The “N” Word

How to Get What You Want Without Nagging

As much as we love the cookie, as much as we need the cookie, there is one thing that, when we see it, makes us want to run the other way, no matter what flavor the cookie. NAGGING. You can be part Miss America, part Ms. Tollhouse but once you start nagging, we’re simply not interested.

Oh, trust me on this: we can see it coming. You walk through the house and start circling around, looking here, there, and everywhere, getting more and more upset with every step you take. Maybe the garbage can is full and there is a little odor to it. Or your man just happened to put his dirty clothes next to the hamper, instead of in it. Or there’s a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Next thing we know, you’re standing in the kitchen with your top lip curled and that look in your eye, attitude so big it practically blocks the television from the next room over. We’re trying hard to concentrate on what LeBron is about to do to Kobe, but your whole demeanor makes us sweat harder than a bottle of ice-cold Corona on a sweltering, hundred-degree summer’s day.

Clearly, we’ve done something wrong.

We have no idea what it is, mind you.

But we know we’re about to suffer greatly for whatever the wrong is.

“So what, you were just going to sit and watch the game while all those dirty dishes sat in the sink?” you ask, seething, tossing glasses and plates and knives around.

“Sorry, babe-I was just watching the game,” we say back. “I’ll get to them in a minute.”

“I don’t need them done in a minute-I need them done now. You saw they needed to be done; how you could watch the game all cozy and comfy and leave this sink full of dirty dishes for me to do…”

And just like that, you’re going from zero to sixty, talking all kinds of crazy at us. You know what’s flashing in our minds? Your transformation into a big, evil monster. It doesn’t matter how tiny you are or how cute you are; when you’re ticked off and blaming whatever you’re ticked off about on us and using that “I’m ticked off” tone, you become a six-feet-tall, 450-pound troll head with a Darth Vader voice.

You are no longer the woman we fell in love with or a woman we even like.

In fact, love isn’t even in this.

Whatever words come out of your mouth, the translation in our heads sounds a little like this: “So what you’re saying is you want me to leave and watch the game elsewhere. That’s cool-that’s what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll call one of the guys, we’ll meet down there at the sports bar. Or I could go have a beer at the park. Or sleep in the car. Or fix the lock on the basement door-yeah, lock myself down there, where there’s peace.”

When you’re going off-whether it’s with nasty words, aggressive actions, or the stone-cold silent treatment-we’re responding either by checking out, spacing out, or arguing back.

No matter our response, you’re likely not getting what you want.

So how, exactly, does going off on your man-the definition of nagging-help you?

Let me just go on ahead and tell you now: it doesn’t.

No matter how good it feels to get it off your chest, no matter if you think what you’re saying is justified, the fact of the matter is that when you talk sideways at a man, it makes it that much easier for him to dismiss you and your needs. He can justify his reaction based on your words and tone-you get loud, he can get louder; you throw out idle threats, here come a couple your way, with extra sauce on them; you give him the silent-but-angry treatment, he now can ignore you and whatever it is you’re fussing about until he feels like the lady he likes is back again.

Until the environment is ripe for him to go into fix-it mode.

I wrote in Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man how important it is for a man to simply fix stuff. We don’t want to talk about it and ponder it and mull it over in our minds or argue the merits of it; just as communicating, nurturing, and listening to problems to understand them without any obligation to fix them isn’t a man’s way, neither is standing around and getting hollered at and screamed at over things we don’t think deserve all of that energy, things that are not a priority to us.

Whatever the issue is, we simply want to fix it-without the ugliness and drama.

The key words here, ladies, are priority and fix it.

See, what is a priority to you may not necessarily be a priority to us. You may like the kitchen to be clean, or you may want the trash taken out as soon as the last paper towel makes the garbage reach the top of the bin, or you may want the lawn mowed on Friday evenings instead of Saturday mornings. But I can guarantee you that unless he’s some kind of maniacal neat freak, your man is probably not focused on any of the things that are a priority in your mind. He’s not holding out on washing the dishes or taking out the garbage or picking up his dirty clothes to spite you; he’s simply not paying attention to it. Call it insensitive, argue all you want to about how he should know, by now, how much you can’t stand these things, the truth is he didn’t make these things a priority because dirty dishes, a full trash can, dirty clothes on the floor, and all of the other things that women tend to be particular about don’t bother us. He might just have his mind on other things-things he considers bigger than a dirty glass or a full garbage can. Really, it has nothing to do with you.

So he left his dirty towel on the floor. Your man didn’t do that to spite you; he just dropped his towel on the floor and forgot to pick it up.

So he didn’t put the trash out on the curb the night before the garbage man came. He didn’t take it out just as he heard the garbage truck coming around the corner to spite you; he simply thought it didn’t need to be on the curb until just before the trash man came through.

So he sat down to watch the game instead of washing the dishes right after the family ate the dinner you cooked. He’s not waiting around, biding his time until you break down and wash them; he’s decided to watch the game first and get to the dishes later.

In each one of these instances, your man had priorities that didn’t coincide with yours right that minute. Or he may have done thirty-nine other things before you started yelling at him about the fortieth thing he didn’t get to yet. For sure, he’s going to get to the fix, just not on your schedule. How does that justify your turning into the 450-pound, six-feet-tall troll with a Darth Vader voice? In our minds, it doesn’t. And your tantrums about these things are really received as nothing more than bratty behavior. So when you’re finished swelling up and transforming and spinning and the argument is over and you’re back to the cute, normal, sweet woman we like, we can fix what was wrong-wash the dishes, take out the garbage, pick up the dirty towel-and go back to what was a priority to us.

Now, we men get that our women are particular people with particular needs, and we’re prepared to fulfill those needs. You just have to be more diplomatic about getting what you want from us. First, try to remember these five things before you go all in on a man about something you need done or don’t like.

1. Adjust your tone.

Your man is not your child. If you’re talking to us in that stern, accusatory, “I’m your mama” tone, like we’re little boys, then we’re going to square off like grown men. We have to stand up to that because you’re questioning our principles. You’re suggesting, in that motherly tone, that we’re nasty creatures who don’t care about clean houses, or that we’re lazy creatures who sit around waiting for everyone else to do stuff, or, the most hurtful, that we purposely hold out on helping you because we don’t care about or respect you. Of course, none of these things could be further from the truth. But as a result of your tone, now we’re really not going to give you what you need or want the second you need and want it.

2. Let your man get to what needs to be done in his own time.

Sure, you may want it done right this second, but really? Is the sun going to stop shining if he washes the dishes during halftime? Is the earth going to fall off its rotational axis because he chooses to put his towel on the rack when he goes back upstairs in an hour, rather than right this minute? Is your heart going to stop beating because he left the mail out on the counter and made plans to file it after he got back from a round of golf? I mean, gold star for insistence, but the fact of the matter is that most of us already know you want the dishes washed and the towel up off the floor and the mail filed and we fully intend on getting to it. Just not right now. So hold your horses-exercise a little patience. Leave the kitchen and stop looking in the sink. Stay out of the bathroom if that towel is driving you that crazy. Don’t worry about the mail. We’ll (eventually) get to it.

3. Choose your battles.

If you’re going from zero to sixty on every little thing, your man is going to automatically tune you out every time he sees the attitude coming. And I can assure you, when a man tunes out, he has a hard time figuring out when something’s a not-so-big deal to you versus something that’s a really big deal to you. For instance, if you’re giving him a hard time every time he wants to play basketball with his friends on a Saturday morning, even when you know good and well that if he stayed home, he’d likely be right up under you, he’ll be less likely to take you seriously on the one Saturday that you actually need him to stay home so that you can run to the office and put in extra time for a big meeting on Monday, or run an errand, or take some much-needed time with your girlfriends. All the fussing and nagging make him insensitive to the things that are really important to you. It’s like the boy crying wolf; after a while neither your idle threats nor your nastiness are taken seriously.

4. Understand what’s a priority for men.

There are some universal things that simply aren’t a priority for most men: Housecleaning. Keeping the refrigerator stocked with healthy stuff. Attending PTA meetings. Making up the bed in the morning. Asking for directions. If we have a place to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, most of us don’t necessarily care if the floors are clean enough for you to eat off them. And as long as there’s beer and one or two things to suck down-a pack of hot dogs and some chips-we’re happy with our meal plan. Who needs to go to the PTA meetings? We’d rather have our toenails pulled out one by one than sit around listening to a bunch of parents plotting out what color Kool-Aid to serve at the fifth-grade dance. Why make up the bed? We’re just going to get back in it. And there is absolutely no way we’re going to trot into the gas station and admit to another human being that we don’t know where we’re going. You know these things about us. Still, you expect us not only to notice when we need to stock up on more vegetables, make the bed, or go to the PTA meeting, but to be excited about them. Not happening. The universal truth of the matter is that this is how men are made. Women, on the other hand, generally have that magical ability to be attuned to their surroundings and the needs of others and to detect when something is wrong the moment there is a problem. You seem to absorb everything-to take it in, process it, and make sound decisions for everyone involved. Us guys? To hell with what needs to be done or what anybody has to say about it; we have the unique ability to block out what we consider minutiae. Think about it: Your child gets hurt and he goes to his father for comfort. What’s he going to get? A fix-it solution: “Go over there and sit down until it stops hurting,” the father will say. And that kid will look up at his dad with that look in his eye, like, “Dang, I need a hug, kiss my boo-boo, you need to blow on it or something!” That same kid goes to the mother and knows he’s going to be nurtured, that she’ll make it better, clean it up. Admittedly, this is a burden. It is your blessing and your beautiful burden. You all look at the painting and notice the brushstrokes and different shades of blue and how the texture makes the lady’s eyes stand out, and all we see is a lady in a picture in a frame. The same applies with life: women are detail-oriented; men operate in broad strokes. This is not to spite you. It is what it is. Now, if something is a priority for you, you need to let us know that, or we won’t treat it as such. I’ll address later how you go about doing this, but the best way to get someone’s priorities to synchronize with yours is to let him know the urgency and be genuine about it. If having the bed made is a priority for you, let him know it. He may not make it a habit to live up to your standards of having a made bed every single, solitary day, but chances are if he sees how important it is to you, most men won’t have a problem putting in work to at least meet some of your needs.

5. Whatever you do, don’t take over the tasks-especially with an attitude.

I promise you, the only person who gets bothered by this is you. Oh, you know what I’m talking about: your man is in the basement enjoying the game or maybe playing a little video game or staring into his computer and you’re upstairs turning five shades of purple or red over his lack of enthusiasm when you announced you want the bed made and the floor vacuumed. Oh, he agreed to do it. But he’s not doing it on your time schedule, so now you’re in the bedroom, snatching the covers and tossing pillows and flinging vacuum cleaners all over the room, talking about, “I’ll show him!” You know what you get from this? A made-up bed and vacuumed carpets that you pulled together on your own, and a level of anger that could easily give you a stroke. What did your man get out of it? A made-up bed and vacuumed carpets he didn’t have to be bothered with. Your doing what you asked us to do doesn’t bother us one bit, especially if we told you we’re going to get to it. If you want it done when you want it done, then go ahead and knock yourself out-now it’s done, problem fixed.

Of course, a smart man knows that he’ll suffer greatly for this later on, but we don’t get to this understanding easily. We’ll come into the bedroom listening to you on the phone with your girlfriend, laughing and joking and having a good ol’ time, figuring we’re in the clear over that little dustup with you earlier that day. What we’ll soon find out, though, is that the happiness is reserved for the girlfriends-you’ve actually put a little funky cloud in a box and wrapped it up all nice with a pretty bow, just for us. All too often, we fail to understand that we never win when we let you handle what we agreed to get done and should have gotten done, and if you’re asking us to do something, it’s likely for a good reason. So I admit it: we men could be better about handling our business so that you don’t have to nag in the first place.

Yet given that we fall short, what would be most helpful in getting us to this mutual place of understanding is if you simply asked nicely and explained why you need something done not now, but right now. Think about it: When a man wants something from you-no matter what it is-do we ever come at you fussing? Have you ever heard a man say in a gruff voice, “Hey! I need these shirts taken to the dry cleaner this minute or there’s going to be some problems!” or does he ask in a civil conversation for what he needs? We know this is the best way to get what we want; we already know not to push you, we already know not to talk down to you, we already know that’s not the best way to get what we need from you, whether it’s sex or permission to buy something or our preference for the family vacation destination. We always bring our requests to you in a nice fashion, and there’s always some sound, reasonable explanation behind why we’re asking. We’re always going to come in the door correct each and every time-and we know that, mostly, we’re going to get you to give us what we want willingly, just because of the way we presented it.

Master that trait.

I use it in my house all the time, even when I’m not getting my way. For example, I’ve called my wife and said on many occasions, “When I get home, be dressed because I got somewhere special I want to take you. I can’t wait for us to spend a little quiet time together.” And on every last one of said occasions, I’ve gotten home only to find that Marjorie is nowhere near ready to go. Now, it’s been hours since I made the initial phone call-there was plenty of time for her to do her hair and get her makeup just so and find just the right dress and shoes to wear out. Still, I’m sitting in the room, tapping my foot and waiting. Now, if I were going to nag, I’d get a little bass in my voice and go all the way in: “What do you mean you need more time? How in the hell are you not ready? If you’re not ready in five minutes, you can forget going out!” I know better. Hollering isn’t going to get her to move any faster; the only thing it’s going to get me is an argument and a dinner date so full of attitude I’ll wish I’d never planned it in the first place. If I do, indeed, want the evening to go well and the goal is for us to go out and have a nice time together, I’m going to do what I need to do to get my wife to move a little faster so we can keep our table. First, I’ll call the restaurant and push back the reservation because, hey, the goal is to eat out with my wife and make her smile-not eat at that very specific time I initially set. Then I’m going to go into the bedroom and say nicely, “Babe, you’re not ready yet? I’m trying to surprise you-come on now, I really want to get you there. Hurry, okay?”

That line, delivered in a kind voice with logic behind it gets Marjorie to move (a little) faster. And when she comes down the stairs, she’s going to be looking good, she’s going to have a smile on her face, and she’s going to say, “I’m sorry it took so long, baby, but I’m ready now,” and we’re going to go on off and have a nice time.

Instead of fussing at your man, try using that approach. Say, for instance, you have some friends coming over and you need help getting the house in shape, but your man is on the computer doing whatever it is that he does on the computer. He’s not paying attention to the dishes in the sink, he’s not noticed that the guest bathroom needs freshening up and the kitchen floor needs sweeping, he doesn’t necessarily care that the TV room tables need dusting-until, that is, you start slinging stuff around and barking about how you “sure wish that people in the house other than me would help clean up what they mess up.” Your coming at him firing gunshots is not going to make him dig right in.

If you want him to help you pull it together, go in and ask him nicely: “Babe, I got some friends coming over and you know if they see the mess in this house, they’re going to call me out on my homemaking skills, so I really could use your help straightening up. I promise you after you hook me up, I won’t bother you anymore.” Your man is going to sign up for that, for sure, because he’ll know that there’s some urgency to the request and that you sincerely need help and aren’t using anger to pass judgment on his abilities, question his cleanliness, or make assumptions about his upbringing.

You have to use what you got to get what you want (there’s more on that in Chapter 12). Women are masters at this! You know the best way to get something out of someone is to be kind and sweet and ask nicely, and you also know full well that talking crazy to someone will get you nothing. Still, you rush in, guns blazing, trying to get what you want anyway-a move that makes you lose control over the situation and give up all of your negotiation skills. Instead, calm down, take a deep breath, and go in there and ask for what you want like you would if you were asking for something good-like a new designer bag. I guarantee you’ll get better results than you will lobbing negative, harsh talk at your man. This approach won’t change your man, but it surely will bring out the best in him.

Marjorie is quite good at this. I’ll tell you this much: when we decided to move in together and get started on our journey through life with each other, I sat my girl down and made something very clear-I don’t do housework. I have no problem eating and leaving my plate on the table to be picked up by someone else, and I’ve been known to climb out of my clothes and leave them laying on the floor. I pay professionals to keep my house clean. I admit that there are plenty of men who don’t have access to housecleaners, but hell, I do. And so I told my intended that I would pay a gang of folks to do these things, just so I didn’t have to and she, a neat freak, wouldn’t have to be bothered by dirty dishes and clothes.

This, of course, didn’t stop her from trying to get something entirely different from me. I’d eat dinner and push away from the table, and she’d say, “Steve, scrape your plate off and rinse it.” I’d take off a shirt and drop it inside the closet, and she’d say, “Steve, you just dropped your clothes on the floor.” And the whole time I’m reminding her that’s what the housekeeper is for. I pay them good money to handle these things-provide a job to someone to clean the house. “You want me to help them do their job? Because they’re not helping me do mine. They’re not writing jokes and holding them up for me to read while I’m up on the stage, so let them earn their money. Cleaning is what they do.”

Except on the weekends.

It’s then that both my closet and the kitchen start to look chaotic, because the housecleaner isn’t there to pick up the pieces. And I realized pretty quickly that piles of laundry on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink, and an unmade bed in the master bedroom affects Marjorie’s mood. When we lie down on Saturday evening, she jumps up out of the bed, insisting, “I can’t deal with this-look at this bed! It’s not made up. I have to fluff these sheets and tighten up the corners…”

And now, Saturday night isn’t what it’s supposed to be because my lady is bothered by the sheets, she’s thinking about the sink full of dirty dishes downstairs, and she’s staring at the pile of underwear, T-shirts, and pants piled up in the corner. But instead of letting it fester, she simply communicated what she needed from me in order to be comfortable in our house when the housekeepers aren’t around. She didn’t throw a tantrum, she simply said, “Steve, it would make me so happy if you tried just a little harder to keep the house neater until the housekeeper comes back on Mondays.”

It was clear that my priorities had to align with hers or there would be problems. But there was no nastiness accompanying the request. And I rose to the occasion. I’m not saying my wife changed me. But she did bring out the best in me-the concern that I have to make sure she’s happy.

So instead of just dropping my clothes any old where, I pile them in a corner out of sight so that she can’t see them so easily. I get out of the bed on the weekends now and I actually pull the covers up tight and put the pillows (all those useless pillows that have nothing to do with nothing) onto the bed. And I make the kids load the dishwasher so their mom won’t trip.

Then Marjorie is happy. She has no reason to nag. And I don’t have to watch my perfectly beautiful, diminutive wife turn into a 450-pound monster with a Darth Vader voice, which makes me equally happy. Of course, on occasion, we still have our issues, still have days when all is not perfect in the Harvey house. That’s the nature of being human. But the understanding we have and the care we exercise to respect each other’s boundaries, needs, and wants make life together pretty sweet-and nag-free.