Nagging Doesn’t Work. Do This Instead.

You probably have heard of the advice, “Respond, not react.”

It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to follow. And if you fail to do it, it can leave lasting consequences, especially in romantic relationships.

Romantic relationships are painfully fragile in the early days. But even between long-term couples, enough communication issues can lead to devastating breakups.

It doesn’t help if one partner suffers from an insecure attachment style or anxiety when dating — like I did.

I wasn’t just reacting, though. I reacted terribly.

Worse, sometimes, I didn’t even react at all — I just let things slide and pretended everything was okay even though my boundaries were violated and I was deeply hurt.

That’s the one big mistake I and many people make that costs us not just the relationship we want but also our sense of self and well-being.

People often miss the window to teach others how they want or don’t want to be treated.

Instead, they let their emotions take over, or they do nothing and carry on with the relationship — oblivious to the message they send to the other person by doing so.

The message you send

Every interaction you have with someone is a message you send to that person about your needs, boundaries, or standards.

For example, when you tell your close friend about your work achievements, you send them the message that you’re doing well and feeling proud of yourself, and you want their acknowledgment.

When someone is late to a meeting with you and you fold your arms, looking annoyed at them, you send them the message that their behaviour does not please you.

However, if they keep being late and you keep agreeing to meet them, you send them the message that, while you’re not happy, you’re willing to tolerate their behaviour. Hence, the behaviour continues at your expense.

Over time, these messages and behaviours shape the relationship’s dynamics, putting two people in certain roles that can be hard to get out of.

The same applies to romantic relationships.

For example, you love going on well-planned dates.

You meet someone new who ticks your superficial boxes, except that they always ask you out last minute or take you to casual places. The relationship is progressing and you don’t want to be single, so you go with the flow, hoping things will change.

After a few months, you notice that you’ve never been on proper dates together. You get frustrated with them and complain to them. They resolve the problem by planning a dinner out for both of you. Then it’s back to no dates again. Now you’re deeply upset.

Let’s look at the messages you send to this partner.

By expressing your negative emotions and complaining, you want them to understand that their behaviour is not making you happy and they should change it.

However, to your partner, that you stick around with them regardless means that you’re willing to tolerate their behaviour. After they plan the date and you get upset again, they don’t take it as an inspiration to organise more dates; instead, they feel unappreciated.

In other words, in this example, you miss the window to communicate your need to go on well-planned dates and show your partner the consequence of their failure to meet this need.

You also miss the window to inspire them to do more of what you like. Instead, you zoom in solely on your partner’s undesired behaviour, making them feel punished for their effort to make you happy.

The effective communication window

In an ideal world, everyone is highly emotionally intelligent and understands each other instantly. We meet each other’s needs perfectly without even having to say a word.

However, in real life, people do whatever the hell they want, and not everyone is gifted in the emotional department — all that you have control over is you.

That’s why it’s essential to communicate yourself effectively and make it easy for people to make you happy.

The best time to send a message about your needs, boundaries, or standards is during or immediately after you encounter a behaviour that doesn’t align with your needs, boundaries, or standards.

Be mindful of your reactions and be intentional about the messages you send.

Make it clear the first time what makes you happy and what you refuse to tolerate. Show it decidedly and consistently in your words and actions.

Remember that you don’t have to be with people who don’t want to or can’t give you what you need and want.

If you have made yourself clear many times and the relationship doesn’t improve, your partner either does not respect you or is inherently not compatible with you — moving on might be your best option.

As for the eligible people who are genuinely interested in building a quality relationship with you, here’s a reminder they want to make you happy and they want to feel good doing so — help them.

Differential reinforcement

One way to influence people is to use differential reinforcement to show them when they do something you like or don’t like.

It requires you to have a high level of self-knowledge and be in control of your emotions.

Differential reinforcement involves two parts:

  • Positively reinforce desired behaviours

  • Withhold reinforcements for undesired behaviours.

In simple words, you reward the behaviours you like from people and take away the rewards when you see the behaviours you don’t like.

In relationships, examples of rewards are attention, affection, touch, and praise.

You can make the other person aware of the desired behaviour by pointing out real-life examples or giving them a specific request. You should also apply positive reinforcements as soon as the desired behaviour takes place — don’t delay it.

When it comes to withholding reinforcements, it’s important to draw a line between the behaviours you don’t like and those that violate your boundaries.

If someone does something that violates your boundaries, withholding reinforcement is not enough — tell them it’s not okay, and don’t be afraid to walk away.

Check out Nick Wignall’s detailed guide on Differential Reinforcement.

Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication technique

A useful technique to give other people a clear picture of the desired behaviours is to use Nonviolent Communication.

It’s a practice that is driven by empathy and honesty. It distinguishes observations from judgments, feelings from perceptions, needs from blaming, and requests from demands.

It helps you express how you are without criticising the other person and receive how they are without judging them.

Nonviolent communication includes four components:

  • Observation — I see / hear / notice…

  • Feeling — I feel…

  • Need / Value — It’s important to me that… / I need to…

  • Request — Would you mind…/Could you…?

For example, your partner repeatedly piles up their dishes in the sink, and it bothers you.

Instead of nagging and yelling at them about how much stress they cause you every day, you wait for a calm and happy moment and tell them that:

  • I feel stressed out and overwhelmed… (Feeling)

  • when I see you left the dishes in the sink. (Observation)

  • It’s important to me that we share responsibilities in the family and clean up after ourselves. (Need / Value)

  • Would you mind washing your dishes right after eating from now? (Request)

Check out Marshall Rosenberg’s book on Nonviolent Communication.

Key Takeaways

People often make the mistake of reacting — or not reacting at all — when someone does something they like or don’t like, instead of responding intelligently to cultivate the relationship they want.

They overvalue the short-term benefits of releasing their emotions, so they end up sending people the wrong messages and rewarding the wrong behaviours.

Be conscious of the window to communicate your needs, boundaries, and standards.

The first time someone does something you like or don’t like, make sure they know it.

You can use differential reinforcement to influence someone to do more of what you like and less of what you don’t like.

To make them aware of your needs and preferences, use nonviolent communication.

If you have anxiety or an anxious attachment style, you might want to look into it first before applying these techniques.

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