9 Tips to Quit Nagging

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

From what I hear from other people, it’s clear that I’m not the only person who struggles with nagging. It turns out that being a nag is just as unpleasant as being nagged — so finding strategies to stop nagging brings a real happiness boost to a relationship.

But even though no one enjoys an atmosphere of nagging, in marriage or any partnership, chores are a huge source of conflict. How do you get your sweetheart to hold up his or her end, without nagging?

One of my best friends from college has a very radical solution: she and her husband don’t assign. That’s right. They never say, “Get me a diaper,” “The trash needs to go out,” etc. This only works because neither one of them is a slacker, but still — what a tactic! And they have three children!

That’s something to strive for. But even if we can’t reach that point, most of us could cut back on the nagging. Here are some strategies that have worked for me:

1. Don’t insist that a task be done on your schedule. “You’ve got to get those boxes into storage today!” Says who? Try, “When are you planning to deal with the boxes?” If possible, show why something needs to be done by a certain time. “Will you be able to get the boxes out of the hall before your family comes over next week?”

2. Remind your partner that it’s better to decline a task than to break a promise. My husband told me that he’d emailed some friends to tell them we had to miss their dinner party to go to a family dinner—but he hadn’t. Then I had to cancel at the last minute, it was incredibly rude, and I was enraged. Now I tell him, “You don’t have to do it. But tell me, so I can it.”

3. Every once in a while, do your sweetheart’s task, for a treat. This kind of pitching-in wins enormous goodwill.

4. Assign chores based on personal priorities. I hate a messy bedroom more than my husband, but he hates a messy kitchen more than I. So I do more tidying in the bedroom, and he does more in the kitchen. My husband thought our older daughter needed a spring jacket, but I didn’t. He asked me a few times when we were going to pick one up, and I said, “I don’t really think she needs a jacket, so I’m not planning to do that.”

5. Settle for a partial victory. Maybe your partner won’t put dishes in the dishwasher, but getting them from the family room into the sink is a big improvement. My husband used never to return my emails. Now he sometimes returns my emails. That’s progress.

6. Re-frame. Decide that you don’t mind doing a chore — like putting clothes in the hamper or hanging up wet towels. Surprisingly, this is easier than you’d think. I used to think, “I don’t like making the bed.” Then I realized, “Actually, I like making the bed.”

7. No carping from the sidelines. If your partner got the kids dressed, don’t criticize the outfits. If you want something done your way, do it yourself.

8. Think about how money might be able to buy some happiness. Could you find a teenager to mow the lawn? Could you hire a weekly cleaning service? Could you buy prepared foods a few nights a week? These days, money is very tight, but eliminating conflict in a relationship is a high happiness priority, so this is a place to spend money if you can, and if it can help.

9. Most helpful: Do a task yourself. I used to be annoyed with my husband because we never had cash in the house. Then I realized: why did I get to assign that job? Now I do it, and we always have cash, and I’m not annoyed.

Any other ideas about how to avoid nagging? What have I missed?

Also, sometimes one person is absolutely oblivious for the need for chores to be done. That person just doesn’t notice, and doesn’t care. In that case, it’s hard to know what to do. I have it easy, because if anything, my husband is more chore-oriented than I am. I’m a naggee as well as a nagger. If that’s your situation — what do you do? What advice to do you offer?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

6 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    None of us knows what goes on behind closed doors in another couple’s home.  .  . and we each have to deal with both background and personality.  IF a husband never had to do anything in his childhood home — and it does happen — he may be of the opinion that if he brings in the money – well, that is “his job” — and it is the wife’s to do the household chores.  That ‘s a tough one to turn around.  One thing I do observe is that it must seem the manly thing to do to take the garbage cans down to the street.  Usually that then is the least of your concerns. 

    But we are talking about hoping for a division of indoor household duties here.  I have found that using the words “Would you mind” – said so nicely that it sounds like a pleasure not a duty – seems to work.  “Can you grab one side of the king-size bed sheets . . .” eventually evokes laughs as you struggle to contain a large mattress into a fitted sheet.

    “Will you grab the dishes off the table while I clean up the counter as WE are not going to be able to see the first part of NCIS otherwise?” sort of says that you both are into this together with a group effort making this possible.

    But — however you two make the approach in a reasonable way and the other takes over a responsibility – either for today (probably) or forever, never leave the place of that chore without telling your partner that “you couldn’t have done it without him” or “I can’t thank you enough as I am really pooped tonight” or “you can’t know how much I appreciated your help” followed by a hug and kiss or more is TRUE, and kind, and give a ray of sunshine into what had been annoyance, drudgery, or feeling used. 

    I don’t scheme myself, I don’t plan the words and definitely not the hugs — but I treat the partner as I would wish to be treated.  . and even voice and care with words goes a long way.

    If it doesn’t work – and sometimes you are left with a mess for that is life – you have to know that the partner may have things on his mind that lay unspoken and upsetting or any number of things that make one more thing too much.  You have felt that way too.  We should not spoil a marriage by rigidity in household tasks — an unmade bed is not the end of the world or are other things.  The important part of life is love flowing between the couple — and if that is truly wonderful — help at times should follow.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Joan, what very wise words. My husband has a way of forgetting…I have never figured out whether he honestly doesn’t remember, or he really never quite caught my request in the first place. In most cases, I’ve decided it doesn’t really matter, because I truly detest nagging. Sometimes when something absolutely has to be done, he’ll either catch me doing it, or realize that I’ve done it, and give me a genuinely puzzled, “But I was going to do that…”. Rather than fuss at him, I just reply, “I really don’t like to nag you”. Lately, he has really made an effort not only to do the little things I ask of him…but to help with things around the house. We sometimes prepare meals together, which is delightful…but also he has been remembering to put dirties in the basket, soda cans in the trash, make necessary phone calls…the little things that count. I do thank him when he helps, because his job is high-stress, and lately his company has gone all pear-shaped, and I know he is tired…yet he loves coming home to us and appreciates the things I do to make him happy and comfortable.

      He’s also self-sufficient, therefore we’re teaching our son to be the same way…and 14 year old boys can be very resistant to chores, at least part of the time. I’ve also stopped nagging M.. If he neglects his chores (making his bed, feeding our cats and cleaning their litter boxes, sweeping the floor by his room and taking out the trash), his allowance is docked. This works marvelously well, and puts the responsibility squarely on his shoulders. And no nagging. If he does extra little things, he always gets a thank you. Sometimes, that’s all the incentive a person needs.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Briana — sounds like you are training your son well.  We never do well with threats or even raising our voices — long range it works to our detriment.  Again, each of us have a different home life, but in dealing with some major decisions that even I want to put off, I suggest that we go out to breakfast alone.  We love breakfast out in a good place with high booths for private conversation.  And then we talk, and always things perhaps not understood but part of the reason for delaying come out on both sides.  But we are talking in normal tones – though we do anyhow always – but somehow THE SETTING works well.  We keep it positive with positive alternatives and we usually have come to a decision — and actually find ourselves relieved that the issue is settled.  We hug on the way out — and all is well.

  2. avatar Bella Mia says:

    “Would you mind…” does indeed work. Better yet, for us is, “Sweetheart, would you mind…..” I have also come to appreciate The List. It is not a his or hers, it is a simply to do for jobs that he “could” do, but is not assigned. It was a surprise to me how motivate he is by a list. Rather a challenge like climbing a mountain for him. He works it because it’s there.

  3. avatar sandra says:

    I love #3 — it really does work. My husband is the recycler-coordinator & trash collector throughout the house; when I haul the bins and baskets for collection day, he really is pleased. That gains me a lot of capital!

  4. avatar Mrs. Williams says:

    Great tips!  I have been known to nag and have been nagged and it is not fun on either end.  One thing we do in my family is express some gratitude and appreciation.  When my husband does something around the house to help out, especially if it is some task that I can’t stand, I always let him know I’m grateful.  I lay on the praise and thanks THICK!  Same thing with my toddler.  If he picks up his toys and puts them away or closes a door, or whatever a 2 year old can do to help clean up, I always shower him with thank yous, hugs and kisses!  He gets the idea and is learning gratitude from an early age.