Our emotions are a result of our interpretations of a situation, not the situation itself.
Jack and Betty come to their second couples counseling session obviously tense. “So what happened?” I ask. Jack sighs and Betty says, “You were so mean to me last night! You were angry and raised your voice and told me you didn’t want to talk to me.” “What?” says Jack, surprised. “I was just busy. I tried to tell you I can’t do our vacation planning right now because I have to finish something for work. I even remember being calm about it. But then you got really upset and yelled at me!” Have you and your partner had a similar experience? Do each of you remember a situation quite differently and then argue about who’s right or wrong? Once you get sucked down that rabbit hole, you’re not even talking about the issue itself anymore—you’re just trying to prove whose version of what happened is the right one. How do you fix the relationship?
Why does this happen? Well, we’re not computers, and our memories are deeply affected by the emotions we’re feeling. If something feels emotionally neutral, we might not remember it—because we don’t need to. It doesn’t threaten our sense of self, and so it doesn’t affect how we approach future events. Can you remember what you ate for lunch two days ago? Maybe you can (if it was intensely good or bad), but otherwise, remembering what you ate probably took some effort. We tend to remember an event more easily when it carries a strong emotional tone. These include the fun times as well as the unpleasant, but unfortunately, negative, painful situations can be especially memorable. (This is what psychologists and neuroscientists call the brain’s “negativity bias.”)
Here’s the thing: our emotions are a result of our interpretations of the situation, not the situation itself. The process can be described sequentially, like this:
- An activating event triggers your
- interpretation of what happened, with a resulting
- emotion that creates your particular
- memory of the event.
So when Betty heard what Jack said to her last night, she interpreted it as him blowing her off. That interpretation created a hurt feeling, which then colored her memory and therefore her reaction to him. As a result, the details she remembered were of him being unavailable and angry. Jack, however, had a neutral interpretation of his own behavior, but later felt upset when he saw Betty flare up. What he brought to therapy was his interpretation of her upset feelings.
So what can you do about this?
Need support putting these ideas into practice? Join Gal and Liron in July or September 2015 for Love Made Simple: A Weekend Workshop for Premarital Couples. You won’t want to miss this chance to connect with like-minded couples and gain skills to build a love that lasts!
Note: A version of this article first appeared on Gal’s YourTango experts blog.