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Why Your Partner Remembers Things Differently From You

Couples can learn to escape the pain of memory chauvinism.

Key points

  • Partners remembering shared events in divergent ways is inevitable.
  • Memory chauvinism is the illusion that one’s memory is a superior historical record.
  • Differences in memory can either enrich the couple's experience or cause conflict.
  • We can use tricks of memory to enhance relationships.

It’s quite apparent to clinicians who have worked with couples for any length of time, if not to everyone in a long-term relationship, that partners recall things differently. They remember different versions of the same event, or one may have no memory of an event the other recalls vividly.

Unhappy couples fight about differences in recollections, with each partner asserting memory chauvinism—the illusion that one’s memory is a superior historical record.

Memory chauvinism seems sinister to those who read pop-psychology articles on “gaslighting.” I had worked exclusively with couples suffering chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse for 30 years before hearing clients use the term “gaslighting” in 2017. Since then, it comes up regularly, almost always misused.

Gaslighting—deliberately causing partners to question their reality—exists, but we must not conflate it with honest differences in recollection.

Avoid memory chauvinism.

We need to be humbler about the accuracy of our memories. Memory did not evolve as a photo album of the past. (If it did, we wouldn’t need photo albums.) Memory evolved to help us negotiate the environment now. The memory of stepping on a nail makes us watch our step. We’re unlikely to recall the date it happened, the kind and location of the nail, whether it was rusty, bent, or straight, or whether it was a nail and not a piece of glass, a splinter, or sharp stone. The accuracy of memory is less influential than its utility. The utility of memory differs for each partner.

What we recall and how we recall it depends on current mental and physiological states and environmental conditions. When sad, stressed, tired, hungry, resentful, anxious, perceiving ego-threats, or in an overheated room, we’re likely to recall negative aspects of events. When we’re interested, relaxed, comfortable, and feeling OK about ourselves, we’re likely to recall positive aspects. Of course, partners have different metabolisms, comfort levels, and, most of the time, differing mental states.

Partners also have different contexts of recall—different temperaments, family histories, and hormonal levels. They tend to have different psychological vulnerabilities with highly developed defenses.

The accuracy of recall is most affected by expectations and by the perceived importance of what is recalled. We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive and recall what we expect to have happened based on the importance we assign to the recalled event. Partners tend to have different expectations and assign differing importance to specific memories.

Without objective verification (like a photo album), the accuracy of memory is illusory, based on a misconception of its evolutionary function.

Facts versus experience

Typically, one partner recalls facts while the other recalls experiences. Extreme versions are flashbacks that flood memories with emotion and photographic memories devoid of feeling.

Here’s an amusing way to test the fact versus experience hypothesis with friends. Ask the partners separately to describe their vacation. One will recall departure times of the flights, hotels, restaurant choices, and costs, while the other remembers the taste of the food, the sunsets, wildflowers, the invigorating chill of the morning air, and emotional connection or disconnection.

When partners argue about what happened, one focuses on facts and discounts experience, while the other focuses on experience, discounting facts. Both are convinced they’re completely right. Both are partially right.

An injury suffered versus an injury inflicted

While memories of past injuries help us avoid them in the future, there are fewer evolutionary advantages to recalling injuries we inflict. It bears repeating that in a typical argument, both partners remember the most hurtful thing the other said or did. But neither recalls saying or doing something immediately before the hurt. On autopilot, we recall our partners’ reactions but not what they reacted to. The latter takes effortful reflection.

Test the suffered-inflicted hypothesis:

1. Write down the worst thing your partner said or did in an argument.
2. Think hard to recall what you said or did immediately before it.
3. Check your response to number 2 with your partner.

Divergent memories of shared experiences hurt.

The work of Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the experiencing self—which is short-lived—and the remembered self—how we feel when we reflect on experiences and perceptions. The sense of self derives from memories. When partners challenge each other’s memories, the sense of self seems under attack. Mild disagreements or different perspectives can feel like rejection, even betrayal. Couples fall into a painful trap:

If you loved me, you’d remember things the way I do.

The standoff is more painful when they accuse each other of “gaslighting.”

How to escape the pain of memory chauvinism

Recognize the negative bias of memory. Due to their immediate survival significance, negative emotions get priority processing in the brain. Negative memories occur automatically. But unless the experience was traumatic, the negativity is never the whole picture.

Try to reflect on positive memories or other aspects of the negative memory. For example, you may have felt irritable from the stress of travel but also enjoyed many things about the vacation, which you can consciously recall.

Recognize that mental focus distorts. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies; what we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on. Arguments about memories magnify the differences and blur the similarities.

Focusing on the differences in partners’ memories makes them impossible to reconcile. Focusing on the similarities makes it easier.

Recondition implicit memory. Implicit memories are those accessed outside awareness. For example, directions to your home are in implicit memory as you drive there. But if someone asks for directions to your home, you make a conscious effort to recall them. We use implicit memory much more than effortful conscious recall.

Implicit memory is dominated by past experiences and habituated responses. It’s especially influential in familiar surroundings with familiar people. We do more on autopilot at home than anywhere else. That’s why, in close relationships, we tend to repeat mistakes and why we must reflect on the effects of our behavior on loved ones.

We recondition implicit memory by repeatedly and deliberately practicing new responses. In our boot camps, we practice attenuating resentments with compassion, which leads to more successful negotiations and more satisfying relationships.

Recognize the transitory nature of negative feelings. Focus on feelings loads experiences of similar feelings into implicit memory, creating a chain-like effect and an illusion that negative feelings are permanent. They are anything but. If you feel bad now, you’ll soon feel better unless you remain focused on negative feelings. Validate how you feel but focus on how you want to feel, and observe whether more positive experiences load into implicit memory.

Kiss and make-up. The recency effect of memory holds that the most recent in a series of events disproportionately influences judgments about the events. An argument at the end of the vacation seems to spoil an otherwise enjoyable week. Develop the habit of kissing and making up after an argument or any negative experience in recognition that your disagreements and transitory negative feelings do not diminish your love for each other. If your children see you argue, be sure they see you kiss and make-up.

Accept differences in memories and reconcile them whenever possible. Look for similarities in aspects of memories and admit to possibilities.

“I was scared when you cut off that SUV on the drive home last night.”

“I don’t remember cutting anyone off, but I do remember being irritated in the traffic, so I probably did. I’ll try to be more sensitive of your feelings and not just my own irritation.”

Don’t contradict or accuse. Avoid statements like, “That never happened,” and “You remember what you want to remember.”

Reconcile different coping strategies. No one likes negative experiences, but partners tend to cope with them in different ways, depending on their core vulnerability. If it’s fear, they focus on the negative and want to talk about it in the hope of warding it off and preventing future recurrence. If it’s shame, they want to distract from it and talk about something more interesting, if they talk at all. One minimizes threats and past mistakes; the other exaggerates them. For the anxious and fear-avoidant, living is remembering. For the shame-avoidant, living is forgetting.

You can reconcile these differences by putting the recalled event in the future. Shame is about past failures that imply inadequacy. Fear is about a future threat: that is, the hurt of the past might happen again. The recollection that your partner hurt you motivates you to seek safety, not to rub your partner’s nose in the mistake. The motivation of shame about past mistakes is to correct them now by supporting your partner’s well-being.

If you’re the hurt partner, make it clear that you want reassurance that it won’t happen again, with no intention to punish. The shame-avoidant partner must reassure with validation of the hurt and expressions of regret. This must be followed by an action plan for respecting feelings in the future when similar antecedents—mental and physical states and stressors—occur. Regardless of whether the offense was intentional, state what you’ll do when the antecedents recur.

“I’m sorry I upset you. The next time I feel stressed, or hungry, or tired, I’ll touch your hand and remember that you’re important to me.”

We feel powerless when thinking about past negative events and empowered when planning corrections in the future.

Build future memories. Kahneman points out that when we think of the future, we imagine memories we might have. Let thoughts of the memories you want to enjoy guide your behavior.

Memory chauvinism effectively traps us in the past. Escape from memory chauvinism empowers us to change the future.

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