Most of us think of our memory like a personal video recorder. When you remember something, it’s like sitting down in the theater of your own mind and pressing play.
Except, that’s not how memory works. Research Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus knows first hand.
When Loftus was 44 years old, her uncle told her that as a child she discovered her mother in the pool after an accidental drowning. Loftus had no memory of seeing her mom’s body, but she trusted her uncle.
Before long, she started remembering. She could picture details of the day. How her mom was dressed. Even the lights of the police cars.
Which is odd because, as it turns out, her uncle was mistaken. Loftus didn’t witness any of it. Instead, her mind created memories to match what her uncle said.
That’s memory for you. We think of it as an accurate recording, but Loftus is famous for her research that shows how bad eye-witness accounts can be. It turns out, our memories are surprisingly malleable.
Memories change over time. They morph and combine. Sometimes we add to them. Sometimes we edit details out. Even otherwise honest folks have been known to fabricate entire scenes, believing something happened that never did.
Okay, so there’s A LOT we could explore here, but let’s narrow our focus. How does this affect your relationship?
That depends entirely on how much you let it.
Below are two tips for minimizing the impact of less-than-accurate memories—yours AND his! If you’re tired of he-said-she-said fights, keep reading.
- Live in the now. Especially when things are tense.
Any time there’s conflict, it’s extremely tempting to whip out every example you can think of that seems relevant.
Suppose he says something that hurts your feelings. You could easily launch into a description of another time last week, last month, or last year when he put his foot in his mouth.
If there’s a negative pattern of behavior, you should definitely talk to him about it. But mid-fight is not the time to do it.
At those moments, both his memories and yours may not be 100% reliable. Intense emotions tend to change how we remember things.
Instead, if/when you and your guy get sideways, stick to THAT conversation. That issue. That disagreement.
Leave the past in the past.
- When everything’s peachy, it’s good to reminisce, as long as you don’t get hung up on “facts.”
There are obvious benefits to remembering the good times. Who doesn’t enjoy a stroll down memory lane when you’re talking about pleasant things?
But research shows that couples can also benefit from revisiting hard times. The important part is focusing on past events as shared victories, rather than getting caught up in the facts.
Say there was a rough patch in your relationship several months back. Now things are going well. Talking about the tough times could actually bring you closer together. You just need to orient the conversation around the idea that the two of you got through it as a team.
Whether discussing good times or challenges, turn your attention to what you and he have accomplished together.
Memory is a tricky thing. It’s a real shot to your pride when you realize your memory isn’t ironclad. But neither is his.
So instead of debating about who said what when, keep tense conversations rooted in the present moment, and use your shared history to remember times when the two of you conquered something together.
 Neimark, Jill. “It’s Magical, It’s Malleable, It’s… Memory.” Psychology Today. HealthProfs.com, 1 Jan. 1995. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.
 Vitelli, Romeo, Ph.D. “Implanting False Memories.” Psychology Today. HealthProfs.com, 4 Nov. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.
 Osgarby, Susan M., and W. Kim Halford. “Couple Relationship Distress and Observed Expression of Intimacy During Reminiscence About Positive Relationship Events.” Behavior Therapy 44.4 (2013): 686-700. Web.