Why You and Your Partner Remember Things Differently

worldcreativities.com Why You and Your Partner Remember Things Differently

  • Memory dominates love relationships; it shapes present and future interactions and determines the course of the relationship.
  • Tricks of memory fool partners into negative judgments about each other and undermine the health of relationships.
  • Partners are bound to have different memories of events. They should try to reconcile them, rather than prove whose recall is superior.

In many respects, memory dominates love relationships. It shapes present and future interactions between partners and determines the course of the relationship.

Unfortunately, there are tricks of memory that fool partners into negative judgments about each other and undermine the health of relationships.

Implicit Memory

These are memories accessed unconsciously. An example of implicit memory is driving home while not consciously recalling directions. Explicit or consciously recalled memories occur, for example, in response to someone asking directions to your home.

Implicit memory serves a pattern-matching function, in which the brain matches present sensory and experiential patterns with those of the past. In interactions with loved ones, it is mainly emotional content loaded into implicit memory. Events in implicit memory are more easily brought to consciousness as emotional intensity increases. That’s why, when we resent our spouses, we can recall every unfair thing we perceived them to have done. And when we feel sweet and loving toward them, we’ll remember their appealing behaviors.

Negative Bias

Due to their immediate survival importance, negative emotions and memories get priority processing in the brain and are roughly five times more likely to be recalled than positive memories. This can create illusions of continual negative experience and shape expectations of future negative experience, which often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Focus Distortion

A focus on emotional memories amplifies and magnifies them. Whatever we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t. The negative bias of memories and emotions means that we’re apt to make less important things more important than the most important things. We might devalue our children for leaving a towel on the floor because “they never listen.” Obviously, the emotional well-being of our children is more important than the towel, but negative bias and focus distortion make it seem otherwise.

Time Distortion

In general, positive memories speed up time, and negative ones slow it down. Memories of positive experiences seem brief, if not fleeting, while negative experiences seem to have lasted forever in recall, furthering the illusion that life is filled with negative experiences.

The Log in Our Eyes

To paraphrase the famous Biblical quote, we focus on the speck in our partners’ eyes, ignoring the log in our own. We will remember the worst thing our partners said or did in an argument, but not what we said or did immediately before it. Our brains evolved to record injuries we suffer, to help us avoid them in the future. They did not evolve to record the injuries we inflict. That’s why, in memories of heated exchanges, both partners feel like victims.article continues after advertisement

Memory of Memories

It seems that we don’t entirely remember events as they happened, so much as we remember the last time we remembered them. Also, the current mental state greatly influences which details are recalled. Putting these two aspects together suggests that the term “revisionist history,” in reference to individuals, is synonymous with “memory.”

This makes sense when we consider that memory did not evolve to serve as a photographic album of the past. It evolved to help us negotiate the environment in the present; it must be influenced by present intrapsychic and environmental conditions.

The Remembering Self

Daniel Kahneman’s landmark work distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Each moment of the experiencing self lasts about three seconds, most of them vanishing without a trace. What gets remembered by the remembering self are changes in the story, intense moments in the story, and the ending. The brain tends to color the entire story with the intensity of the ending of it.

The sense of self is constructed from memory rather than experience, which is why partners react so strongly when their memories are disputed. It’s not the accuracy of the facts that matter so much as the perceived assault on the sense of self.

Yet partners are bound to differ in what they recall, particularly in the meaning they ascribe to what they recall. Memory is shaped by personal meaning and biases.

Because we tend to seek partners who have qualities that we lack or would like more of, partners usually differ in the greatest influences on emotional meaning: temperament, sensibilities, vulnerabilities, hormonal levels, family history, personal experience.

No Pouting to Punish

If you have a disagreement or argument with your partner that you can’t resolve, try to end it by getting in touch with the love you have for each other, keeping in mind that your connection is more important than the disagreement. If you do so, what will be recalled is care and connection, which will make it easier to resolve the problem in the future. If you go to bed angry, all that will be recalled is disconnection and resentment, making it extremely difficult to resolve the problem in the future.article continues after advertisement

Futile Arguments vs. Gainful Discussions

Instead of arguing about the “objective accuracy” of memories, follow the message the memory carries for the present.


  • “I don’t believe you; you lied to me last month.”
  • “I didn’t lie to you; you misunderstood the facts.”


  • “I need more reassurance; can you tell me a little more about this?”

A lot of relationship pain rises from the belief that our memories are accurate, objective pictures of past experience: if your memory differs from mine, you’re wrong.

Instead of arguing about the truth of recollections, try to reconcile disparate memories.


  • “I told you that last week!”
  • “You only think you told me.”


  • “Sorry, I must have forgotten what you told me.”
  • “Sorry, I thought I told you, but I may have only thought it.”

Ask yourself: Is the point of interactions with your partner to prove whose memory is “superior,” or to cooperate for a better life together?

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