We’re all familiar with the common trope of the nagging wife who is never pleased. The media offers frequent depictions of husbands in fear of upsetting their wives or failing to please them, and enduring their nagging. Articles abound advising wives to be kinder and more pleasant. A 2014 study about nagging found men “especially vulnerable to” the impact of their wives’ nagging, including a 50-100% higher risk of mortality when compared to those living nag-free lives .
Why do we position women as “naggers,” demanding,” and “impossible to please”? The answer lies in the social expectations of gender. Cultural expectations demand that women perform the bulk of household management and housework.
How does that lead to nagging?
Diane Boxer’s 2002 work found that women tend to nag about the completion of household chores. She explains that women nag due to their lack of power. Meaning, if the person responsible for the household chores possessed more power, there would exist no need for nagging. Why not? Because in that scenario, the “nagee” would simply honor the request at first ask. The very fact that women must nag to get tasks completed illustrates their lack of power to provoke their spouse to do chores at first ask. Boxer explains that this lack of power functions as the key to why women tend to nag. Tannen (1990) explained that men likely resist doing the task at first ask because they want to imagine that they are “doing it of [their] own free will”. Masculinity demands that men dislike having anyone tell them what to do, “especially a woman.” Thus, gendered power dynamics within marriages create the situation where women nag.
When considering the narratives of the men in my book, Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation, and Infidelity, this understanding proves useful. These men internalized their wives’ nagging as evidence of her unhappiness and disappointment in him. However, they failed to see the connection between their refusal to complete a task at first ask and the resulting nagging. Nor did they look around and determine what needed to be done without being asked, a situation where the chore completion would, in fact, be of their own free will.
While it’s easy to blame these men, we must remember that the system oppresses all of us; it just looks different depending upon our particular statuses. Both these men and their primary partners function under this dynamic, and both suffer as a result. These men exist under a patriarchal system that teaches them to resist having anyone tell them what to do, especially women. They don’t just leave that socialization at the altar. They bring that tendency into their marriages and romantic partnerships.
Okay, that’s interesting, but how does that lead cheating?
Hochschild’s concept of the “economy of gratitude,” which refers to the central question of who is showing gratitude to whom and for what?, proves useful here. Under the economy of gratitude, if one partner performs a domestic task that they experience as a personal burden, and then they perceive a lack of gratitude from the partner who requested the labor, feelings of dissatisfaction and inequity may ensure.
These men internalized the combination of their wives’ nagging about domestic chores coupled with what the men perceived as their wives’ failure to express gratitude for having completed the chores as evidence of their disappointment in them.
No one likes to feel taken for granted. Did their wives actually fail to show gratitude for their labor? Impossible to know. Maybe the wives failed to show appreciation because they had to nag to get the men to complete the chore. Maybe they felt no need to express gratitude because the chore benefitted both parties. Maybe they did show gratitude, but the men failed to internalize it as such.
What matters is that these men believed their primary partners lacked appreciation for their contributions to the household labor, and thus believed their wives to be “impossible to please.” And then the men internalized both the nagging and lack of gratitude as evidence that they disappoint their primary partners. The men experience this dynamic as both upsetting and mysterious. They assume some failure of theirs as the root cause, but internalize that as a failure of character, manliness, and worthiness as a man.
Were men cheating because their wives nagged them about household chores? Not directly. However, men repeatedly asserted their belief that they exist as a disappointment to their wives, that their own lack of adequate masculinity provoked this disappointment, and that they deeply needed a female romantic partner who expressed enthusiasm and desire for them. Men’s conviction that their wives lacked interest in them as people, as partners, and as lovers originated from their reaction to their wives’ nagging about and lack of appreciation for their completion of household chores. Thus, their participation in affairs exists at least in part as an outgrowth of gendered power dynamics.
Alicia Walker is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University, and author ofChasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Infidelity and The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity. Follow her on twitter at @AliciaMWalker1.