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Science Explains Why Your Partner Is Obsessed with That One Bad Thing You Did

A new study explores the way that past misdeeds haunt present relationships.
Photo by Mosuno via Stocksy

New research confirms what many people endure daily in their relationships: When something bad that you did in the past illogically feels recent to your partner, they're more likely to think about it, or bring it up, during fights—even if it's out of context. Unsurprisingly, this isn't healthy for a relationship.

This, researchers have decreed, is called "kitchen thinking," in reference to the popular idiom about kitchen sinks, "since partners throw everything but the kitchen sink into the argument." Some people are more likely to partake in this insidious recollection than others; in their report, "When Slights Beget Slights: Attachment Anxiety, Subjective Time, and Intrusion of the Relational Past in the Present," researchers relay the findings of four different studies that they designed, namely that people who are secure in their relationships are less likely to engage in "kitchen thinking."


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In the first study, participants reported the likelihood that negative memories would come to mind during a "new, unrelated conflict scenario." They found that perceptions of time had significant effects on this behavior, and whether or not someone perceived past negative events as feeling recent depended upon their levels of attachment anxiety. They found that people with low attachment anxiety—meaning those who are secure in their bonds with others—tended to perceive past transgressions as "subjectively farther away in time than kind acts" whereas "individuals high in attachment anxiety failed to make this distinction." According to the researchers, people who suffer with attachment anxiety crave intimate relationships, but find it difficult to trust their partners and "fear abandonment." Such people are more likely to do all kinds of problematic, unhealthy behaviors as a result of their anxiety.

The second study placed this issue in the context of romantic relationships, and subjects rated the significance of negative memories and their relevance on the relationship today, with similar findings to their first study. In their third study, the researchers sought to uncover what kind of memories people would spontaneously recall. Participants were asked to think of a recent event and then name the first three memories of their romantic partner that popped into their head. Again, their findings supported those from their previous studies. The researchers found that people who had low levels of attachment anxiety were better at keeping positive memories present in their minds, whereas those with high attachment anxiety were less capable of "adaptively managing" relative memories and thus they "spontaneously recruit more negative memories."

Finally, in their fourth study, the researchers asked their test subjects to tell them the "amount of kitchen thinking they did during a real, recent conflict with their partner," and then analyzed the way that such behavior affects relationships, "consequences such as healthy conflict responding, perceptions of conflict severity, and perceived relationship quality." The results, unfortunately, showed that so-called kitchen thinking is disastrous: "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."

It seems as if this issue is applicable to young people as well as old. Researcher Kassandra Cortes says that the data was gathered from people spanning generations from 18 to over 60. "The phenomenon we talk about in this paper don't seem to differ across age or relationship lengths," Cortes explains. Cortes believes more research is needed to find out what "people can do to reduce the likelihood of kitchen thinking, or what people can do to improve the way they subjectively manage their memories."

In other words, they know that kitchen thinking is shown to have negative consequences on relationships, but they don't know how best to curb the problem. "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," she explains. "There needs to be more research on the most effective ways to try to reverse some of these negative management strategies in people's relationships."

"Everyone has a history of both good and bad events, and how people manage their relationship memories seems to really matter in the present," Cortes says.