What is Kitchen Sinking in Communication And How to Stop It in Your Relationship

by | Last updated Apr 11, 2024

Every relationship encounters disagreements. But sometimes, arguments morph into a hurricane of blame and past hurts, leaving both partners feeling emotionally battered. This destructive pattern is sometimes referred to as “kitchen sinking,” which means when you throw every possible argument, accusation, or past grievance into a fight, even those unrelated to the current issue. As a couples therapist, I witness firsthand how kitchen sinking in communication can erode trust and happiness in relationships.

In this article, we’ll cover the following topics of kitchen sinking in relationships:

  • What is kitchen sinking?
  • Real-life examples of kitchen sinking in relationships
  • Why it’s so damaging to relationships, backed by evidence-based insights.
  • The emotional triggers that fuel this behavior.
  • Practical strategies for couples to break free of this cycle and build healthier communication patterns.

What is Kitchen Sinking in Communication?

Kitchen sinking is a maladaptive conflict tactic where a partner floods the discussion of a present issue with past grievances to derail the conversation and avoid accountability. Let’s examine a basic example of what kitchen sinking in communication looks like. Imagine a minor disagreement about whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher. Kitchen sinking takes this seemingly trivial issue and turns it into a full-blown argument. Here’s how it unfolds:

Partner A: “Hey, it’s your turn to empty the dishwasher again!”

Partner B (defensively): “Ugh, here we go. You always make me feel like I never do enough! Remember that time I spent the whole weekend cleaning while you were golfing with your friends?”

In this example, instead of focusing on the present issue – the overflowing dishwasher – Partner B dredges up an unrelated grievance from the past. This is the essence of kitchen sinking. One partner (or both) overwhelms the other with past mistakes, unresolved hurts, and unrelated complaints, which distracts from the present issue, escalates the conflict, and makes it impossible to resolve in that moment.

Real-World Scenarios of Kitchen Sinking in Relationships

Kitchen sinking erodes communication and trust in a relationship by shifting the focus from current issues to a relentless attack on the partner’s character. Let’s look at various ways it can show up:

1. The Every-Little-Thing Attack

Scenario: A partner asks, “Could you please remember to take out the trash before it overflows?”

Kitchen Sinking Response: “You never listen to me! You forgot to pick up milk, and last week, you were late for dinner! You just don’t care about anything I ask!”

Instead of addressing the concern about the trash, the response launches a barrage of criticisms, some recent, others potentially from long ago. This overwhelms the partner and makes the original request feel like a mere drop in a bucket of unresolved issues.

2. The Guilt Trip

Scenario: Someone expresses frustration, “I feel like I’m always the one making dinner. Can we work out a better system?”

Kitchen Sinking Response: “Why do I even bother? I always end up doing everything around here. Remember that time I got sick, and you didn’t even offer to make dinner?”

This response evokes guilt, shutting down a chance for collaborative problem-solving. It focuses on a past event to deflect from addressing the partner’s current concerns.

3. The Scorecard

Scenario: One person says, “I feel a bit used when you always ask for last-minute favors that disrupt my plans.”

Kitchen Sinking Response: “You think you’re always the one who gets taken advantage of? What about all the times I had to cancel plans because of your work schedule?”

This response invalidates the partner’s feelings by immediately bringing up a counter-grievance. It creates a competition of suffering instead of exploring ways to address the imbalance in the relationship.

Important Note: An occasional stray comment referencing the past isn’t necessarily a sign of chronic kitchen sinking. The problem arises when this becomes a primary communication tactic used to avoid accountability or shut down discussions.

Why Kitchen Sinking Is Detrimental to Relationships

Kitchen sinking in communication no only adds frustration to a disagreement, but it also erodes away at the foundation of trust and safety. Let’s break down exactly why this pattern is so detrimental:

  • No Resolution Means A Perpetual Dead End: Imagine your partner wants to discuss your habit of leaving dirty laundry on the floor. Instead of tackling this specific issue, kitchen sinking turns the conversation into an onslaught of past grievances, perhaps about your untidiness in general, or even unrelated criticisms. The original issue – the laundry – gets completely lost in the noise. Neither of you feels heard, solutions remain elusive, and frustration mounts.
  • The Feeling of Walking on Eggshells: When you know that raising any issue could trigger a landslide of past hurts, you’re less likely to bring up valid concerns in the future. This creates a stifling and anxiety-inducing atmosphere. Open, honest communication, the cornerstone of a secure relationship, gets sacrificed in the name of always being on guard.
  • Breeding Ground for Resentment: Old wounds never truly heal when constantly reopened and sprinkled with salt. Even minor grievances, when brought up repeatedly, fester into bitter resentment. If kitchen sinking becomes the norm, it chips away at the trust and intimacy that allows love to thrive.

Kitchen sinking is especially insidious because it often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. It leads to defensiveness and may cause the other person to withdraw from the conflict (stonewalling), further perpetuating a cycle of unhealthy fighting that erodes a relationship’s foundation.

The Emotional Triggers of Kitchen Sinking

Kitchen sinking rarely stems from a desire to inflict pain. Often, it masks deeper emotional needs:

  • Feeling Unheard: Imagine someone repeatedly expressing a concern, only to have it dismissed. When their current attempts at communication are ignored, they might resort to kitchen sinking as a desperate attempt to be heard.
  • Insecurity and Fear of Abandonment: Someone with insecurities or an anxious attachment style might dredge up the past to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable in the present. They might fear that addressing the current issue will expose their flaws and lead to rejection.
  • Limited Communication Skills: Some individuals may not have developed strong communication skills during their childhood, which can happen for a number of reasons. This can manifest in their adult relationships as unhealthy conflict patterns like kitchen sinking.

Strategies to Stop Kitchen Sinking

The good news is that you can break the cycle of kitchen sinking. Here are some actionable tips to foster healthier communication:

  • Hit the Pause Button: Recognize the warning signs and call a timeout before things escalate. Agree to revisit the conversation when you’re both calmer.
  • Focus on the Present: Remind yourselves that the goal is to address the current situation. Bringing up the past will only derail you.
  • Use “I” Statements: Instead of: “You never…”, try: “I feel hurt when…”. This shifts the focus from attacking your partner to expressing your own emotional experience.
  • Practice Active Listening: Don’t interrupt or focus solely on your next point while your partner speaks. Genuinely listen to understand their perspective, even if you disagree with it.
  • One Issue at a Time: Once you’ve de-escalated a conflict, agree on separate, focused discussions to address old issues, unresolved grievances, and consider setting time aside to discussion relationship expectations around conflict resolution and potential sources of conflict in your relationship.
  • Specific Exercise: Try a “One Thing at a Time” worksheet. Each partner writes down their immediate concerns and any underlying deeper needs related to the topic. Then, schedule dedicated times to discuss each item patiently.
  • Don’t be afraid to Seek Guidance: If you’re struggling to break this unproductive pattern or need a neutral space to address deep-seated issues, couples therapy provides a safe space to learn effective communication and conflict resolution skills.

The Role of Forgiveness and Letting Go

While learning good communication is essential, building a healthy relationship also involves forgiveness (when appropriate) and choosing to let go of some past grievances. While it’s important to address unresolved hurts that genuinely need processing, constantly carrying a mental scorecard is exhausting for both partners.

If you feel overwhelmed by a build-up of unresolved issues, it might time to consider couples therapy, or even individual therapy. Going to individual therapy can help you gain self-awareness, understand your emotional triggers, and determine which past hurts truly need to be addressed with your partner versus those that may be better processed individually.

Kitchen Sinking vs. Gunnysacking

It’s interesting to note that while the term “kitchen sinking” has become popular, it’s sometimes confused with gunnysacking, which is a similar destructive behavior. Gunnysacking is similar to kitchen sinking in that it involves bringing up past grievances, but it specifically refers to the act of storing up grievances over time without the other partner knowing, and then bringing them all out at once during a conflict.

While kitchen sinking involves dragging various unrelated issues into a current argument, it serves as a way to deflect blame and accountability and it’s usually not a premeditated act. Gunnysacking carries a slightly more calculated undertone. It hints at a methodical stockpiling of grievances, held in reserve until they can be dumped out in a moment of maximum impact. This can be particularly damaging because it catches the other person off guard with a barrage of unresolved issues that they were most likely unaware of.

Both kitchen sinking and gunnysacking ultimately make productive conflict resolution nearly impossible. By focusing on past hurts instead of the current situation, they escalate communication breakdowns and further damage the relationship.

Final Words

Kitchen sinking doesn’t have to define your relationship. Recognizing kitchen sinking tendencies is a step towards growth. With awareness, effort, and professional guidance if needed, you can break this cycle. Replacing destructive habits with empathy and constructive communication will help to build intimacy, deeper connection, and emotional safety in your relationship.

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