When a distressed couple looks to me to referee their repeated argument, the lyrics from “Ah Yes, I Remember It Well”(“Gigi,” 1951*) sometimes relieve the tension.
We met at nine We met at eight.
I was on time. You were late.
We dined with friends. We dined alone
A tenor sang. A baritone
That dazzling April moon There was none that night, and the month was June.
How often I’ve thought of that Friday– Monday!
That carriage ride You walked me home.
You lost a glove. I lost a comb.
That brilliant sky! We had some rain.
Those Russian songs From sunny Spain.
“Ah, yes, I remember it well.”
For many years working with couples in crisis I tried to sort through what really happened.
She angrily reports his rude behavior at the symphony, leaving her to struggle with her coat while rushing out to get the jump on the car mob. He always takes care of himself, never watching out for her. Indignant at the injustice of her report, he insists this event never took place, can’t believe she would invent this story. But then again that’s typical of her, always playing the victim, always needy and demanding.
So I’m thinking: what actually took place? My younger self, who thought there was such a concept as “really” taking place, tries to assess what is more likely to have happened, knowing what I observe during our sessions.
Each party needs me to believe her/her story. That’s actually not quite strong enough. Each person is positive about the accuracy of the memory: “I know what I saw! I’m not blind or deaf!”
I side-track the referee role to point out what is more relevant–and verifiably “true”: that the current argument represents the prime recurring fight of the relationship: who has the power? And who feels like the victim of that power?
What did happen? Why is memory so unreliable? My sister, two years younger, has memories of our parents totally absent from my recall. My ex, who can recall bite for bite the ten best meals he’s ever eaten, misremembered an important medication our daughter had taken (he’s a doctor and therefore consulted in lieu of the mystery medical record). My retired birding buddy was surprised, upon cleaning out his parent’s home, to find his college journal revealed his opinions of those young years was the opposite of what he recalled. He barely knew that old self!
One answer: our retrospective memories are colored by who and what we are today–memory bias. We remember feeling in the past the way we feel now.
A 2013 paper published by the American Psychological Association, “Trust and Biased Memory of Transgressions in Romantic Relationships” (Luchies, et.al.) explores memory distortion based on the amount of trust people currently exhibit in their partner. The researchers pose the following questions: “Who can afford the luxury of reinterpreting past partner transgressions in a relatively benign light? Who cannot afford this luxury…?”
These study took place over two time periods, the fist being diary record of partner transgressions in real time, followed by a later retrospective recall of those same transgressions,
Those who had high trust in their romantic partners recalled more favorably past episodes and vice versa for those who currently showed low trust. Memories differed on the number, severity and consequentiality of past transgressions from their initial reports depending upon the current sentiment toward partners.
Consistency bias colors the past with bad feelings in the present. One trouble sign is the negative retrospective picture of the couple first dates. Since the partners “knew” they couldn’t rely upon the other, why not call it quits after the initial date, or the first disagreement? Of course, the answer is the partners experienced optimistic and trusting feelings at the earlier time, but the negative present alters the memories.
Two longitudinal studies of married and dating couples (Sharfe and Bartholome (1998), 8 months duration; Kirkpatric and Hazon (1994) ,4 years) asked subjects How attached to do feel to your partner? How much do you love him or her? How happy are you in your relationship? How often does your partner get on your nerves?
Asked to recall what they felt 8 months or 4 years earlier. couples, 4 out of 5 couples whose feelings remained stable remembered their earlier feelings accurately. Only 1 in 5 had accurate recall when their feelngs had changed.
Daniel Schachter in “The Seven Sins of Memory,” confronts the popular myth “I love you more today than yesterday.” He references a study by that title (Sprecher, 1999), which required dating couples to asses once a year the present quality of their relationships and to recall how they felt in past years. Those couples who made it through 4 years recalled their love had grown since the previous report. This study revealed an “improvement bias”; their actual ratings showed no increased love and attachment. Other studies remembered the past as less positive than their acutual records, which made the present seem even happier.
I’m a couples optimist. Once you know that memory is malleable–more myth than history–it should be possible to retell the couple story in a beneficial way. That is my job as coach: to find the new/old tale that makes the future together possible. Unless the couple is willing to challenge their negative narrative, however, “memory” is the lead weight dragging the relationship under.
*Full disclosure: This same musical has Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” ‘Nuff said.”