Bad news: When it comes to pretty much everything you've ever done or said in your relationship, the memories you and your spouse hold so dear should probably be regarded as highly suspect. Really. This applies to both of you.
This idea is the center of an unremarkable movie called He Said, She Said, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins. It goes on hella too long and is very dumb, but I love it for one simple reason: Half the movie is told from the perspective of the woman in the relationship, and the other half from the perspective of the man.
He Said, She Said plays to every imaginable gendered hetero stereotype you can think of, but it does a lot to emphasize the fact that we are all unreliable narrators in the game of love, hashing out the unhashable. I'm endlessly fascinated by the question of whether two people in any given experience are ever feeling the same thing at the same moment—if there is ever truly such a thing as knowing someone, or understanding them, or really clarifying an issue, or truly resolving a conflict. If there were a way to export individual recollections in movie form side by side for comparison's sake, Black Mirror-style, I would think of this as a kind of breakthrough in human understanding on par with the Sodastream, at least.
I wonder if even the best of feelings—falling in love, simultaneous orgasm, splitting a piece of really good cheesecake without any superfluous fruit toppings added—are recalled identically to both parties. With fights, this is certainly not the case. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein explores a predicament that all long-term partners come to know well, i.e. those mystifying disagreements where no one can agree on what was said during a conversation as recently as the day or night before.
Bernstein tells us about a disagreement between Carrie Aulenbacher and her husband, Joe. He said he wanted to buy an arcade game off eBay for a birthday present for himself, and the couple talked about where to put it in the house if he got it.
Two weeks later, Ms. Aulenbacher came home from work and found two arcade machines in the garage—and her husband beaming with pride.
"What are these?" she demanded.
"I told you I was picking them up today," he replied.
She asked him why he'd bought two. He said he'd told her he was getting "a package deal." She reminded him they'd measured the den for just one. He stood his ground.
"I believe I told her there was a chance I was going to get two," says Joe Aulenbacher, who is 37 and lives in Erie, Pa.
"It still gets me going to think about it a year later," says Ms. Aulenbacher, 36. "My home is now overrun with two machines I never agreed upon." The couple compromised by putting one game in the den and the other in Mr. Aulenbacher's weight room.
People in their late thirties buying arcade games! Are you jealous?
But so, in this case: Did he really say there was a package deal he might entertain, or did he just think it in his head and imagine himself communicating it? Did she tune him out after they'd agreed upon whatever she had deemed most crucial in the conversation, and then accuse him of never saying what she'd simply ignored?
Why is it so incredibly easy to miscommunicate—and then also misperceive the miscommunication? Bernstein submits that the answer is really pretty basic: Gender bullshit! Of course. Just kidding, it's your unreliable memory.
It is striking how many arguments in a relationship start with two different versions of an event: "Your tone of voice was rude." "No it wasn't." "You didn't say you'd be working late." "Yes I did." "I told you we were having dinner with my mother tonight." "No, honey. You didn't."
It starts with the way each person perceives the event in the first place—and how they encoded that memory. "You may recall something differently at least in part because you understood it differently at the time," says Dr. Michael Ross, professor emeritus in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who has studied memory for many years.
Bernstein says that women do remember more about relationships: Women's recollections of first dates, arguments or vacations were more vivid and detailed than men's. However, she says that these memories were not more reliable per se, because, on standard memory tests, men and women perform about the same.
I would argue that those are two completely different scenarios. Remembering just as much as another person in a neutral setting is not the same as remembering just as much in an emotionally charged setting. Maybe women do remember emotional scenarios better: after all, women are taught from an early age to bear the bigger burden of relationships, the talking, the working it out, the making other people feel happy and comfortable stuff, the learning to read feelings. That's our turf.
If, as Bernstein points out, that women tend to "pay more attention to the relationship and reminisce more about it," my money is on the suggestion that the nuance and details of these interactions are more likely to stick for women, particularly in fights—which she acknowledges are felt more deeply for women than men, at least according to self-reports. (You could also argue that women are going to report feelings more about everything, as there is significantly less stigma attached to doing so).
This finding, on the other hand, is just bizarre:
Researchers know that spouses sometimes can't even agree on concrete events that happened in the past 24 hours—such as whether they had an argument or whether one received a gift from the other. A study in the early 1980s, published in the journal "Behavioral Assessment," found that couples couldn't perfectly agree on whether they had sex the previous night.
What?? I have never forgotten getting laid the NEXT DAY. Years later? Sure, and thank god for that.
Moving on, Bernstein gets into ideas influencing recollection that mostly add up to me, like something called egocentric bias—you remember what you do more clearly than you remember what the other person does, and that is going to color your perspective.
Other factors in how you remember stuff includes how much you've reminisced about it (you may actually just remember the recent version of the memory and not necessarily the original one, she notes). Also, your mood at the time of the interaction and the time that you recall it may play a huge part in how you remember events—as does whether or not your feelings towards the person in question have shifted.
And this is maybe the most foreign set of sentences I've ever read:
A person who lost an argument remembers it more clearly than the person who won it, says Dr. Ross. Men tend to win more arguments, he says, which may help to explain why women remember the spat more. But men who lost an argument remember it as well as women who lost.
Men win more arguments? Come again? In what universe? I do not know any men who have won more arguments. Women are ballers on the home arguing front—they have to be, see above. Please, bring these men who win arguments to me for my inspection and scrutiny.
But the real issue here is: What is to be done? How can any love survive the negotiation of mutually faulty and conflicting memories?
One thing to do is to realize that (hopefully) no one is actually being dishonest in these disagreements—it's that our feelings about these memories are honestly different. "Focus on the truth of the emotions of the event, and not what really happened," Bernstein writes.
That is such a simple idea, and it's also completely true. Parsing the details of what really happened should not be the point. People should just explain how they feel, and then validate that person's feelings, apologize for having contributed to anything negative, and move on. Still, if it were ever that easy to put up with another human, we'd never have all these terrible-great pop songs, novels, and He Said, She Saids to drown our sorrows in.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby