cigar isn’t just a cigar, at all. It’s a way of “saying” a discontent that goes deeper but that, once articulated openly, will effectively unravel the relationship. It must be "vented," this discontent, but it can’t be expressed head-on, because the consequences are just too grave.

In these cases, “don’t mix colors with whites in the laundry” is how we pronounce the deeper problem of, “I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.”

Having some fun, here’s the nag, and here’s what the secret decoder ring tells us it really means:

The Nag

The Translation

Please don’t put the dry dog food in this Tupperware container. I told you that ten times already

I am sexually frustrated 

 I asked you to put the dishes away and they’re still in the dishwasher. Would you please do that?


I do not really like you that much anymore. I feel so disconnected, and sad


I wish you wouldn’t put your feet up on that chair


I wish I could quit this marriage. Get me out of here


What really interests me is marital conversation in general. I’m fascinated by the ways that we inhabit our most intimate space, and lives, with another person, and yet can leave the most honest, searing, and monumentally important things unsaid and unshared--except insofar as they come out of the escape valve of sideways conversational tics, whether it be the nag, the whine, the well-timed silence, the strategic blank stare, the sarcastic side comment, or thousands of other conversational idiosyncrasies.

Indeed, maybe a long-term relationship relies on these oblique approaches.

Culturally, we extol openness and honesty. But there’s much to be said for suppression, discretion, and strategic indirection. That great WASP skill, suppression, is under-rated.

I know that therapists will disagree. But from the trenches, it seems that many an okay if not awesome marriage survives, or at least survives longer, in a murky zone of knowing but not knowing, of saying but not really saying. It's a zone of conveying a gist or mood of what we feel without stating the thing with irrevocable, irreversibly blunt candor.

Granted, the nag habit is indeed unpleasant, so it’s not a good case for the virtues of suppression and the strategic meander around truth.

But there are other habits of coded conversation that might contribute to marital longevity, even health, that aren’t so corrosive, or annoying.

Marriages tread gently around some truths, because the truths, once you got to unraveling them, would undo the entire marriage, and maybe that’s not where the spouses want to end up—lost in a skein of threads that was once a life they had together.  All because someone expressed their existential sadness directly, instead of encoding it in an admittedly corrosive but not fatal nag about a dust ball.

So the question is, what does a nag mean? Is the cigar just a cigar? Is it a cause, or a code, of unhappiness?

In cases, where the nag is a bad habit, then it can be more easily corrected. But when the nagging is private marital code for a malaise that has a deeper wellspring, then nag therapy might be the marital equivalent of re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That ship’s going down, and you’re still worried about the grease build-up on that frying pan, and your spouse’s inadequate skills with a sponge.

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