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Join Dave S. Anderson and me for this podcast episode to discuss why our memory is faulty and how to deliver an effective apology
Amanda and Josh argue. Let’s listen in for a bit.
Amanda: “You rolled your eyes, and then you said in that tone you get that I shouldn’t spend so much time with my mother….”
Josh interrupts: “I never said you couldn’t spend time with your mother. I just said that you spend more time with your mother than with me. And I am sure I did not roll my eyes, and what do you mean by ‘that tone’….”
Amanda: “You definitely rolled your eyes. You always do when you don’t like something. And I remember clearly what you said….”
Josh: “And you always sigh when I have a different opinion, and you look at me disapprovingly. And you are totally wrong. I did not tell you not to spend time with your mother, I said….”
And on and on, they argue who has said what and who has done what.
Who do you think has the better memory and is correct?
Neither remembers correctly; both are wrong because our memory is highly flawed. That has two reasons. The first one is how our brain records our experiences, and the second reason is what happens when we recall those memories.
When we have an experience, it is being recorded in bursts and not in one continuous action like a video recorder captures an event. It is also always influenced by our current state of mind and perception. Our mental state and ability to understand what is going on significantly affect how an event is stored. Our left brain, as Jill Bolte Taylor (“My Stroke of Insight”) has pointed out, is “a great storyteller.” It fills in the blanks between these bursts that we have stored with feelings and amplifications to connect the moments we remember. All memory is filled with non-memory elements.
Recalling a stored event is adding more embellishments. As you recall something, you fill in any blanks again. How you feel when you remember creates a new memory that covers the old one. Now we are dealing with a new remembrance of the old memory. Every time you recall something, you are changing that experience. Memory is state-dependent. It is influenced by how you felt when it happened and how you feel in the moment you recall it. Memories change, and they were never accurate to begin with.
When we are angry with our partners, we start to remember all the times we were mad at them. When we feel good with our partners or miss them, we remember all the good times and loving moments. That is our emotional state driving our memory. In turn, our memory also changes our state. When we think of something sad, that triggers sadness. The sadness, in turn, might trigger more painful memories. State and memory are tight together. They influence each other at every moment.
Our emotional state also influences our sensual perception. If we feel emotionally triggered, our senses are heightened for that eye roll or that sigh, and we might start to see their face, gestures, or other non-verbal cues as threatening. And vice versa. That small gesture can set us off if an eye roll or sigh is tight to previous negative experiences.
So when you find yourself arguing with your partner about what happened like Amanda and Josh, don’t cling to memory as if you know the truth. We can help each other remember, but it is short-sighted to fight over memory because neither of us can be sure of the truth. The one thing you can count on is that your memory and their memory are both flawed. Hence the need to be right ruins our relationships.
Resolving a conflict in the moment is better than fighting over who did what and who said what. The partner’s measures to repair and reconnect end that distressed state and keep it from forming into another new memory of something terrible. Each time we rehash and litigate old events and try to prove that our memory, perception, and side of the communication are perfect, we set up another memory of something negative for us to look back to.
Once Amanda becomes curious why Josh made that remark about her spending time with her mom, she finds out what more vulnerable feelings are going on for him. He feels that Amanda’s mother disapproves of him and fears that she will influence Amanda negatively against him. Often there is a hidden longing under a complaint. Josh also misses Amanda when her energy goes towards her mom. As a result, he feels invisible and unimportant.
Now Amanda can hold a compassionate and loving space for Josh. Instead of saying, “you spend more time with your mother than with me,” he can rephrase his longing: “I miss spending time with you and wish we could have every other weekend to ourselves. Do you think we can work something out so you can see your mom and spend more time with me?”
If you want to create close and loving relationships, reach out for individual sessions and/or for couples coaching.