Good Marriage III. Nagging: The Ultimate Marital Over-Control

"A harsh word stirs up anger" wrote the author of the book of Proverbs many years ago (Proverbs 15:1). These are wise words confirmed by thousands of years of human experience since he first penned it. The counsel is particularly true in marriage where one spouse might provoke another through nagging; a dynamic that conforms to a predisposition toward control and authority over another person.

Christian marriage aspires to a higher functioning than control of the spouse. The ideal is modeled in the relationship of the Persons of the Holy Trinity where rancor, control, anger, and other characteristics of our disordered human existence are not known because "God is love" (1 John 4:8). We also see the love exemplified in the self-sacrifice of the Second Person of the Trinity - Jesus Christ, who died for us and for our salvation. The love of Christ is free of inordinate expectation and demand that marks our disordered lives. Instead, Christ's loves culminates in opening the gates of the Kingdom of God to those who accept that love in the creative and life giving terms it imposes.

The Christian ideal is something that Christian spouses work towards. In spiritual terms, which is to say in terms that recognizes the spiritual dimension of human existence and activity, the evil one seeks to stir up the predispositions toward the disordering of relationships including the desire to control the other person. Nagging represents such disordering because it attempts to impose the will of one spouse on the other. Nagging militates against St. Paul's exhortation to "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) - an injunction fulfilled in a spirit of Godly love where " ... love is patient and kind" (1 Corinthians 13:4) and thus a replication of God's love toward us.

Coercive control in psychological terms

The pioneering psychologist, Henry Murray (1938), described a behavior pattern motivated by a need for dominance. (To his credit, Murray considered such a "need" as hypothetical and conclude that the personality system he developed did not meeting the standards of science [see Morelli, 2006a, b, c]. Nevertheless, his observations remain valuable because they conceptualize the dynamic of controlling behaviors.)

One consideration in the operation of needs motivating human behavior was a factor that he called beta press. Beta press was defined as an individual's subjective interpretation of the world around him. Studies by numerous cognitive science researchers have subsequently demonstrated the importance of such subjective interpretation in producing emotional and behavioral responses (Morelli, 2006). Research behavioral science has also shown how controlling behavior patterns are shaped by their consequences interacting with demanding cognitive expectations (Bandura, 1985).

In popular terminology such coercive controlling behavior is called Nagging. In discordant relationships, Patterson (1976, 1982) discovered that coercive controlling behaviors by one individual produce reactive similar coercive counter-behaviors in others, thus creating a pattern of escalation. This controlling aggression, or nagging, becomes stronger because of the expectation that persistence results in a pay-off (Bandura, 1985).

Furthermore, nagging requests are often spoken in a harsh tones which are perceived by the recipient as aversive. In 1965, Roger Brown made an important discovery in modern linguistic theory. He reported that whenever we speak, the tone of voice and the manner in which words are spoken (technically called the pragmatics of communication or onomatopoeic analysis) do more to determine meaning of words than the definitions of the words themselves. Nagging, which by definition is perceived as harsh in tone, frequently engenders strong hurting emotional responses (anger, depression, etc.).

Nagging coercion is basically the idea that constant reminders of what your spouse should or should not be doing is the most effective way of controlling his behavior in order to get your way. Frequently the individual considers it a duty to perform these reminders. When individuals do not respond in the expected way, the nagging person often feels they have the right to be angry and even to escalate the nagging behavior.

Usually nagging individuals are blind to the effects of their coercion. A person being coerced into certain behaviors often feel controlled and resist the nagger in order to maintain a sense of healthy self-worth (Morelli, 2006a). He views the tasks about which he is being nagged as symbols of a power struggle between a greater power and himself. He feels a loss of freedom and a sense of being boxed in. Healthy self esteem is lost.

When a task becomes a symbol of power, a person being nagged wants to avoid the task as much as possible. Often he engages in oppositional behavior to maintain some sense of control and asserts himself by acting contrary to what he perceives he is being coerced into doing. If a husband is constantly being reminded by his wife to help with the dishes for example, he may purposely not help at all.

Sometimes a nagged person starts a task in question but does not meet does not meet the expectations of the coercive spouse. In the example of the husband above, the nagging wife may label him as "completely uncaring" because dishes were not washed perfectly. Comments like "it's about time" or "it's too late" are bantered about. Either way, the husband feels punished.

In this example, the wife does not see the effects of her nagging coercion. She wonders why her husband fails to help because she does not perceive that he feels controlled and punished. A better approach would be to employ a shaping technique (Morelli, 2006). She could reward her husband by telling him "how much she appreciates his effort to start doing something."

In another example a wife may tell her husband, "Thanks for trying to keep the sink in the bathroom clean, it really helps me out. I really mean it sweetheart, thanks." She could then gently suggest a next step, "If next time you could wipe down the shower a little that would really be a relief for me." Research indicates using this technique makes it likely that desirable behavior will increase (Patterson, 1976, 1982).

Communication, collaboration, negotiation

The above problem description suggests other interventions as well. These involve changing communication interactions, collaborating together, and negotiating chores and tasks.


Research by Gottman (1999) indicates communication skills such as active listening (where a partner can paraphrase the content and feeling of the other) are not predictors of a successful marriage. The actual predictors are knowing the other's thinking and feelings, increasing fondness and admiration for one another, turning toward rather than away from each other in solving problems, allowing spouses to mutually influence each other, focusing on solvable versus unsolvable problems, being able to dialogue on "gridlock" problems, and valuing and sharing each other's values, philosophies and dreams.

I will focus on each of these working principles in subsequent articles. It should be noted however, that the basis of each of these principles is accurate communication. Communication is a necessary but insufficient factor underlying all marital interaction but it nevertheless required so that these principles can foster a successful marriage.

Collaboration and negotiation

I will use an example from Gottman's (1999) research to demonstrate how communication can lead to collaboration, negotiation and thus replace nagging. Say a couple disagrees over housecleaning. The wife wants a neat home, the husband is satisfied with the way the house is kept and wants his wife to leave him alone. Each has different personal values or philosophies guiding them. She wants a sense of order and security. He wants a sense of freedom in his own home.

An example of a non-negotiable area for the wife is that she does not want dirty dishes left in the kitchen sink. The husband cannot abide cleaning up his papers after he is finished with them. There is some flexibility here for collaboration and negotiation. She can live with some clutter as long as it is dirt free. In turn, the husband can agree to do the dishes as long as he does not have to clean up his papers all the time.

A temporary compromise is possible. The couple will both take responsibility for the kitchen sink. The wife will not nag her husband about his clutter. They could communicate and agree on set a time and day he will remove all clutter. If he misses the schedule, she will put his papers in a box in his home office. Because they will continue to have different personal value systems, she will always hate clutter, he will always hate her sense of order.

Spiritual Motivation

Spouse should heed the counsel of our holy fathers in this matter. St. John of the Ladder (1982) pointed out: "Worse however is to give way to harsh words which reveal the upheaval on one's soul. But actually to start fighting is completely inimical to and at variance with the monastic (Christian family, ed.), angelic and divine life." A few sentences later, this holy saint described the core of the deleterious effects of nagging: "You wish or rather, have decided to remove a splinter from someone? Very well, but do not go after it with a stick instead of a lancet for you will only drive it deeper. Rough speech and harsh gestures are the stick while even-tempered instruction and patient reprimand are the lancet." A marriage in Christ is a marriage grounded in love: love is patient and kind, nagging has no place in a Christ-centered marriage (Morelli, 2006d).


Bandura, A. (1986). A Social Learning Approach to Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brown, R. (1965). Social Psychology. NY: Free Press.

Gottman, J.M. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. NY: Three Rivers Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part I.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 06). Self Esteem: From, Through, and Toward Christ.

Morelli, G. (2006b, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II.

Morelli, G. (2006c, May 08). Orthodoxy and the Science of Psychology.

Morelli, G. (2006d). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax, VA: Eastern Christian Publications.

Murray, H.A. (1938). Explorations in Personality. NY: Oxford.

Patterson, G. (1976). The Aggressive Child: Victim and Architect of a Coercive System. In E.J. Mash, L.A. Hamerlynck, & L.C. Handy, (Eds.), Behavior Modification and Families. NY: Brunner/Mazzel.

Patterson, G. (1982). A Social Learning Approach. (Vol. 3). Coercive family process. Eugene, OR: Castalia

St. John of the Ladder (1982). The Ladder of Divine Ascent. NY: Paulist Press.


i. This factor emerged from an unpublished study (1981) conducted by Dr. David Burns at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry, in collaboration with the author (Fr. George Morelli) of this article. It has been used successfully in case study clinical trials since 1981.

Date posted: May 15, 2007