That’s Not the Way It Happened!


Some of the ugliest fights I have ever witnessed between partners in a committed relationship stem from disputes over recall. To have one’s memory challenged is a call to arms. We all like to believe in the order and coherency of our brain’s function of recollection. When our partner suggests our recall is faulty it is an affront to our sense of reality. Naturally we are going to push back hard.

Recently, Marcia, my partner, had a major shoulder surgery. Early on she asked for my assistance in washing her hair. A couple of days later we were with friends and she, in an endearing way, poked fun at the amount of shampoo I squeezed into my hand. She held her fingers about a half inch apart and told our audience that I only doled out a drop. Immediately I could feel a surge of two emotions – shame (“I’m stingy”) and anger (“That’s not accurate!”) I sputtered a retort to our friends, who were already laughing, “Actually it was a lot more shampoo than Marcia is suggesting.” This was a feeble scramble to regain self esteem and to “set the record straight.” Nobody cared of course. 

Afterwards, I got in touch with what I already know well. Memory has everything to do with perspective. To Marcia, it looked like a dollop. To me, it was a giant glob. What her mind saw was “Way less than I normally use.” What my mind saw was “Way more than I normally use.”  There’s the rub, we remember what fits our already existing narrative, not “things as they really are.” But we argue about our differing memories as if we each had a stranglehold on truth.

In our mentoring work with couples, we have witnessed partners almost come to blows over opposing memories. In almost every session partners will offer varying slants on the most recent conflict. 

I was 10 minutes late.’ — “No, you were at least 20 minutes late!”  

“You told me explicitly you would talk to your mom.”  — “What I said is I would consider it.”

“We agreed to have separate checking.”  — “No, you said that! I never agreed to anything.”

Most of us are convinced that our memory is accurate and our partner’s is faulty. To be wrong seems to mean we cannot trust ourselves. So we’d rather fight than step back and acknowledge that our memory may be missing some of the nuance of what actually occurred. The humbling recognition that sometimes Marcia’s version about certain events was actually closer to the truth than mine, eventually taught me to slow down and relax my tightly constructed narrative. Being wrong makes us feel vulnerable. It shakes our foundation. It also feels to us like we’re losing the upper hand with our mate. So it’s really hard to consider that our memory  is most likely skewed in a direction that makes us feel better about ourselves. But, unless we are willing to soften our stance and relax our adversarial position, we will be stuck in an endless loop of convincing. Whether you were 10 or 20 minutes late is not germane to what you as a couple are really needing.  If you nailed it down to actually being 14 minutes late, you’ve accomplished nothing. One of you was trying to say, “When you’re late I get upset.” The other is attempting to convey, “I’m not that bad!” 

Our challenge is to get underneath the memory debate to what really needs to be expressed. Fighting about who is right just feels safer than getting to the emotions that were triggered. If you are in a committed relationship, see if you both can recall a recent conflict over memory. If you can, ask each other what was the emotional need you really wanted to convey. See how that goes. It can change things.