The reason it doesn't work has to do with our psychological wiring, says Harris Stratyner, PhD, a psychologist and the director of addiction recovery services at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. It's likely that "when you nag someone, you're calling attention to something that already makes them feel bad," he says. "By nagging, you make them feel like they are even more out of control. Say my wife can't stop herself from eating the whole package of cookies. The cause could be biochemical or emotional or hormonal or compulsive—something beyond her control. By harassing her about her eating, I just make her feel worse, and that can perpetuate the problem."
But how to stop? I simply cannot accept that the alternative to nagging is doing nothing, going cold turkey, never saying anything at all for fear that you might say too much. Because while constant criticism is one dangerous end of a spectrum, isn't the opposite—no criticism whatsoever—an abdication of the responsibility that comes with love? Barrow was right, after all, when she said we nag the people we care about—which is why if you ask me to give up nagging, it feels as if you're asking me to give up caring.
Stratyner offers a less all-or-nothing suggestion. He is a national advocate for a cognitive-behavioral technique called carefrontation, a play on words to distinguish the approach from the confrontations that most of us find ourselves embroiled in too often. Referring again to his wife and her problem (purely theoretical, he assures me) with eating entire bags of cookies, he describes a more empathetic approach: "Instead of saying, 'You can't eat just one, can you? You have to eat the whole thing,' I could say, 'You know, I've noticed sometimes that when I buy a package of cookies, it's really hard for you not to eat all of them. I understand that. Would you like me to start buying something else to snack on? Because I love you and I care about your health.'"
That sort of exchange, Stratyner says, "doesn't shame, doesn't blame." It approaches things from the point of view that "there is a problem" rather than "you are the problem."
It won't produce the desired result overnight, and it may not produce it ever; Stratyner is the first to point out that care-frontation is no magic bullet.
But it is, in his opinion, the option most likely to have a chance of effecting change because it puts you and the "naggee" on the same team, where you're in a position to combat the problem together. (Here it occurs to me that nagging because we love doesn't mean that without nagging there can be no love. Maybe giving up nagging only means giving up the delusion of control.)
Ironically, Stratyner's approach goes back to that thing my mother used to nag me about: "It's not what you say; it's how you say it."
Skeptically, I tried it recently. Instead of grilling the boys over their homework, which always feels like a me-against-them conversation, I changed my tone a bit: "I bet you have a lot of homework, huh?" I asked.