An upsetting moment was worsened when James’ wife Katey announced their marriage had never been right. The unfortunate news was ignited when her anger was sparked by his forgetfulness—a flaw he admits to—and has been a re-occurring irritant during their 15 year marriage.

James had believed his marriage was on good terms, and easily recalls dozens of pleasurable moments throughout the years; this included Katey’s many expressions of happiness and love.

Yet, in this painful moment, when he challenged her to site examples to show that she was wrong, she abruptly dismissed his question with a broad-brush comment, “I was just faking it.”

James felt despair; it was as if the floor had just fallen out from beneath his feet.

Upon reflection, the more he thought about the conflict, the more he believed that his wife was wrong; either she had to be incorrect, or he concluded, she was crazy.

James’ inner attitude interfered with his being open and close to his wife, and undoubtedly, in her pain of upset, Katey closed herself off to a significant part of the past through denial and minimization.

This example is for many couples, a dangerous place to inhabit. It is littered with pain-laden unresolved issues. When a partner experiences intense feelings, they view the past through emotions rather than logic.

Past intense emotional sentiments can cause the recall of events to be altered, eliminated, or recreated, generating more distorted memories.

Each partner will subjectively apply distortions of past events; they will be remembered differently by each of them. It is because of this inaccurate accounting of past events partners are quickly sucked into an escalating debate regarding the accuracy of their recall.

For couples with accumulated resentment, such a debate may easily touch off volatile and hurtful arguments.

To some degree, we are all historical revisionists. It is an irrational part of being human, which makes our love relationships illogical. Our tendency to value intellect and order causes us to erroneously flag recollection as an opportunity for correction. A partner who is a serial revisionist is vulnerable to a reputation of being unreasonable and inaccurate. And, if the label sticks, he or she will have diminished status, which reduces the satisfaction of the relationship.

Help is available.

Love relationships are emotional connections; feeling understood is achieved through the acknowledgment of a partner’s feelings and reflecting them in a way that shows they have been received. Emotion is the language and the currency of relating, and when moments of emotional intensity ramp up, the past becomes distorted, and two potential reactions diverge. Couples will either focus on the distortion or attend to the pain responsible for the misunderstanding. If compassionately attending to the painful feelings presented, couples can immediately strengthen both their connection and the relationship. However, taking the wrong path—by correcting the partner’s journey into the past—usually results in explosive conflict and complete disconnect.

The present is the place where couples best connect. They are empowered to resolve their problems and to heal. They are choosing to stay focused on the here and now and take advantage of the possibilities of bonding by deepening the relationship connection.  

Conversely, the past does not possess such valuable potential; it is challenging to accomplish emotional healing when a distorted history is used to build a case of past failures. Defending ourselves win little reward and only add heightened hostility and more significant disconnection during a heightened emotional state. It is by accepting the partner’s pain that we learn how understanding and healing will come to fruition.

The secret of a loving relationship is the appreciation of the whole partner, to enjoy their best qualities, as well as having an appreciation of their frustrating idiosyncrasies. If we reject or select only some aspects of our partner’s personalities, we ensure the relationship will be more like a battlefield than one
of love and caring.

Andrew Aaron, LICSW, is a sex and relationship therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.