Gunny Sacking – When the emotional dam breaks


By David Joel Miller

Gunny Sacking is a major source of problems in relationships.

Gunny Sack

Gunny Sack “Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net”.

Gunny Sacking, sometimes called dam building, is that human tendency to hold grudges and then try to get even later. People who do this are often not aware they are doing it and they have, or think they have, good reasons for the behavior. Unfortunately, this Gunny Sacking behavior makes their relationship conflicts worse, not better.

Here is how the emotional Gunny sack fills up.

You get up one morning, you don’t feel well and you are running late. You trip over your husband’s dirty gym clothes that he left on the floor. You are miffed, maybe annoyed, but you let it go. When you get to the kitchen there are dirty dishes on the table and your husband is already gone. He did not wait for you, did not say goodbye or clean up after himself.

Now you are getting angry. But you don’t say anything.

Later in the week, you make plans to go to go somewhere, maybe the two of you have been planning this activate for weeks, but he comes home late and you miss the thing you had planned on, or maybe you just go alone. Now you are furious, but still, you don’t say anything.

At this point, you men are getting defensive. I know that the boss called you to come in early. He also dropped an emergency on your desk at five minutes to five and when you called your partner the phone was busy. You have lots of reasons for all of this, she would call them excuses.

You guys are also thinking of all the things she did this week that you never said anything about.

None of that matters.

All week long she has been collecting slights, things he did wrong, and putting them in her gunny sack. By weekend that sack is overfull and getting too heavy to carry.

He has probably been filling up his gunny sack also. She didn’t do the dishes, there were tissues on the floor from the soap opera she watched and cried through, she was late getting dinner ready because of the meeting she had with the “The President” or “The Prime Minister.”

None of those things matter either.

Come Friday night, this was supposed to be their romantic evening alone, but before the loving can get started one or the other suddenly explodes and starts beating their partner to death with the full gunny sack. This beating usually starts off verbally but may end up becoming physical if both parties are not very careful.

The result of storing up all these issues and then dumping them all at once results in some particularly nasty disagreements. Well-functioning families talk out these issues as the week goes along and they do not let that gunny sack get full enough to be an unbearable weight.

Some people prefer to build a dam to hold the problems back. For them, a gunny sack is simply not big enough to hold all the resentments they are developing towards their family member.

They store stuff up over longer time frames, but when that dam finally breaks the deluge of anger is devastating. This broken dam release often washes away the relationship and takes family and friends downstream with it.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapists (CBT) will ascribe the problems above to a faulty belief system. This couple has developed beliefs about why the other person is doing what they are doing. If she thinks his leaving without cleaning up and saying goodbye is because he is rude and uncaring, she gets mad. If she thinks something terribly important must have come up to make him do this, then she will be worried about him.

He probably also has distorted beliefs. Those tissues on the floor, they were because her girlfriend is very ill with cancer not because of the soap opera. See how faulty beliefs can turn life occurrences into crazy making anger?

The stories you tell yourself matter.

Narrative therapists will say that both parties in this tale have constructed their own person story or fable about why the other is doing what they are doing and what this means. Once the story gets full of problems and we can’t see anything good anymore. We will find this story we created harms our emotional health.

In future posts, I want to talk more about these ideas. But for now, whether you see this as faulty beliefs or a problem-filled story, we tell ourselves things and then live down to them. This couple would have gotten a whole lot farther if they had tackled each problem as they came along, in a loving accepting way, rather than storing up all their resentments for the inevitable catastrophe.

Do you gunny-sack?

How about you? Do you have a gunny sack for collecting resentments or are you building a dam full of resentments to wash away your relationship? If you or your partner are doing these things, this can change. If the two of you can’t talk about things without the gunny sack consider getting professional help.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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