My client Steve (not his real name) arrived at a recent coaching session obviously tense. “So, what happened?” I ask. Steve proceeded to tell me about an argument he had with his wife, Jen, that morning. Steve sighed and shared the following with me:
Jen: “You were so mean to me last night! You were angry and raised your voice and told me you didn’t want to talk to me.”
Steve: “What? I was just busy. I tried to tell you I can’t do our vacation planning right now because I have to finish something for work. I even remember being calm about it. But then you got really upset and yelled at me!”
Have you and your partner had a similar experience? Do each of you remember a situation quite differently and then argue about who’s right or wrong? Once you get sucked down that rabbit hole, you’re not even talking about the issue itself anymore—you’re just trying to prove whose version of what happened is the right one.
Strong Emotions Are Sticky
Why does this happen? Well, we’re not computers, and our memories are deeply affected by the emotions we’re feeling. If something feels emotionally neutral, we might not remember it—because we don’t need to. It doesn’t threaten our sense of self, and so it doesn’t affect how we approach future events. Can you remember what you ate for lunch two days ago? Maybe you can (if it was intensely good or bad), but otherwise, remembering what you ate probably took some effort. We tend to remember an event more easily when it carries a strong emotional charge. These include the fun times as well as the unpleasant, but unfortunately, negative, painful situations can be especially memorable. (This is what psychologists and neuroscientists call the brain’s “negativity bias.”)
Our Interpretations Determine Our Emotions
Here’s the thing: our emotions are a result of our interpretations of the situation, not the situation itself. The process can be described sequentially, like this:
• An activating event triggers your
• interpretation of what happened, with a resulting
• emotion that creates your particular
• memory of the event.
So, when Jen heard what Steve said to her that night, she interpreted it as him blowing her off. That interpretation created a hurt feeling, which then colored her memory and therefore her reaction to him. As a result, the details she remembered were of him being unavailable and angry. Steve, however, had a neutral interpretation of his own behavior, but later felt upset when he saw Jen flare up. What he brought to our coaching session was his interpretation of her upset feelings.
How to Break the Cycle
So, what can you do about this? Here are my tips:
1. Stop arguing about whose recollection of the event is correct. Both partners usually have some version of the truth, but not the whole truth. It’s likely that you’re missing some key pieces of information about the other person’s experience (or intentions).
2. Try to understand what your partner felt and why, even if you don’t agree with it. Accept that it’s their version of the situation, and what they need is for you to listen to how they feel and show that you understand it.
3. Try to understand how they might have gathered this impression (even if you didn’t mean it) and help them understand that your intention was different than what they received. If you both reframe these arguments to try to understand each other’s experience rather than proving you’re right and they’re wrong, you’ll go a long way toward dissolving your relationship conflicts.