Don’t let gunnysacking get the best of you.
You know it’s coming. You feel the knot tightening in your stomach, your heart rate increasing, and your face flushing.
Before you know it, you’re fighting with your partner again.
Maybe you’ve been struggling with their narcissistic abuse, and have a lot of pent up anger about their behavior. Perhaps you let the little things build up for far too long.
You’re arguing about their desire to upgrade their vehicle, even though it only has 48,000 miles on it.
You’ve had this discussion many times, and as you enter it again, you suddenly blurt out that you’re also angry at them for a litany of other things.
You’re harboring resentment from that time they didn’t support you in saying “no” to the kids, and for coming home late five nights last month.
You haven’t let go of your anger from that vacation in the Bahamas when they worked way too much, or from their frequent nights out with friends, and obsessive social media usage.
This one fight about the car caused you to unleash all of your pent up anger and emotions at once.
This kind of emotional overflow is called gunnysacking, and it figuratively means that you opened your secret, emotional sack, letting all of your pent up anger and resentment flow.
It might feel good to let it all out, but gunnysacking won’t lead to healthy relationships or a healthy self.
Your cortisol (stress) levels rise and heart rate increases, making you feel disconnected and overwhelmed.
The “sack” is a metaphor for those past nagging conflicts that you’ve avoided or have not put to bed.
According to Dennis Coons in Introduction to Psychology, Gateways to Mind and Behavior, “gunnysacking refers to saving up feelings and complaints.”
Once that bag is opened, it’s very difficult to figure out how to control your emotions.
One result from gunnysacking is emotional flooding, which may be the most difficult thing to deal with.
One Heart Counseling Center says, “this is because your ability for insight is in the Prefrontal Cortex. When you are emotionally flooded, the Limbic System is activated, which is responsible for emotions and survival.”
In other words, it’s difficult to easily and rationally process through a highly-charged exchange with your partner when emotional flooding occurs.
It’s like trying to talk while under water. You may catch a word here and there, but productive communication is dramatically compromised.
So why does gunnysacking occur?
It’s usually because one, or both, people in the relationship are holding on to resentment and pent up anger due to a lack of communication. In more extreme cases, one partner could be suffering from narcissistic abuse, and feel that they cannot express their emotions.
If you want to prevent gunnysacking in your relationship, here are five ways to do it.
1. Pay attention to you emotions
Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman, says, “…if we can bring the buildup into our awareness, we gain a mental foothold that allows us to short-circuit what otherwise would become a destructive emotional hijack.”
When you choose to be self-aware of your behavior, and notice the things that you are allowing to hijack your good disposition, you can decrease gunnysacking by dealing with grievances as they pop up.
2. Plan a “relationship review” once a week
Schedule a weekly review where you and your partner can discuss your thoughts and feelings regarding each other’s behaviors. This allows you to talk about your marriage problems, giving you the opportunity to be heard before tossing the emotions into the gunny sack.
This will also teach you how to communicate better, which is essential for all healthy relationships.
Relationship reviews should be 20-45 minutes, allowing five minutes to discuss the next steps. Like clearing the open tabs on your laptop, close out each topic with mutual agreement and satisfaction.
This is especially critical for those conflict avoiders or “stonewallers” who have not developed the communication skills to approach those sticky topics.
Try using the tactile communication tool, the Emotional Clock®, as a conversation starter. This device allows both of you to immediately identify and address barriers between you.
This way, your feelings are no longer trapped inside your body, and you two can literally put your annoyances “on the table”.
3. Choose to feel good, not to be right
While it may sound simple, this can be rather difficult for people once they’ve opened the gunny sack.
In this situation, the best relationship advice we can give is to pause and zoom out (like a wide angle camera lens.)
Even though your argument is logical, rational, a based in absolute truth-resist the urge to argue. Just pause, and zoom out.
Then, ask this question: “What is our desired outcome right now?” This question is wonderful because it organically brings the pause that is so very necessary.
If the desired outcome is to remain in conflict or possibly break up, have at it. But if you want to feel good, have harmony, and establish a meaningful connection, you each need to take turns answering the question with a caveat.
You both will agree to reach a resolution if you respect their position, forgive and forget, and commit to not shoving the problem into the gunny sack.
4. Seek couples therapy
Marriage counseling or couples therapy will help you develop healthy communication styles, including an understanding of both of your Myers Briggs personality preferences.
It takes a minimum of 17 days to change an undesirable habit or behavior. In less than three weeks, you could possibly put an end to those “fightin’ words”.
Plus, seeking out couples therapy can teach you how to be a better husband or how to be a better wife.
5. Take a three-step timeout
If you are in the midst of a gunny sack storm and cannot make your way out, take a break.
Step 1: During your weekly relationship review, agree that if either one of you is close to a meltdown, that you’ll hold up your hands in a timeout pose. This will signal that you need to stop. Most likely, anything that comes out of either of your mouths will not be productive and might even evoke long-lasting regret and resentment. (This is when heart rate elevates and discussions are ineffective.)
Step 2: Consider what occurred during the relationship review. Agree that you both will return to the discussion by choosing to not only be open-minded but to also to seek closure.
Step 3: Reconnect after your time apart. Change your environment from where the gunnysacking first took place. Take a walk and return to the conversation later. Neuroscientists have found that “the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and rewire itself based in part on environmental exposures” will increase overall brain health. Win-win.
By incorporating these five steps, you’ll have banished the gunnysacking from your relationship, improved communication, let go of resentment, and learned how to control your emotions.
Poppy and Geoff Spencer, M.S., CPC, are certified relationship counselors, nationally syndicated writers, and certified in Myers Briggs (personality). They’ve been interviewed on NBC, ABC, CBS, Bustle, and Popsugar, and their relationship expertise. Follow them on Twitter for more relationship advice.