• Dr. Teresa Edwards

Memory Tug-of-War

"Yes I did."

"No, you didn't."

"I know that I did!"

"Well, I know you didn't!"

Does this sound familiar? I see it a lot during marriage counseling. Couples take sides in a memory tug-of-war where, ultimately, no one wins.

Some of the most intense arguments I've seen couples have is over what one of them actually said, or didn't say, in the past. The problem is that very few of us have a perfect autobiographical memory, although we like to act as though we do.

One issue that affects our memory is that we often don't hear what was actually said in the first place. The message being sent passes through our personal cognitive filters so that what we hear is different than what's really being said. When we remember conversations, we tend to remember how we've interpreted what was said, instead of what was actually said.

Another issue is that, sometimes, the person sending the message isn't being as clear or detailed as they think they are. Instead of asking for clarification, the listener thinks they understand the message that the sender wants to convey. This is where we get the comment, "But that's not what I meant." When the conversation is recalled, the speaker remembers what they meant to say instead of what they actually said.

Memory tug-of-war isn't very effective. So what can be done about it? First, take a big breath and be humble. Acknowledge that your memory isn't perfect and that there is a change, even if it's a slight one, that your memory may be distorted by beliefs, emotions, or motivations. Second, if you disagree with your partner about a past event, agree to disagree. It's pointless to argue over something that neither partner can prove. Plus, it's not worth damaging your relationship just to be right. Shift the conversation to current thoughts, feelings, and wants about the topic. Focusing on the present is always a better option.


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