I Think, Therefore I Nag: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy to Avoid in Relationships

A friend of mine has recently gotten into a new relationship. She is almost 4 months in now and things seem to be going well. She says she has managed to bat back those creeping thoughts about his ex, his past sexual encounters and negative self-deprecating thoughts that chip away at us when we start to care about someone. “What if I’m not enough?” “What if someone better comes along and he leaves?” But the thing that interested me the most about our conversation was the sentence:

“I don’t want to become that nagging girlfriend. You know when you find yourself complaining to him about what he does that bit too much.”

It got me thinking, why do we have this stereotype of being the nagging wives and nagging girlfriends? Where did it come from? And are we destined, against our better judgement, to become this? I can honestly say that in every relationship I have been in, I have caught naggingmyself nagging. Even in times when it perhaps wasn’t even necessary. That one little thing (or in some cases more than one) has been niggling away at me until I can’t keep in in any more.

But what is the difference between a complaint, a criticism and a nag? If we are complaining we are expressing an annoyance over something, we are not happy about it. If we are criticising we are pointing out faults or passing judgement on something. So is nagging not a constant form of complaining driven by the desire to criticise? And who wants to be that person? Yet we do it.

I’m not convinced any amount of research will pin down the origins of the ‘nagging wife’ stereotype. Perhaps it is merely the difference in vocal behaviours between men and women, and if we were equals in sharing our thoughts we would be equals in voicing our complaints. But from a psychology point of view answering the question of our destiny to become the one thing my friend has been worrying about is more fun. At least, I would like to muse. Immediately the concept of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy came to mind. An “I think I am, therefore I am” effect.

mertonIn the late 40s a gentleman named Robert Merton coined the term Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. He described it as the ‘false definition of a situation evoking a new behaviour, which makes the originally false conception come true’. If we apply this to our current situation, I see it as an “I think I am nagging, therefore I am a nag” manifestation.  But the false definition here (or perhaps not) is the initial belief of the nagging behaviour occurring. Simply voicing our displeasure for a behaviour does not mean we are nagging someone. Especially in the early stages of a relationship – this is a pinnacle part of learning how to be around and with one another. We must be careful not to fall into this cognitive trap.

Similarly, for the more neurotic of us, what if we haven’t started voicing what we don’t like about our partner’s behaviours yet, because we are afraid that if we do we might become the dreaded nag. By merely opening that door in our minds of this possibility are we beginning to condition ourselves to the concept that we are able to become this person. We are very suggestible, humans. Someone tells us we will like something, we open ourselves to the idea of it. Classic example: you have never noticed Tom at work before, but someone tells you he fancies you – suddenly you notice Tom. We have opened our minds to him. Therefore if we tell ourselves it is possible to become the person we want to avoid, have we planted that seed to one day grow? And when it does we have our self-fulfilling prophecy. Because after all we can’t falsify everything we think can we?

So what do we do about this? My advice is to think about what you are worried of doing, or becoming and ask yourself how realistic is this really? Can I think of examples of times when I have done the thing I am concerned about, and how often is this? Does this apply to more aspects of my life? If I have nagged previous boyfriends, do I nag my friends? No. So I know I am not a nag by nature, therefore perhaps I am not actually a nagging girlfriend, but my insecurities about becoming so are making me falsely believe I am, which is in consequence hard to change – nobody likes cognitive dissonance. Thus when I want to complain about something, I ask myself is it really important for me to say this and what will it mean if I do.




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