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When Couples Fight: State-Dependent Memory

Couple-ArguingA couple I’ve been seeing for a few months is sitting in front of me. She is crying, feeling overwhelmed, despondent, “sick and tired” of their relationship, ready to give up and hopeless. He seems guarded and defensive, with a distant expression on his face. They don’t look at each other and appear a thousand miles apart. Just a week ago they were doing really well, reporting strong feelings of closeness, well-being and a high level of satisfaction. Then yesterday they had a fight. And now it’s as if a switch was turned off. What happened? How did several weeks of happiness almost instantly turn into complete misery?

Meet “state-dependent memory.” This is what Wikipedia has to say about it: “State-dependent memory is the phenomenon through which memory retrieval is most efficient when an individual is in the same state of consciousness as they were when the memory was formed.”

When people fight, their bodies and nervous systems are flooded with adrenalin, cortisol and other stress-related hormones. It puts us in a different state of consciousness than when we are calm, relaxed and happy. This condition triggers memories and emotions related to previous fights and we end up stringing them together. All the terrible, hurtful words and insults we previously hurled at each other flash through our mind. All our feelings rush to the surface – feelings of despair, heart break, utter exhaustion, hopelessness, and feelings of “I can’t take it anymore and I’m ready to give up.” All the good times are practically forgotten. This is especially true for people with a history of trauma or abuse as they can be “flooded” more easily.

Many couples go through cycles of various lengths – oscillating between the good times, the not so good times and fights. The cycles can vary in length from weeks to months and even years. But no matter how long the good times last, when the “big fights” ensue, all of those good times disappear from our memory and all the bad times are recalled, superseding the good. It is at those times people often think about breaking up, or even divorce.

So, what can people do about it? First and foremost, learn to recognize this phenomenon for what it really is. When we know about something, it’s easier to become aware of it while we’re in the midst of it. During a good cycle remind yourself that fights come and go. You might want to write a letter to yourself during a good time describing how chill things are at that moment and recounting all the wonderful moments you’ve been sharing. Then, next time the two of you fight, you can read this letter (together, or by yourself) and remind yourself that things aren’t always as bad as they seem. Learn to deal with difficult emotions by practicing various self-regulation techniques, (for example, mindfulness, emotional freedom techniques) so that when you do fight, you are not flooded as easily. If you feel that you can’t handle it alone, see a qualified mental health specialist.

All of these approaches will help you navigate the stormy weathers of your relationships more smoothly and will help you to decrease the frequency and intensity of fighting. It will also lead to more satisfaction and happiness within your relationship.

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