Couples Counseling Part 3: “I never said that!”
Ah, the “he said/she said” (or he said/he said; I said/you said; she said/she said…you get my point) argument. It must be as old as time itself. Or at least as old as relationships. I can only imagine how many hours of couples counseling have been racked up with couples debating exactly what was said at exactly what moment and in exactly what tone of voice and with exactly what meaning or intent. The passion with which these debates occur is truly remarkable. If only that much passion went into resolving the argument instead of just proving oneself right.
I know how faulty memory is (my own, undoubtedly, but but not only mine) and that how adamantly we believe ourselves to be right has little to nothing to do with whether or not we are, in fact, right.
I had a moment recently that illustrated this to me in a new way.
I am relatively new to this website thing, and agonized over what I would write for various pages of my website for weeks before finally clicking that “go live” button (figuratively speaking). And then, to be honest, I kind of avoided looking at it for a while! When I opened up my website again a few weeks later, ready to see the incredibly profound and wisdom-inspired prose that I had worked so hard on, my first reaction was literally “I didn’t write that!” And then, “Oh no, did I write that?” And finally “There’s no way I wrote that…someone must have changed it!” Because clearly THAT was the most logical conclusion.
Guess what? I wrote it. Of course. In black and white, irrefutably. Nobody hacked my account and wrote something slightly different just to mess with me. (Or did they??)
Occasionally in my work with couples, one partner has offered to record conversations or arguments they have with their spouse so I can hear exactly how right their memory is when we meet for a therapy session. No one has yet followed through on this offer, though. And now I have my suspicions about why. Maybe they actually did record something, listened to it again a week (or even a day) later, and (like me) said “I didn’t say that…did I say that? There’s no way I said that…someone is impersonating me on this recording!”
There are 2 sides to this coin – the first is to let go of your firmly held beliefs about what you literally said and did that caused your partner some distress. You might be right…they might be right. Frankly, what matters more is how they responded to what you said or did. That is where to focus your energy and attention. What did they think you meant? What did they think your intentions were? Were they right about your intentions? If not, help them understand what you actually meant. If they were right, then you have something real to work on.
The second side of the coin is letting go of what you specifically believed your partner to have said or done, and focus instead on your own reaction. Why did you react the way you did? What was triggered in you? What did you need from them that you didn’t get? How can you explain that to your partner more clearly instead of doggedly trying to convince them that your memory is in fact the truth.
These are not easy changes to make – words are significant, I would never suggest otherwise. But memory is faulty and it is possible that words are not the most significant thing.
The next time your spouse, partner or friend says “But you SAID…” Don’t bother arguing. Just take a deep breath, listen, reflect on what they think they heard, and focus on what you want to be sure they hear you say now. I promise, your arguments will get a whole lot shorter!