Why "Letting it Go" Doesn't Always Work

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Do you ever feel annoyed, frustrated, or mad at your significant other, but just “bite your tongue” and keep quiet about it? Most of us do.

Of course, sometimes, this is the right choice. Maybe your partner really can’t help what they’re doing, and bringing it up would just hurt their feelings. Maybe this is just bothering you because you’re tired, sad, or stressed.  It could even be that you know your feelings are not really about your partner, but have to do with your own issues.

On the other hand, how can your partner fix things if you don’t speak up? And here’s a question—what are the chances that this unresolved issue is going to make a “guest appearance” at another time?

Don’t “Kitchen Sink” It

If you’ve ever felt sabotaged by your partner bringing up an unrelated issue during an argument you thought was about something else, you know what we’re talking about. Sometimes we “store up” frustrations, hurts, and problems in the name of avoiding conflict. But when we don’t express our concerns at the time, instead choosing to keep them “bottled up,” they may not go away.

And then, when an argument finally does happen…boom! You’re not just fighting about the issue that started the fight anymore. Instead, days, weeks, or even months of stored-up issues spew out all over the place.  Relationship experts call this “gunnysacking,” because it’s like you’re storing all your problems in a big “sack,” which eventually gets too heavy to carry. A related issue is “kitchen sinking,” when someone can’t stay on topic during a conflict and starts bringing up every past problem or issue—everything but the kitchen sink! (“Well, maybe I’m angry because you’re always out with your friends! And you don’t even talk to me anymore if you’re home! All you do is watch TV!”)

This communication pattern turns minor conflicts into major blow-outs that last for hours. The explosion of negative feelings can get too big to cope with, leaving everyone exhausted, overwhelmed, and unhappy. It’s unlikely that the original issue will ever get resolved. In fact, the two of you may even forget what started the fight in the first place!

How to Change This Pattern

How can we avoid this pattern in relationships? As contradictory as it might sound, the first and most important step is not to be so afraid of conflict. Remember, disagreements are normal for all people trying to negotiate close relationships. They do not mean that your relationship is doomed! You shouldn’t feel like you can’t raise an issue with your partner, or that they never should with you. What matters is that you are able to handle conflict productively, without name calling, attacks, or other problem behavior, like threats, screaming, and the silent treatment. Instead, focus on expressing your concern using I-statements, stay on one topic at a time, and keep the emotional “temperature” low. If things get too heated, take a break and come back later. Once you get flooded by strong emotions, you probably won’t be able to talk reasonably.

Techniques You Can Use

But what if your partner is the gunny-sacker and kitchen-sinker? First of all, tune in to this habit and consider what it might mean. In your relationship, is it considered “okay” to bring up concerns, or does he or she feel inhibited about it until the “dam breaks”? If everyone feels secure talking, it’s less likely that problems will gets stored up.

Second, if things start to get overwhelming during a discussion, make sure your partner know that they will be heard, while also keeping your talk focused on one issue at a time. For instance, you could say something like, “Can we focus on this one issue for now? I hear what you’re saying and I want to get back to it, but I feel like we’re getting distracted.”

Or, “I want to talk about (X), but this started off with us talking about (Y), right? Can we make time to talk about that later?” (You could even suggest writing it down so it isn’t forgotten.) Promise that the issues will not be forgotten and will be handled—and keep that promise.

Communicating with your partner isn’t always easy, especially if the relationship is still a bit new or if things have been a little rough lately. But research shows that couples who are able to talk through and approach the tough issues do better in the long run. Don’t stuff down your feelings and store up problems. At some point, the gunny sack is going to break and the kitchen sink is going to overflow! Instead, work on learning how to bring up, handle, and break down those issues when they occur.

Looking for ways to connect and get closer with your partner? Want to know more about healthy conflict? The SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a free, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, in 5 Florida counties. All our programs are taught by trained professionals and are welcoming to all. Sign up today!

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

References

Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1994). What Makes Marriage Work? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199403/what-makes-marriage-work
Gottman, J. M., & Silver N. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Nicastro, R. (2011). Couples Communication: Avoid This Communication Blunder. Retrieved from http://www.strengthenyourrelationship.com/marriage-help-top-communication-blunder/