Gerard and Lucy were arguing about what happened in an argument they had the previous day. Lucy recalled the sequence of events and the words Gerard used to express his anger. Gerard became indignant and accused her of not telling the truth. “I was sitting in the chair the whole time and you just said that I was huffing and puffing all around the room. That’s just not true.” “Are you calling me a liar?” Lucy retorted.
The conversation—or rather argument—continued with Gerard insisting that he sat in the chair the whole time and Lucy saying that part of the time he angrily moved about the room. How could their memories be so different? Was one of them really not telling the truth but afraid to admit it out of embarrassment?
I’ve been party to many conversations in counseling and consulting work that deal with high conflict. Very rarely does someone not tell the truth to save face. Most all the time both people tell the truth…or what they experienced as best they can express it at the time.
I realize that may sound like legalese or politically or socially correct rhetoric, but it is the most accurate way I can explain the reality of the situation. Here’s why: As information comes into our brain, it is deconstructed. Fragments of the experience record in different areas. When memory is recalled, the fragments reconstruct and may not “come back” in the way the experience actually happened, and therefore might be different for each individual. This makes for very sober going as we try to establish “what really happened”—especially when two people, both hurt and confused, try to figure out what happened and maintain their sanity.
In high conflict situations, our stress hormones are elevated, which alters our thinking and feeling so we experience the situation in a somewhat altered state. Does that mean we are out of touch with reality? Not at all. What it does mean is that each of us will experience the same situation differently, and sometimes very differently. The conflict Lucy and Gerard experienced recorded in different ways in each brain. Over time as memory consolidates (which can take some years) those memories, as they recall them, can and will change.
So, what can they do? Lucy and Gerard must accept that they experienced what happened differently and not get hung up on who is right. Acknowledging how hard it was on both of them can set the stage for emotional healing and potentially some problem-solving. Talking and listening under these circumstances is difficult. If they can both clarify what they would like the other to understand, the repair process can begin. Achieving understanding does not require agreement, but it does require mutual respect.