Tuesday, March 24, 2015

But You Never Said: Why Couples Remember Things Differently

Couples therapists try not to take sides. To be effective (and keep a couple in therapy) we have to be on everybody's team. 
We say, with total confidence:
There are three patients in the room, You, You,  and Your Relationship. We have to treat all three to beat this problem—no matter the problem.

And inevitably, when we get to the gory details, each partner remembers things differently. Only the relationship gets it right.

When perception is so different, it behooves each partner to elaborate on his narrative. In the process of really fleshing out a argument, as if you’re on a debate team, you get closer. 

The goal is to find a mutual narrative that you don’t mind going down in family history, something you can tell your grandchildren, or to your family, not a one-sided drunken rant on a holiday. 

We tend to remember things from our own perspectives, forgetting, or never understanding, that of our partners.

WSJ psychology reporter Elizabeth Bernstein adds more. She posts an example, one partner buying two very expensive, space consuming arcade games. The other does not remember conceding to even one, feels these are monstrosities in her living space. (Substitute your own relationship quagmire. Large purchases are nice ones).

The reason there is so much contention about consent is that all couples perceive and record events differently. There are two people receiving information and recording, here, and they don't have the same video-recorder. The recordings convince us that our perceptions are correct, thus effecting that third patient, the relationship.

That we record memories, by the way, totally off-topic, is why EMDR works. Memory desensitizationis a therapeutic process that ostensibly files disturbing "recordings" so that they lose their power to disturb us.  Years after an event those less than integrated disturbing recordings fined them still readily available, nagging at at us.

So we have with two versions of an event in two minds, one is upset by it, the other is not. Add to this that negative emotions from previous like triggers are likely not to be integrated, either, 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), according to Ms. Bernstein. They reminisce more, too.

Pile on 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.

Then there's that negative mood that pervades conflictual relationships. Anger, sadness, anxiety, increasing the likelihood that something will be remembered, and how. We pocket trauma, it comes out later, even stickier, messier.

Finally, 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. Some couples hear somewhere in the middle as, "You are both wrong." So therapists say, “You’re both right! But you need a new narrative, one that makes you both look good
Andrew Christensen, professor of psychology at UCLA, wrote a book on that,  Reconcilable Differences.

This is a totally take one for the team, approach. So sports metaphors help, too. Let’s block them for now.



Anonymous said...

For those of us that are married or have a girlfriend/boyfriend, we all know that both of you remember things differently. Just like the title of that article in the newspaper picture, one will always accuse the other of saying something they didn't or claiming they didn't say something when they claim they did. This can lead to arguments on both sides which is not healthy for a lasting relationship. I would suggest that if you find yourself doing this often, that you get some form of counseling. It might just save your relationship. http://www.giblinconsulting.com/?page_id=18

shirlsw12 said...

I think the important thing to remember is that no two people are going to do and think of everything in the exact same way. It's important to do everything you can to remember this, and to not hold it against people. I know that I wouldn't want someone to feel attacked just because I don't like the way they did or remembered something. If people can realize this it will help to improve their relationships immensely. I think that counseling is a great way to do that, and hopefully people can get the help they need.

Potentialz Unlimited said...

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With Regards,

Carrie Aulenbacher said...

Thanks for the commentary on our article; how great to see it picked up here! To be fair, I don't see it as a 'monstrosity' now, LOL. And he does make a concerted effort to go over things with me so we're both clear about what's happening. It's worth it to both of us, as true partners, to compromise on things for the happiness of both. And we find it works best that way!

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts