Do you, like many other couples, find yourselves arguing over whether or not something happened a certain way in the past? Whether or not you’ve discussed a specific subject? Wondering whether your partner was actually THERE when you were talking about something with him or her? If so, you’ve probably experienced the “he said/she said” argument – the one that goes like this:
“…but we agreed to see a financial adviser!”
"No we didn’t!”
“We talked about it last Tuesday night…”
“We talked about money then, but we didn’t agree to see a financial adviser!”
“Yes we did!”
Here’s another version:
“Why did you move the sugar bowl?”
“I didn’t move the sugar bowl.”
“What do you mean you didn’t move it? There are only two of us here, and I sure didn’t move it!”
“Well, I didn’t move it, no matter what you think!”
“Geez, you drive me crazy! Why don’t you just admit this stuff and move on?!”
The Reasons Behind "He Said - She Said"
“He said/she said” is characterized by disagreements over past actions or decisions and are very common in relationships impacted by ADHD for a number of reasons:
- You experience the world very differently. Within a discussion, different items stand out to you as being important, and affect how each of you remembers something
- Your varied histories mean that your underlying assumptions are different. A non-ADHD partner might associate discussing financial difficulties with the idea “we need an advisor” and assume their spouse does, too, while a non-ADHD partner might associate the same discussion with thinking about difficulty holding a job and not think about financial planning at all.
- Frustration and anger on the part of either spouse can create a “filter” that distorts their ability to genuinely hear what their partner is talking about
- Spouses with ADHD can have short-term working memory issues that impede their ability to remember events accurately (and they sometimes “reconstruct” incomplete memories into “new” memories that feel right to them but aren’t completely accurate)
- Defensiveness and control issues can keep one or both partners on a specific position, even after they realize that their partner has a valid point. “Hmm, maybe I did move the sugar bowl…but I’m darned if I’m going to admit it now – I’m tired of always being second guessed about trivial things!”
But More Important...
While it’s helpful to understand some of the dynamics underlying “he said/she said” what’s MORE important is what you do about it so you can eliminate it from your relationship.
I would propose that you agree that in most situations it doesn’t matter what happened in the past. What matters is where you are today and what actions you will take in the future. Do you want to expend your energy arguing over something in the past that is 100% unchangeable and unmalleable, or do you want to spend your energy making whatever course adjustments and decisions that are appropriate for your current situation and building a better future?
“But,” you might say “does that mean we’ll never really agree to anything because my partner can just remember it any way he or she wants to?” No. If you have an important agreement and are having difficulty remembering these types of things, consider writing the agreement down. That might be as a short paragraph you hang on to for future reference and discussion, or as part of an ongoing “to do” list. You’ll find working out the wording of the agreement will solidify it for you both, in any event. (And, I would point out, none of us have perfect memory...you might think your version is accurate, but I've been humbled more than once to discover that something I thought was an accurate memory was...well, not!)
As for who moved the sugar bowl, again, I ask “who cares?!” BUT, if the sugar bowl disagreement is genuinely symbolic of something bigger, such as a non-ADHD partner who constantly criticizes a non-ADHD partner about things that are inconsequential as an expression of frustration, then what you need to be discussing isn’t the sugar bowl, but the critical behavior. Attack the problem, not the person. Place your energy behind something that will make a difference for you today and tomorrow, don’t just stay engaged in an ongoing spat.
Try Soothing Instead
“He said/she said” is a destructive pattern because it diminishes your partner by calling into question his or her experience and representation of reality. Since the event in question is in the past, there is often no way of "winning" the argument (though both partners might try!) nor of really knowing exactly what happened. So, why not take a week or two to notice this when you both fall into "he said - she said", and replace it with validating and soothing behavior. Some examples?
“I thought we had agreed to see a financial planner, but perhaps we didn’t totally get to that point. Can we talk about it now? I continue to be worried.”
“The sugar bowl is in the living room again. That bothers me because I think it will attract ants. I’m going to put it in the cupboard and just want to let you know in case you’re looking for it. Do you mind?” (Notice the invitation to respond here, to make sure the partner is paying attention…this increases your chance the comment will be remembered.)
At least some marriage research suggests that soothing behavior is a critical skill in keeping things healthy. And for good reason, when you stop insisting your partner is wrong, you open the door to working together more effectively.