Forget about the facts--focus on the feelings

Many couples, when they try to tell me about an emotionally charged event, each tell me, with great confidence, completely different stories.  It’s astonishing. I work with bright, honest, perceptive people, and each would swear on their lives that their version of the truth is accurate, and their partner must be inaccurately remembering the event.  They will tell me what they were wearing, where they were standing, how those specific words and tones struck their hearts, and they can get really stuck arguing about whose recollection was correct.

Maybe this has happened to you with a loved one.  Have you ever gotten in a disagreement and ended up fighting about who said what to whom, never actually getting to discuss the actual point of contention?

We know that when emotions rise, our ability to accurately recall data is significantly impaired.  However, even if you’ve read the research studies on this topic, it may still be hard to believe that your confidently-held memory might not be exactly accurate.  

So let me tell you what I suggest.  

Let go of figuring out what actually happened.  It’s not particularly useful information.  Focus on what it felt like for you, and felt like for your partner-that’s what really matters most. Here are some examples of ways you might shift from who said what into connecting around the feelings.

You might say this:  “You know, we are not likely to agree about what happened at the party.  But it seems like you’re feeling really hurt. And maybe that’s more important than figuring out who said what.  Whatever I said, I never meant to hurt you.”

Or, you might say: “I am really angry about what happened between us.  I feel like I remember it correctly, but it seems like you remember it differently.  So regardless of what you said or didn’t say, I am feeling really upset.”

You and your partner may still fall back into insisting that your version of the truth is more accurate, but every time you can catch yourself and return to the conversation about your feelings, you’ll be having a much richer and useful dialogue.  You may still disagree, there may still be strong and painful feelings, but at least your conversation will be on an agreed upon reality (you can’t really argue about how someone feels), and it has potential for shared understanding and the growth of empathy.