When Memories Conflict: Sorting Through Competing Versions of Unhappy Events

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A sincere, but often challenging New Year’s resolution many of us make is to patch things up with family members or friends with whom there may be some lingering disputes or misunderstandings. However, a common obstacle to a happy resolution is conflicting versions of events.

Think about times when you deeply regretted saying something hurtful to a loved one only to find that the other person doesn’t recall the moment at all, or remembers it all much differently. Of course, that can work the other way, too. Your recollection of an event may upset you years later, while a parent, sibling or other relative or friend may have no idea why your memory is so painful.

Complicating things even further is that so often the opportunities to reconnect with someone and clear the air or explain past choices tend to become less frequent as we get older and families spread out geographically. It may not be until an older parent needs a caregiver that you have the chance to talk about your shared history, but you may be reluctant to bring up difficult subjects when a parent is dealing with a chronic illness, for example. Of course, happier events, such as a wedding, family reunion, or the birth of a child also don’t lend themselves to hashing out painful issues, especially if the people involved don’t remember things the same way.

“It is in this very complex and common later life experience that regret over missed opportunities, worries about hurtful actions, and memories of disproportionate significance to the event as remembered by others surface,” says Barbara Moscowitz, MSW, LICSW, associate director of education and support with the Dementia Caregiver Support Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Mixed Memories

Whenever you do find the time or make the time to talk about a regret you’ve been harboring or an event in which you felt hurt or upset, it’s important to be patient and respectful of all points of view.

Acknowledge that emotions often shade the way people remember things. A situation that made you angry or elated may be viewed much differently by someone who did not have the same emotional response. Neither recollection is necessarily the most accurate one.

“Even if a memory is not experienced by others to be the same, honor how it is experienced by the individual and try to move forward without argument,” Moscowitz says.

So when you’re discussing an event in which there isn’t agreement on all the details, resist the urge to say things like, “You’re wrong!” or “That’s not what happened!” The implication is that you think the other person is lying, which puts him or her on the defensive and makes it tougher to arrive at a positive resolution.

Instead, explain calmly how you recall an event. Provide details. Allow that there may have been details or circumstances of which you were unaware. It’s not uncommon for two people to each remember different things about an event or a particular time in their lives.

Also, keep in mind that once a memoryÑeven an incorrect oneÑis stored away, it is unlikely to change unless new information is presented. That information may be much more likely to resonate with someone if it is offered in kindness and a spirit of resolving old conflicts in order to improve future relations.

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