The Big Fight

fightHow is it that so many couples end up having knock down, drag out fights?  How can seemingly rational people end up saying things that just don’t make any sense?

Several people that I’ve seen recently have told me a similar story.  As in every relationship, they have had certain long-standing issues in their relationships, areas where one or the other partner is not satisfied and where a solution is not easy to find.  Then there is a period of high stress, or perhaps a change in mood in one or the other partner, and all of a sudden there is a fight and both partners are saying increasingly harsh and hostile things to each other.

Why it is that, in the midst of an argument with someone who you care about a great deal, it is possible to say (and believe) fairly extreme things.

Examples from some of these arguments include:  “I’ve been unhappy for years,”  “You never take care of me,” “You never show me any affection.” Lots and lots of “always” and “never” statements.

The thing is, each of these people, in the moment, really believes that what they are saying is the truth.

Now, admittedly, in the heat of the moment with lots of cortisol and norepinephrine (fight or flight hormones) flowing, one’s ability to think rationally is going to be significantly impaired (one of the reasons why impulsive decisions are often bad ones) but still what is it that shapes our perceptions in those moments so that we really see and believe and remember that what we are saying is the truth?

It occurred to me that this is perhaps another example of the powerful effect of “state dependent learning.”

Readers of this blog will recall that state dependent learning refers to the notion that a very important way that we organize memories in our brain is based on the mood we are in when those memories are formed. Memories that are associated with, for instance, sadness or depression, are the memories that we naturally turn to and recollect when we are sad or depressed.

One result of this phenomenon is that people tend to believe that the mood they are in right now is the mood that they have been in forever – “I have always been depressed” – because what they can most easily remember are events that are associated with that mood.

I think the same thing happens in fights.  We are upset, unhappy, angry and hurt, and as we look back on our past, what comes to mind are all of the other times when we were upset, unhappy, angry and hurt.

It’s not that we absolutely can’t remember the times when we were happy or things were good, it’s just that those times seem distant and the memories are dim in our mind. In fact, we find ourselves wondering if we “really” felt that way, the current emotion and the current memories seem stronger and clearer.

This effect is perhaps one of the best reasons for taking a time out in an argument.  Not only are our emotions running high, but our memories and our ability to accurately describe what has been going on in the relationship are impaired by those emotions.