Couple arguing by truck in desert landscape, sunset
Amann/Getty Images

Have you ever been so frustrated during an argument that you just "lost it" and dumped a lot of past history on your spouse? If you have, then you've gunnysacked.

Gunnysacking in a marriage is when you hold on to past hurts, concerns, complaints, resentments, and irritations until you just can't stand it anymore. Then you overreact to a minor conflict or believe you've reached the last straw in your marriage.

Gunnysacking can make it difficult for the two of you to resolve ongoing issues. The overreaction usually results in you dumping all of the old hurts on your spouse at once, which not only makes the actual issue being discussed get lost in the fray, but it also can trigger defensiveness in your spouse. Nothing positive is accomplished when gunnysacking is used in your relationship.

Picture a large burlap bag. You can't see what's in the bag when it is closed. When you stash issues and hurt feelings from the past in a mental bag like that, your spouse can't see what's in there. Dumping all the contents out and on your spouse is very unfair and hurtful. That's gunnysacking.

Along with yelling, nagging, manipulation, sarcasm, criticizing, snooping, sabotaging, gas-lighting, monologuing, and not fighting fair, gunnysacking is one of the many hostile behaviors that can doom a marriage.

You can avoid gunnysacking by discussing issues when they happen.

You may not always resolve the issues then, but you can learn to agree to disagree.

What Others Have to Say About Gunnysacking:

John Crosby: "Gunnysacking is dishonest because the perpetrator allows the partner to go on thinking that everything is fine when everything is not fine ... The gunnysacker will go on and on and on until the sack is empty.

When finished the gunnysacker will usually feel relieved ... It is dirty-fight behavior because it saves up ammunition from the past and unleashes it in the present. When you are on the receiving end of a gunnysacker's explosive tirade you are bound to feel helpless and unfairly attacked."
Source: John F. Crosby, Ph.D. Grounds for Marriage: If Only I Had Known. 2005. pgs. 111-112.

Laura K. Guerrero: "Rather than discussing each issue when it first surfaces, issues are placed in a metaphorical gunnysack and presented all at once."
Source: Laura K. Guerrero, Peter A. Anderson, Walid A. Afifi. Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships." 2010. pg. 343.

Dennis Coon: "Persistent feelings, whether positive or negative, need to be expressed. Gunnysacking refers to saving up feelings and complaints. These are then 'dumped' during an argument or are used as ammunition in a fight. Gunnysacking is very destructive to a relationship."
Source: Dennis Coon, John O. Mitterer. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. 2010. pg. 382.

T.J. Addington: "Gunnysacking happens when we take irritations, slights or offenses from others and toss them in our gunnysack rather than either dealing with them by a candid conversation or forgiving them.

One cannot carry around a heavy gunnysack forever without the weight of it affecting us. When the gunnysack gets full enough of unresolved issues it is likely to explode with an eruption of emotion that we regret afterwards."
Source: T.J. Addington. "Don't gunnysack stuff." 1/20/2012.

Anne Osborne Kilpatrick: "Gunny-sacking is a technique that results in letting issues build without confronting. In essence, issues then become 'the straw that breaks the camel's back.'"
Source: Anne Osborne Kilpatrick, James A. Johnson. Handbook of Health Administration and Policy. 1999. pg. 889.


Also Known As: Stonewalling, kitchen-sinking, garbage dumping.

Alternate Spellings: Gunny-sacking