“No gunnysacking.”

The minister smiled wide as he surveyed the sea of puzzled faces staring back at him in his crowded church.  The happy couple he was in the process of marrying had written their own wedding vows, and this was the one he knew would get a reaction. Quizzical expressions. Furrowed brows. Heads leaning toward each other in near silent conference, all mouthing some version of: “Gunnysacking? What the heck is that?”

We don’t see actual gunnysacks much any more, but as a concept in conflict resolution “gunnysacking” is as old as time.  Do you ever find your partner responding to one of your grievances by saying: “Yeah, but what about all the times you did this, and this, and that? Let’s talk about that, shall we?”

Ever find yourself doing it?

That’s gunnysacking. And it’s a sure fire way to take a disagreement and turn it into a full-blown fight, or worse.

The term derives from the description of a sack in which one’s belongings are stored up over time. In this sense, it means storing up grievances over time rather than dealing with them in the moment, and saving them for a convenient opportunity to change the subject and shift the dynamic of an incipient disagreement.

The idea of gunnysacking is related to the notion of what we currently call “Whataboutism,” which has gained much currency in the current political climate and is no less attractive here than it is there.

“Oh yeah? Well what about this?  What about that?  What about it, huh?”

Change the subject much?

But changing the subject is merely the tactical element of this destructive modus operandi.  The seeds of gunnysacking are sown long before the actual conflict, which may not be planned but is most certainly prepared for. Keeping a list of grievances in your mind, not addressing them but “saving them for a rainy day” when they will be both useful and cathartic to express.

Feeling defensive because your partner might actually have a point?  Well, the best defense is a good offense, right?  And who doesn’t secretly crave feeling offended? Facts be damned – it feels good, so let it out, right?

But like so many things that feel good in the moment, gunnysacking comes at a great cost. 

Lost is the opportunity to actually address an issue and come to a just resolution.  Gone is the chance to take a fraught moment and make it better not worse.  Instead, the partner on the wrong end of a gunnysack moment feels doubly wronged – not being heard in the first place, and then being attacked on top of it.  That person might say to him or herself: “Well, that’s what I get for trying to raise an issue. Not going to try that again.”

And all too often in that moment, a second gunnysack starts filling up, and even more trouble is sure to be ahead.

Important Relationship advice:

“No gunnysacking.”

The happy couple is still together and still happy, I’m happy to say.  But that one self-penned wedding vow undoubtedly had an impact on every person sitting in that historic cathedral on that sun splashed Connecticut afternoon. I know I’ve never forgotten it, and think about it often.  Hopefully you will too.

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