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Why Couples Should Remember Their Disagreements

Working with memories of difficult interactions can sustain a relationship.

Key points

  • Successful relationships require effective conflict resolution, and for that, we need to draw on memory of the conflicts.
  • With disagreements, establishing a positive ending elevates how we remember the entire interaction.
  • While it seems easier and more convenient to forget our arguments, it’s healthier to work with our memories of unresolved conflicts.
  • When we’re not certain about what was said during an argument, this uncertainty should be the first topic of discussion.

Someone once asked my wife about the secret of our marriage, and she replied, “We're very good at conflict resolution.” Not exactly romantic, but accurate.

According to a survey by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, more than 90 percent of couples argue, with nearly half quarreling at least once a month; resolving disagreements is of considerable significance.

But we often don’t work through our conflicts right away. We wisely take time to cool off and gain perspective.

Timur Weber/Pexels
Source: Timur Weber/Pexels

This means that resolving conflicts depends on our memory of the conflict itself and what was said. While it can seem easier and more convenient to forget our arguments, it’s actually healthier to remember them, for the purpose of conflict resolution.

One recent longitudinal study with newlyweds showed that more detailed encoding and recall of disagreements reduced the severity of the relationship problem under discussion. That is, when couples remembered what was said during a disagreement, discussions of that disagreement significantly reduced its negative aftereffects. In general, an accurate memory of a conflict followed by a discussion of that conflict strengthens a relationship.

All’s Well That Ends Well, and the Importance of Endings

Some things end, and some things just stop. With disagreements, we want endings.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self feels events in the present, whereas the remembering self looks back and experiences the memories of these events. Notably, we experience events consistently and fully throughout, but we remember them primarily in terms of how they ended.

With disagreements, even with difficulties along the way, working toward a positive ending elevates our memory for the entire interaction.

How do we accomplish productive, accurate memory of an argument—and a successful ending?

Selectively Attending During Disagreements

To begin, we need to pay close attention to what the other person is saying, which can be challenging when we’re engaged in our own emotional thoughts. But without attention, there is no memory.

Pausing during each substantive response from the other person allows attention to shift from our own internal dialog to the words of the other person. The first lesson during an argument: devote focused effort to paying attention, to recall what was said for later discussion.

Avoiding the Bias of Expectations

When we can’t remember crucial specifics from an event, we fill in the missing details by drawing on our general concepts about similar events. And we fill in with details that we believe are most typical, known as default values. When remembering disagreements, then, these filled-in details only serve to reinforce our original expectations. And if our expectations are unfavorable, the default details can end up creating more misunderstanding and further disagreement. Therefore, when we’re trying to resolve a conflict and we’re not certain about what was said, this uncertainty should be discussed first. In that way, we avoid exacerbating the disagreement.

Recognizing Individual Differences in Remembering

Cottonbro/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

When remembering disagreements, it’s necessary to know that we each have different strengths and weaknesses with memory. We should acknowledge our own distinctive ways of remembering, as well as those of our partners, and realize that ingrained patterns of remembering and forgetting shape what we remember. (For example, I can remember who starred in a movie 25 years ago, but I forget who gave me a gift on my last birthday.) Everyday forgetting should not be taken personally or taken to heart. It’s usually not a moral failing or a personal slight.

When we’re young children, we are taught the value of remembering, largely through interactions in the family. Our parents teach us the importance of memory by asking specific questions about past events, even when we're mainly focused on the present and the immediate future. (Children under three are not very interested in the past.) In particular, gender-related differences have been identified in what children are typically asked to remember, which then influence what they remember later in life. When this research was conducted, girls were asked more about friendships and emotions, and boys were asked about facts and activities. (Refer to the references below.)

Overlaying Memories

Viktoria Slowikowska/Pexels
Source: Viktoria Slowikowska/Pexels

Memory is directly connected to place. If an argument originally occurred in a location we don’t regularly visit, then that location will instantly provide retrieval cues for the entire argument. In this case, we can either return to that location to resolve the argument, thereby finishing the memory where it began, or we can resolve the disagreement in a more familiar setting and then revisit the place several more times, overlaying new memories of happier events.

Completing Our Remembering and Removing the Zeigarnik Effect

Nearly a hundred years ago, the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik established that we remember unfinished tasks with more intensity and greater frequency than completed ones. The Zeigarnik Effect tells us that if a disagreement is unresolved, our memory system will naturally rehearse it, making it even more vivid and accessible. Although disagreements may be unpleasant to think about in the short term, they are less disturbing in the long term when they are revisited and resolved. Without resolution, we will continue to rehearse and vivify the disagreements on our own, whether we want to or not.

Remembering for a Reason

Just as forgetting can imply a lack of caring, remembering means that we do care. And recalling the perspective of the other person during a conflict shows we share our loved one’s concerns.

Cottonbro/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

My apologies to the Beatles, but relationships need more than love. Almost all long-term relationships have disagreements, and in many cases, lively arguments. And the management of these disagreements and arguments will resonate during more peaceful times. Relationships require effective conflict resolution, and for that, we need informative memory of the conflicts. Unresolved conflicts should be remembered with the goal of understanding and resolving them, thereby strengthening our relationships in the long term.

Once resolved, there’s no need to seek out memories of disagreements. A satisfying ending has been established and we can let the natural, healthy process of forgetting do its job.

References

Romantic partners’ working memory capacity facilitates relationship problem resolution through recollection of problem-relevant information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

Fivush, R., Haden, C., & Reese, E. (1995). Remembering, recounting, and reminiscing: The development of autobiographical memory in social context. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.), Remembering our past: Studies in autobiographical memory (pp. 341-359). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, P. J. (1999). Gender differences in autobiographical memory for childhood emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 498–510. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.76.3.498

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