Does a successful relationship depend on forgetting past grudges?
In a new study from the University of Waterloo’s Department of Psychology, researchers delving into the depths of relationship disputes have found that success depends a lot on how one is able to avoid kitchen thinking -a term that refers to the tendency to bring up past grudges (even unrelated ones) in the heat of a new argument or conflict.
Researchers found that study participants who merely thought about past conflicts while in a present disagreement, even without mentioning the issue in conversation, were more likely to react to the current conflict in a destructive fashion and that kitchen thinking led to more intense and more frequent conflicts.
Navigating the twists and turns of a relationship is never easy. And studies have shown that while current behaviour and patterns of interaction in the present are central to the health of a relationship, what happened in the past – and more importantly, how each person remembers those past events – can mean the difference between smooth sailing and rough waters going forward.
“How people manage their remembered relational history can have important relationship implications,” say the study’s authors, whose research is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, “relationship memories are not always recalled just as they occurred but rather reconstructed in light of present beliefs, motives, and knowledge.”
Important to the process of relationship remembrance and recall is the concept of subjective time, which refers to how far away or close a past event feels to a person, regardless of when it actually occurred. Researchers found that study participants expressed a tight correlation between kitchen thinking and subjective perceptions of time. “Subjective time matters,” say the authors, “When past memories felt closer in time, people reported that they would be more likely to mentally re-access those memories in new unrelated scenarios.”
The problem is most apparent in people with attachment anxiety – feelings that the other person doesn’t love or care about them. Researchers found that participants prone to attachment anxiety were more likely to think of past transgressions as subjectively close, meaning that, to them, these past slights still have a sting which the other partner in the relationship may no longer be experiencing, hence leading to more misunderstanding and frustration.
How do we avoid letting kitchen thinking and the dredging up of the past get in the way of resolving conflicts today?
The researchers say that keeping in mind positive memories is a good start. “People are less likely to kitchen think (i.e., rehearse past transgressions in new conflict situations) when they distance past transgressions and keep past kindnesses close,” say the study’s authors.
Along with keeping close to the positive, the researchers believe that it’s difficult to truly move on from a grievance, no matter how small, unless the issue is raised and addressed together.
“It may be useful for people to resolve an issue with their partner when it occurs, rather than pretending to forgive their partner or just letting it go when they are clearly upset,” said Kassandra Cortes, doctoral candidate in Waterloo’s Department of Psychology. “This way, the issue may be less likely to resurface in the future.”