What if the reason that many women “nag” — or when men feel “nagged” — is that women are carrying too much of the mental load?
If only women know what tasks need to be done, then it’s almost inevitable that they will have to issue constant instructions. And because husbands often don’t understand the WHY behind the tasks, then they may not buy in to their importance, and leave them undone. And then women have to issue reminders.
Men feel belittled.
Women feel ignored.
And no one’s happy.
When one spouse carries the majority of the mental load, or responsibility for all the daily tasks of the family, it can cause some major negative dynamics in marriage. The book Fair Play by Eve Rodsky discusses a system to divide up the mental load and emotional labour so that everybody owns some things and one person doesn’t carry everything. (Warning: Fair Play is not a Christian book but it is still very helpful.)
So, what causes nagging and how can we eliminate it?
Nagging: The Random Assigned Tasks Phenomenon (or RATs)
The person carrying the mental load and planning everything that needs to be done starts assigning tasks to other people. The problem, however, is that these tasks come out of nowhere, and so there’s rarely any buy-in. And when one person is constantly assigning tasks to the other person, it takes on a very negative dynamic. (“She’s always telling me what to do.” “She’s always barking orders.”)
This makes the relationship feel awkward!
RATs Change the Dynamic of the Marriage Relationship
Most of us want to treat each other as equals, and to feel like we have a teammate and a partner. But when one person carries all the mental load, and then has to assign tasks, that relationship is undermined.
A reminder, in itself, takes tremendous mental effort by you. It requires knowing what needs to be done, remembering what needs to be done, and reminding someone to get it done. The person being reminded gets off easy. He doesn’t have to remember a thing, nor does he worry about forgetting. And if you think about it, reminding and praising is the daily work of parenting children, not partnering with husbands.
Nobody wants to feel like their husband is a child. And no husband wants to feel like he’s being treated like a child.
But this is often what happens when only one person knows what needs to be done, and only one person feels responsible for making sure it gets done.
Because the other person doesn’t see the bigger picture, they don’t know what tasks need to be completed. And even highly intelligent people can ignore what’s right in their face if they’ve never had to “own” the task. We get into these routines where one person takes care of many of the daily tasks, and that gives the other person the luxury of never thinking about it.
When one person is holding the mental load for far too many tasks than they can possibly execute themselves, then you’re going to end up with disaster because nagging will become commonplace.
Here’s what can often happen in families when instructions are given without context — and both of you get annoyed. (This story is from our life about 10 years ago!)
The Canada’s Wonderland Disaster
On Saturday morning, Keith and I were supposed to be heading to the church for 7 a.m. with the girls in tow because we were joining the junior high youth group for a trip to Canada’s Wonderland amusement park.
On Friday night, the girls were hanging out in their rooms. Keith was playing a computer game, wondering when I was going to come and watch a movie with him.
Rather than sitting down, I was grabbing towels and bathing suits and shoving them in backpacks. I was cutting up watermelon and putting it in Tupperware containers. I was frustrated because no one was helping, but I kept doing it all before sitting down and enjoying the movie.
The next morning we were up early, and I was shouting out last minute orders. “Keith, can you get sunscreen and put it in your backpack?”
When we got to Canada’s Wonderland, I asked Keith to produce the sunscreen.
It was an SPF 15.
Our daughter Katie burns like a lobster if any sun gets on her. Seriously, like a whole body blister reaction. She needs at least SPF 60, and SPF 100 on her face. We always had special sunscreen for her in the medicine cabinet. But Keith hadn’t grabbed that.
“Where’s Katie’s sunscreen?” I asked, horrified.
“You said to get sunscreen and put it in my backpack, so I thought you meant get sunscreen for me.”
I was seriously irritated. Why would I have reminded him to get sunscreen for himself? Especially knowing what he did about Katie. But he thought he was doing what I was asking him to do, and we both felt irritated at each other.
A Two-Pronged Strategy for Eliminating Nagging
Step One: Both Spouses “Own” Certain Tasks
Each partner should choose certain areas of family responsibility to thoroughly own, from conception, planning, and execution. And then that person has to follow through.
So if Keith owned “family outings” for instance, then he would be in charge of making sure the backpacks were packed with towels, everyone had sunscreen, and snacks were cut up. He could, of course, ask the kids to pack their own backpacks and supervise, but he’d be the one responsible for them.
Or, if Keith owned “family finances” and I owned “family outings” then I wouldn’t issue last minute orders to him to get the sunscreen; I would get it myself, likely the night before, rather than being resentful that other people weren’t helping.
So here’s a special note for guys here: if you don’t want to be nagged, then please, own some areas of household responsibility where YOU’RE the one who remembers what needs to be done.
Step Two: Stop Asking the Other Spouse to Follow Through on Execution
Here’s how Eve Rodsky explains the problem in her book Fair Play:
A predominant number of the men I interviewed report being on the receiving end of emasculating finger-pointing on a daily basis.
“I’m sick of being constantly ordered around,” said one man.
“The only time she speaks to me is to nag me,” offered another.
“My wife jokes that I need better ‘training,’” said a third.
“Hey, I admit I’m not perfect, but I’m not a dog.”
While a single RAT will turn up from time to time, when homes become infested with them, guess what happens? At least one person inevitably declares, “I’m not living like this. I’m out of here!” After speaking one-on-one with countless men, the data was clear: Random Assignment of Tasks is one of the top reasons men resent their wives, admit to affairs, and express a desire to divorce. Yikes! This is a painful reality check and well worth addressing before it gets to the point of no return.
Thankfully, RATs become unnecessary when CPE (conception, planning, execution) comes into play because tasks are no longer random. After pre-negotiating and specifically assigning all the cards, both partners know in advance — actually, at every minute of the day, seven days a week — what they are responsible for so nobody is caught off guard, needs reminding, or is told to figure it out!
It comes down to this:
Nobody wants to be treated like a child, and nobody wants to feel like they’re married to a child.
And the way around this is to each own your own stuff, and to each do part of the work of keeping the family going.