Why do partners, who attempt to resolve a conflict by rehearsing the events that led to it, often end up escalating their discord rather than decreasing it? Why do some mates avoid talking about problems believing that communication does not solve anything? Is there a way to talk about hurts associated with a mate’s words or actions that can reduce pain and bring the partners closer to each other?
There are many reasons why delving into the details of a displeasing occurrence may not serve either mate well. Commonly mentioned causes are: having poor listening or reflecting skills, defensiveness, righteous indignation about one’s position as the correct one, defeated attitude about one’s skill as a communicator, competition and needing to “win” while fearing “losing”, being overly emotional, being inarticulate about the source of hurt, fearing rejection, abandonment or loss of love.
One aspect of conflict resolution attempts that is rarely discussed is the challenge of finding an agreed upon memory of the events that led to the distress. Partners seldom share the same memory of the sequence of events leading to the conflict. Neither spouse wittingly alters the recalled details, but each has a more favorable personal angle in advancing his/her point.
In “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers”, Daniel L. Schacter explains why memories are not the photographic representation of what we perceive with our senses. “ We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.”
Some couples have unresolved painful feelings of events that occurred months or even years ago. When they wisely elect to resolve them, their discussions reveal greatly divergent stories of how, when, where and why they felt hurt by each other.
Research at the University of California, San Diego, by H. Schmolck, E.A. Buffalo and L.R. Squire “Memory Distortions Develop Over Time: Recollections of the O.J. Simpson Trial Verdict”, documented that even non-personal recollections such as memory of a public event significantly deteriorates over time. “After 15 months, 50% of recollections were highly accurate, and only 11% contained major errors and distortions. After 32 months, only 29% of the recollections were highly accurate, and more than 40% contained major distortions.” The researchers concluded: “The results highlight the marked qualitative changes in recollections that can occur between 1 and 3 years after information has been acquired.”
When couples retell each other the sequence of events that led to a conflict they need to:
• Understand that there is no one objective truth in recollecting past events. Both versions are real and accurate, even if they have been clouded by emotions, errors or distortions.
• Accept that the recitation of past experiences serves to protect the positive self-view of each individual.
• Treat your partner’s memory of his/her story with acceptance and kindness as it is designed to keep your mate’s emotional equilibrium in tact.
• Deal with hurt emotions sooner than later. The longer the time lapse since the event, the more dissimilar your recall may be and the harder it may be to heal it.
• Abstain from accusing your partner of lying, being defensive, distorting reality or intentionally forgetting uncomfortable details. Our minds are programmed to store the images and adjust their meaning as times goes on.
• Be mutually accountable for your part of mishandling a past situation that caused your partner pain or grief. When you are both sincerely regretful, you can forgive each other and reclassify the old pain as resolved and create a new memory of your intimate closeness.