How to avoid garbage-dumping in arguments

When we bring up things from the past to add to the heap, we generate extra anger, shame, and resentment that we may have been able to avoid.

Disagreements and arguments in romantic relationships are tricky territory. We each bring our personalities, history, and emotions to the table, which can sometimes spectacularly clash with our partner’s. It is worth learning about some of the ways that conflict can go wrong so you know what to look for and can avert the mistake.

One common culprit is the proverbial “garbage dump.” Garbage-dumping is the habit of dumping all of your grievances on your partner in the span of one discussion. This can happen for different reasons. One person may garbage-dump because he is overwhelmed by all the little things he has been holding in and the levee eventually breaks. Another person might garbage-dump because she really wants to prove her perspective is correct and will grasp for whatever she has available as evidence to build her case (“There was this time, and that time…”). Yet another source of garbage-dumping may be those moments when we are very hurt by criticisms coming our way, and we reach for whatever ammunition we have that we know will make our partner hurt, too.

Some might argue that it is good to “get it all out in the open” in arguments, to address every little thing that has built up between partners over time and “start fresh.” While this strategy may work for some couples, for many it does not do the trick and can even be counterproductive. Generally speaking, the longer and more involved the argument, the more opportunities there are for communication to go wrong. When we bring up things from the past to add to the heap, we generate extra anger, shame, and resentment that we may have been able to avoid.

An alternative to garbage-dumping is to focus solely on the issue happening in the moment (or the very recent past, within the past 24 hours). If she tells him how she felt unappreciated earlier that evening when he did not acknowledge her home-cooked meal, that is all the discussion will be about—not all the other ways he has neglected to show appreciation in the past, not turning the tables and examining all the ways she has neglected to show appreciation toward him, etc. The issue to be addressed is solely the negative impact she felt when he did not acknowledge the hard work she put into cooking that day.

Some things to remember as you work to cut back on garbage-dumping:

Stay focused on one thing. Decide ahead of time the specific issue you wish to address, and keep that goal in sight. Resist the temptation to bring up past hurts and mistakes, even if they seem related. Solve one problem at a time. Break something that feels too big into smaller instances; for example, rather than trying to tackle the entire issue of lack of intimacy, talk about a specific, recent interaction (“When I tried to cuddle with you just now, it felt like you tensed up and weren’t interested”).

Be a broken record. Just as you might have the urge to garbage-dump, your partner may similarly try to divert the conversation when you bring up a concern: “Yeah, well, my forgetting to do the dishes is nothing compared to how much you spend our money shopping online!” Your job is to redirect: “We can definitely talk about my spending habits another time, but right now I want to focus on the dishes issue and get that figured out.” Be prepared to potentially redirect them multiple times, and stick to your message.

Do not exaggerate a pattern. It is natural for there to be a history of recurring hurtful behaviors, and you can acknowledge this without steering off track:  “I noticed that since you started that new job, you haven’t been eating dinner with the kids and me as much. We missed you at dinner tonight, and I wanted to check in with you while it’s fresh on my mind.” Avoid extreme language: It is rare that someone always or never does something, even if it feels that way. And regardless of its validity, the extremes tend to put the other person on the defensive, a death knell for productive conversation. Unless the other person genuinely requests past examples of their behavior to better understand the problem, there is no need to provide them.

Limit the time frame. Research suggests that the typical adult can only maintain undivided attention in an intense conversation for 30 minutes or so. If you are unable to solve the issue within that time frame, take a break and revisit it later. This will help you avoid that hours-long cross-country tour of every past hurt each of you has been carrying, an emotionally draining and often unproductive endeavor. Stick to your goal of one problem at a time, and conversations will naturally stay shorter and more efficient.

Garbage-dumping is a common communication tactic we jump to in conflicts, and it can be a hard habit to break. Be patient with yourself as you start to notice and correct this behavior in yourself. Share this information with your partner or simply lead by example, and soon enough, your disagreements should grow more productive.

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