Picture this. You and your partner get into an argument: Whose job is it to pick up the kids from school today? Your partner says it’s your responsibility — she’s got an important work thing. You insist it’s her turn — you’ve picked them up every day this week.
Then, out of nowhere, your partner blurts out, “And you were an hour late to date night last month!”
Psychologists call this strategy “kitchen sinking” — i.e. you throw “everything but the kitchen sink” at your partner. It’s generally an unproductive tactic.
More recently, psychologists learned that “kitchen thinking” — i.e. simply thinking about past, unrelated slights during a conflict, even if you don’t verbalize them — can be unproductive, too.
The study on kitchen thinking was published in 2016, in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. One key finding was that anxiously attached people — those who want close relationships but fear abandonment and have some trust issues — are more likely to kitchen think.
The study authors — Kassandra Cortes and Anne E. Wilson at the University of Waterloo — conducted four experiments on kitchen thinking and anxious attachment.
A conclusion from the first three experiments is that anxiously attached participants saw negative relationship experiences as more recent — and therefore easier to mentally retrieve — than other participants did.
The fourth experiment tested the effects of kitchen thinking in real relationship conflicts. About 200 adults in romantic relationships were asked to remember a past argument with their partner, when their partner did something wrong or hurtful.
Then, researchers asked the participants to respond to prompts such as, “During the conflict, I remembered other hurtful things my partner has done in the past.” Participants also indicated how severe the conflict was, how constructively or destructively they responded to the conflict, and how often they fight with their partner.
The researchers write: “People who reported thinking about other unrelated past slights during their conflict also reported reacting to the conflict at hand more destructively — they reported having more conflict as a result of kitchen thinking, having less healthy conflict, and feeling worse about their relationships.”
Anxiously attached people were more likely to kitchen think, and also reacted more destructively to the conflict.
The most pressing question here is how to help anxiously attached people — or really, anyone — minimise kitchen thinking and improve their relationships. Interestingly, Cortes told Broadly: “We can’t say with certainty that telling people not to think about past negative memories during conflicts is the right approach. In fact, that could backfire.”
So more research on this topic is necessary. In the meantime, it could be helpful to simply notice your tendency to kitchen think.
Sometimes our thoughts spiral out of control so quickly that we’re angry or upset before we realise it. Awareness of potentially counterproductive habits is a good first step toward healthier conflict management.
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