How to Tell if Your Partner Is 'Negging' You
Humor is an underappreciated tool for building intimacy. Sending a flirty text can show off your sense of humor. Eye contact can remind your partner of an inside joke only the two of you would get. The knowledge that you and your partner can disagree and laugh about it afterward can give you confidence in your relationship.
However, not all forms of humor or flirting are intended to bring people closer together.
'The intent behind negging is to undermine the person's self-esteem and make them more susceptible to control or manipulation.'
Sometimes, people engage in a behavior called "negging." What is negging? The idea is to make another person feel insecure about their appearance, identity, personality or behavior. Since negging can be subtle and manipulative, it helps to know what to look for and how to address it in your relationship.
Negging is a form of emotional manipulation
Hurtful comments can occur in any relationship.
If a coworker kept picking on you or another team member, you'd probably feel uncomfortable and perhaps bring your concerns to a manager or human resources. But when this behavior is happening in a classroom or on a playground, we often tell children, especially girls, "He's just picking on you because he likes you."
Teasing or mocking behavior may seem innocuous if coming from a loved one, but it's actually a form of emotional manipulation, according to Lienna Wilson, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey.
"The intent behind negging is to undermine the person's self-esteem and make them more susceptible to control or manipulation," she added.
Wilson provided a couple of examples:
- Your partner might try to control your eating or exercise habits by saying, "Your friend looked amazing in that bikini. You should ask her about her workout routine."
- They might conceal criticism with a compliment by telling you that wearing a certain dress "makes it look like you actually have a waistline."
Physical abuse has more obvious warning signs such as pushing, slapping or destroying personal belongings. The same can be true for verbal abuse when it involves yelling, swearing or making threats.
Wilson noted that emotional abuse, on the other hand, can be very subtle and difficult to detect.
"It might seem as though your partner is complimenting you, but their comments make you feel worse about yourself and imply that they're the only person who would find you attractive," she said.
Recognizing signs of negging
It happens to all of us. We say something hurtful without realizing how it could affect our loved ones.
"In a healthy relationship, you listen to feedback and make appropriate changes so the relationship can grow and improve," Wilson said.
However, an isolated comment can escalate to a pattern of abusive behavior if your partner disregards your feelings and continues to insult you or undermine your relationship. For example, they might say, "I didn't expect to like you this much when we first started talking" or "You remind me of my ex when you say dumb things like that."
If you're unsure whether your partner is negging, you should speak to a trusted friend or seek the advice of a therapist, Wilson advised.
Negging is harmful and should not be tolerated in a relationship regardless of how often the behavior occurs, according to Michelle Felder, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker and the founder and CEO of Parenting Pathfinders in New York City.
"The underlying goal is to influence a person's emotions and behavior in a way that makes them feel bad about themselves, which are hallmarks of emotional abuse," Felder said. "Negging can include backhanded compliments, sarcastic responses, blatant negative comments about you, or anything that ultimately leaves you filled with doubt or inferiority."
If you accomplish something or have interests that don't include your partner, they might criticize you while making it seem as though they're trying to help you or save you from embarrassment, Felder explained. She gave two examples:
- "It's good you applied for this job, but you didn't seriously think you'd get it."
- "I'm glad you decided not to sing in front of everyone."
How to address this behavior
Negging is harmful to a relationship because it lowers one's self-esteem and makes one partner rely on the other for approval and validation, Wilson said.
It might seem as if there's never the right time to bring this up to your partner. But the risk of not saying something is having them think their behavior is acceptable.
"It's important to speak up for yourself and establish a boundary," Felder said. "You should avoid making judgments about their personality or sharing your opinion about the type of person they are."
Felder suggested preparing a script so you can address their behavior in a calm and confident manner such as the following:
"It seems like you're trying to give me a compliment, but this comment is really hurtful. Something I'm noticing is how you often say critical things about how I look or what I'm wearing, and just now when you said [repeat what they just said]. It's not OK with me and I need you to stop making these kinds of comments."
Wilson agreed, emphasizing the importance of using "I" statements to describe how you feel rather than blaming or attacking your partner.
The example below shows how you can be clear and specific in your request for what your partner can do to improve the situation:
"When we were getting ready to go out last night, you made a comment about how this dress makes me look like I have a waistline. When you say things like this, I feel hurt and self-conscious about my weight. What I need is for you to stop making comments about my body size or weight."
After setting boundaries for communicating, allow your partner time to digest the information and change their behavior.
"The purpose of any healthy relationship, whether it's romantic or platonic, is to provide each other with support and understanding," Wilson said. "Your loved one should make you feel good about yourself."