“Why Didn’t You Hear What I Meant to Say?”
When we haven’t felt heard, is it because we never said what we thought we did?
Posted Jun 13, 2018
When you ruminate about sharing something — say, with your spouse — engaging in such preliminary self-talk renders it possible that at some point you’ll have a false recollection that you already shared it. After all, you heard yourself think it, visualized it, and so made it altogether “real” for yourself. Like a private dress rehearsal, inwardly you “played out” or “performed” the message you intended to deliver. So, inasmuch as in your head it’s become a reality, it’s easy enough to subconsciously cultivate the illusion that — in advance, as it were — you’ve told them what was on your mind.
Other possibilities for this strange anticipatory oversight might be that, ahead of time, you shared this information with someone else, so what you remember is simply that it’s already "out there." Or that you wrote it down to remind yourself to say it, then misplaced the slip or sheet on which you recorded it. And just having noted it may have given you a sense of completion or closure without your actually having transmitted it to the party you aimed to address. I can easily imagine other variants to this basic scenario of “remembering” you told somebody something you hadn’t at all.
In any event, when you supposedly “get back” to the subject with the other person, reminding them that they didn’t respond to you, or that you don’t recall their response, they’ll draw a complete blank. Confused, annoyed, or exasperated, they’ll argue that they never heard what you’re certain you said. And since you might vividly recollect telling them what they’re denying, your reactive frustration may well match their own. Sadly, all too often an argument — possibly a heated one — is likely to ensue.
Strangely, I’ve yet to find any scholarly/academic literature on this phenomenon, or anything written by other therapists familiar with it. Still, I’ve seen many couples driven to argue ad nauseam about who really said what, when, and where. And although negative interpersonal bias or poor listening skills surely enter into such contentiousness, I think it’s likely that unconscious forgetting factors need to be considered as well.
On a more personal level, at times I’m not absolutely certain whether I shared something with my wife — or, till now, have just contemplated sharing it. Maybe some important detail I’d neglected to mention, but with so many other things on my mind, simply hadn’t gotten around to it.
And, of course, this conundrum is fraught with variations — such as thinking you heard someone say something, because you’d thought hard about their saying it (though in reality they never had). Or seeing, hearing, or reading about something, and unthinkingly identifying yourself with it. As the expression goes: “...It happens.”
Exhaustively searching the Web on this topic, the only comments I could find came from the popular forum, Quora. And different writers here speculated that it might relate to auditory hallucinations, thought patterns linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, or the psychological disturbances of depersonalization, derealization, and dissociative states. But I believe the overwhelming majority of such illusory events are totally normal, relating to the universal tendency to confound internal cogitating and imagining with real-life, external events.
In addition, I’d hypothesize that such unintentional distortions, memory fogs, or slippages are all the more likely to occur when you’re under stress — or perhaps engaging in so much multitasking that you get distracted, and things you need to remember get blunted, distorted, or drop out entirely. It’s suggestive, by the way, that thesaurus.com lists the word misrecollect under the more general term forgetting. And this indicates something of the peculiar dynamics of such “absent-mindedness.”
As I mentioned earlier, if what I’m characterizing is fairly common, it’s curious that (so far as I could determine) no author has attempted to systematically investigate it. For it may well constitute the root of a great deal of miscommunication and misunderstanding — particularly between couples. And if in the face of an imminent argument, a partner could simply say: “I don’t know. I definitely have a memory of talking to you about this . . . but maybe it was all in my head?” then quite likely a hostile battle of words could be averted.
One problem I’ve witnessed repeatedly in my work with couples pertains to their arguing over what was said or heard. And if they could just give their mate the benefit of the doubt, undoubtedly the relationship would fare much better. That is, if they could only agree that what each of them remembers may differ substantially, but that they’re both being sincere, and neither of them is plotting to gaslight the other, they could quickly restore the relational harmony about to desert them. So, for instance, one might say to the other: “This is what I'd heard, and if that’s not really what you meant, maybe we could have a ‘do-over’?”
When couples get deadlocked over past (mis)communications, it frequently relates to a negative sensitivity that’s been growing between them. So virtually every exchange that transpires passes through an adversely distorted filter. That’s precisely when they need to think about initiating a fresh start between them: to endeavor — with as much kindness and compassion as they can summon — to look at each other in a more positive light.
Unfortunately, without professional assistance, when discussing controversial subjects, many distressed couples can’t help but default to a defensive, self-protective reactivity. They’re compelled to do so to avoid experiencing any further vulnerability in the relationship. But regrettably, that’s how negatives feed off one another and end up increasing both partners’ sense of vulnerability.
In closing, if you can relate to this brief discussion, I hope you’ll consider approaching any relationship now troubling you with a more benign perspective toward the other person’s motives. And despite any former ill will, do what you can to, once again, give them the benefit of the doubt. Remember, it’s a good possibility that they did hear themselves saying what they thought they said. Or, indeed, heard what they heard regardless of what you may have meant, or actually said to them.
And, needless to say, as many “saves” as you can bring about before your dialogue veers dangerously off course, the better for the two of you.
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.