2 Ways That 'Kitchen Sinking' Can Ruin Your Relationship

If you have a knack for bringing up your partner's past mistakes, you could be doing your relationship more harm than you think.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 16, 2024

"Kitchen sinking" refers to a situation where one or both partners bring up multiple past issues or grievances during an argument, often resulting in the original problem being overshadowed or lost amidst a barrage of other complaints or criticisms.

Essentially, it involves "throwing in everything but the kitchen sink" in terms of past conflicts or unresolved issues into the current disagreement.

For instance, one partner might say "I'm upset that you forgot to get the groceries again. It's frustrating because we talked about this last week," and a kitchen sinking response to this might be— "I just had a busy day at work, I forgot. But you know what's really frustrating? You never take out the trash when it's full either. It's always left for me to do."

Often, this happens when partners are in a defensive state, allow issues to build up over time or believe they have only limited opportunities to be heard, which leads them to air out grievances all at once.

Sometimes, partners who aren't able to effectively communicate about the current concern also feel the need to throw in other examples of relationship dissatisfaction to substantiate their claims and prove the other person wrong in any way they can. However, this is much more likely to drive people apart than bring them together.

Here are two reasons why you should avoid kitchen sinking in a conflict, according to research.

1. It Undermines Your Relationship

A 2024 study found that while recalling positive relationship memories enhances feelings of warmth and closeness, recalling negative ones reduces them. Researchers found that couples tend to experience lower levels of intimacy after recalling relationship conflicts, especially when these conflicts were considered personally significant or when partners had used self-distraction to regulate their emotions during the conflict.

By using self-distraction as a coping mechanism, one may allow conflict and resentment to build up, resulting in "kitchen sinking" one's partner at a later point in time. This can lead to partners on the receiving end experiencing lower levels of satisfaction, trust and safety in the relationship.

Over time, partners may become wary of engaging in discussions or sharing vulnerable feelings due to the fear of being attacked or criticized with old conflicts or not having their concerns adequately addressed.

Research also shows that the tendency to "kitchen think," referring to simply bringing to mind past negative memories in present, unrelated contexts, is affected by how subjectively recent the event feels. Further, even just engaging in kitchen thinking without bringing up problems with a partner can lead to negative relationship outcomes.

Additionally, researchers also found that people with high levels of attachment anxiety were more likely to engage in kitchen thinking. Anxiously attached individuals tend to experience heightened emotional distress and maladaptive reactions to conflicts, resulting in unhelpful responses.

Research shows that such individuals are more likely to engage in criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling with their partners—behaviors that are entirely destructive to relationships.

When one begins to kitchen sink their partner, they can feel criticized, confused, invalidated about their current concern and blindsided by the other concerns being brought up. This can also make them defensive, leading to hurt and a complete breakdown in communication on both ends.

2. It Overshadows Core Issues

Kitchen sinking quickly turns any disagreement counter-productive. The focus of the argument shifts from addressing the immediate issue to a broader array of unresolved issues from the past. This can escalate conflicts, as each partner feels overwhelmed or attacked by the accumulation of grievances, leaving them unable to process or respond effectively.

Due to this, kitchen sinking hinders effective communication. Instead of actively listening to each other's concerns and working towards a resolution, partners may become defensive or shut down emotionally.

Bringing up numerous past conflicts during an argument can also prevent couples from resolving the original issue at hand. By focusing on multiple issues at once, couples may miss the opportunity to address and resolve the underlying causes of their disagreements.

For instance, one's issue with their partner not pitching in with household chores can reflect deeper wounds about not feeling loved, supported or seen by their partner, which largely go unaddressed when multiple issues are brought up superficially, without real attempts at resolution.

It is essential to slow down and take the time to learn effective conflict resolution strategies, such as staying focused on the present problem, practicing active listening and addressing one issue at a time to maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships. Allow your relationship to be a safe space where both partners feel heard and respected, communicating regularly, openly and with love.

Wondering whether your relationship is in good standing? Take the Relationship Satisfaction Scale to learn more.

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