There are three patients in the room, both of you, and your relationship. We have to treat all three or there's a good chance of relapse.
My approach, when this happens, is to say,
You see? Your relationship suffered way back when! This hadn't been discussed well enough, not to the degree that you would agree, in the future, as to how it would go down in history, when you might tell it over to a grandchild, or to your family, drunk on a holiday, or to a therapist.
We tend to remember things from our own perspectives, forgetting, or never understanding, that of our partners.
This buys me time.
WSJ psychology reporter Elizabeth Bernstein fills in the blanks. Her example, one partner buying two arcade games on Ebay, the other remembers barely conceding to one monstrosity. Substitute your own relationship quagmire if you can, some disagreement or another. (We tend to remember large purchases).
The reason there is so much contention about how things happened, is that from the very beginning couples perceive and record events differently. There are two people receiving information and recording, after all, and they don't have the same video-recorder. These recordings will effect that third patient, the relationship.
That we record memories, by the way, totally off-topic, is why EMDR works. Memory desensitization files disturbing "recordings" so they lose their power to disturb us. Here, years after the issue transpired, those less than integrated recordings are still readily available, nagging at one of the partners, for sure.
So we begin with two versions of an event existing in the minds of two different people. The event is upsetting to at least one of the two, which is why it comes up in the therapy. Add to this that negative emotions are likely not to be integrated, are not let go.
Then add to this that women are prone to remembering more details about issues having to do with the relationship (that third patient), and reminisce more.
Pile on the research that we all remember our own behavior much better than that of others, the irrefutable egocentric bias. Egocentric bias explains why, when a therapist asks, Who does more of the second shifting, both partners raise their hands.
Finally, there's that negative mood. Anger, sadness, anxiety, all contribute to memory, increase the likelihood that something will be remembered, and how. This is why problem-resolution is so important. Buried problems are likely to resurrect at inopportune moment, come back to haunt. When one partner hasn't let a slight go, it is likely to come out of his or her pocket later, even stickier, messier.
Why should that be? When we hold onto a memory, on each recall something is added or changes. Our memories are fallible, morph incrementally into entirely different recollections. In that process, a partner is devalued, loses his or her glitter.We like glitter, prefer to think of our partners in a positive light.
That the truth lies somewhere in the middle is hard to grasp, a difficult concept to get across in therapy. Couples receive somewhere in the middle as, "You are both wrong." What we should be telling them, in our best psycho-educational tone, is:
Your recollection is valuable information. We need to accept all of the information, go over it, and discover how the data changed over time, and why. You're both right.Andrew Christensen, professor of psychology at UCLA, in his book, Reconcilable Differences, agrees with that approach, the politically correct, You're both right. It is the emotions that matter.
Because it is the emotion attached to what happened, way back when, or even now, that will determine how that third patient, the relationship, is going to fare.