When we are in conflict, we tend to only see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. We filter out information that is inconsistent with our interpretation of events and we can ignore information that is glaringly obvious to other people around us. When we are emotional, this problem is exacerbated, and even our memory is affected.
Recently, my partner and I went on a holiday together. We each wanted to do different things during this holiday, but each of us wanted to do those things together. At one point during the holiday I wanted to go to a particular restaurant for dinner. My partner, however, really wanted to go to a different restaurant. I felt annoyed, believing that I had done lots of things that my partner had wanted over the previous few days, and thinking that it was time my partner did what I wanted to do. I was convinced that the entire week I had graciously and selflessly agreed to do whatever my partner wanted, but that the favour had never been returned. Not surprisingly, our discussion turned into a rather heated exchange about “you always get to choose” and “you never do what I want”.
Realising that this conversation was not very productive, we both took a bit of time out to cool down and think things through. After a short time, I suddenly realised that in fact, my partner had not always chosen our activities, and in fact had, on a number of occasions in the past week, done what I wanted to do! During our heated conversation, my mind was a captive to my emotions, and wasn’t remembering accurately. While I was feeling annoyed, I could honestly not think of a single example of my partner doing what I wanted to do over the past week of our holiday together. After a bit of time out, however, I was able to access more memories that provided some balance to the situation.
This is a classic example of a refractory period in action! When we are feeling an emotion, this emotion filters information in our memory and we can only remember things that support the emotion that we are feeling. We can’t think logically or accept any other interpretations of the situation that are inconsistent with how we are feeling. This refractory period may be very short, lasting only a few seconds, or may last a lot longer, depending on how strongly we are feeling the emotion. Once the emotion reduces, we begin to see more clearly.
In conflict, we often use language like “always” and “never” to explain behaviour. This language is very black and white, but conflict is always full of grey areas! Next time you find yourself having an argument with someone, and you notice that kind of language, it’s possible that you are stuck in an emotional refractory period, where your memory is being filtered and distorting reality. The best thing to do is to take some time out and continue the conversation later, after the refractory period has passed. Take a walk, get some air, and slowly you will be able to see the whole picture and get some perspective.