When couples fight, the emotional and psychological nuances of memory can make reconciliation quite complicated, Elizabeth Bernstein writes in the Wall Street Journal.
Last year, Joe Aulenbacher was in trouble with his wife Carrie. He remembered telling her he intended to buy two arcade machines as a "package deal." Carrie recalls things differently, noting that they had measured their den for just one. "My home is now overrun with two machines I never agreed upon," she says.
How can a couple tell who is remembering things correctly? Research suggests they may not be able to. A 1980s study published in the journal Behavioral Assessment found that couples even disagreed on whether they had sex the night before.
Generally speaking, women remember more about relationships than men—but it's not necessarily more accurate. Studies have found that women report having more emotions in their relationships, which helps enhance memory.
One source of contention can come from the egocentric bias, in which people remember the details of their own actions more clearly than the actions of others. Bernstein says the bias applies to both negative and positive actions, and it makes people feel like they handled a larger share of the responsibility.
Mood also plays a large role in memory, Bernstein says. When people have positive feelings about another person, they are more likely to reinterpret a negative memory about another person in a positive way.
However, Michael Ross, a professor emeritus of at the University of Waterloo, says negative emotions have a special role in disagreements between couples. Negative moods may create stronger memories, so people who lose an argument often remember things more clearly. Ross says men tend to win more arguments, which may explain why women often remember then more clearly.
Andrew Christensen—a professor of psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles and author of a book on dealing with conflicts in a relationship—says couples should accept that memories are flawed. He suggests that couples focus on the emotions of an event—rather than specific recollections—to help sort through disagreements (Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, 3/23).
The takeaway: Couples often remember things differently because of cognitive biases and the influence of mood. Experts suggest focusing on the emotions of an argument to move past a disagreement.