Have you ever been in an argument with your partner where you both reference a conversation or an event that occurred in the past, and can’t agree on what actually happened? But you both believe beyond all doubt that you know exactly what happened and what was said?
It’s a common relationship battle where a point in the past is the focus of a current conflict. For example:
Partner #1: “You said you’d take out the garbage when you got home tonight!”
Partner #2: “No, I said I’d take out the garbage tomorrow after I got home, and that tonight I wouldn’t have time.”
Both partners remember having a conversation, and both believe they remember it exactly as it happened. Obviously, it’s not possible that both partners have an accurate version of the conversation, even if both believe strongly that they do. There is a reason that this happens:
Memory is subjective — especially in an argument.
Technically, our memories remember what we set them up to remember. Not just the content (words) in the conversation, but also the inflections, tone, emphasized pieces of the conversation, etc. Even when we recall the words that were used, it’s often the case that expressed and received points of emphasis are interpreted differently based on personal preference.
In the example above, Partner #1 had in mind that the garbage should go out that same night. Chances are Partner #1 chose a method of expression that would relay this idea. But Partner #2 had in mind that the next day was the target day for this request, knowing already that he wouldn’t have time that same night. The question isn’t an issue of what was said, it’s an issue of what each person takes and internalizes from the conversation.
So what happens next?
An argument ensues about why the trash didn’t go out that night, and both partners debate what was said earlier. They go back and forth insisting that their version is accurate. Both don’t realize that our memories remember the parts of the conversation that we felt were most important for our needs. When the argument ensues, it’s common to tighten the grasp on these emphasized memories of conversation, strengthening them as our truth, even if the truth is somewhere in the middle. This isn’t done consciously or intentionally — it’s a subconscious process.
Unfortunately, it’s one of the more difficult phenomena for people to grasp — that even with a clear version in their mind of what was said, that it’s not fully accurate once it becomes an argument. Even if we remember the words accurately, the surrounding components of communication (tone, volume, affect, etc.) can change the meaning and perception of an exchange.
Simply stated, arguing over past conversations is a dead-end argument. There’s generally no way to go back and prove the conversation (unless it was recorded), and even if you could, what good would it do in terms of moving forward together? Trying to prove one person “right” over the other sets up a contemptuous dynamic that only adds to the conflict. (See “Do ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ Exist?”).
Rather than engage in a conflict of subjective memory, once you notice a disagreement in the perception of a previous conversation, stick to the present:
Partner #1: “Okay, I see we had a miscommunication. Would you please take the trash out now?”
This kind of statement keeps the issue in the present — a place where moving forward and resolution become possible, and simultaneously avoids a frustrating and divisive battle with your partner.
Couple arguing photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 19 Sep 2012