Some couples I see have what I call reality fights. Neither person is psychotic, neither has a brain injury but they can't agree about basic things relating to a fight they had last week. These aren't simply questions of perspective, they are disagreements about things that happened. And they are vexed about it. I want my partner to admit that events happened the way I say they did.
"You came downstairs, I was working at the kitchen table and you opened the fridge and you started complaining about the chicken."
"No, you weren't at the table. You were up in Keith's room."
"Can I finish? And then you started swearing..."
"I never swore."
"You did. You said, it was a 'fucking disgrace.'"
"I absolutely did not. And you weren't there so you don't know what I said, you only came down after I put the tupperware in the sink and then you started yelling about how I never clean up..."
Lather, rinse, repeat.
What is happening here?
In a recent previous post I wrote about research on how humans, from a very young age, seek shared mental states. According to the researchers we have a drive, evident even at 1 year old, to synchronize our minds with people around us.
We can't ever directly experience what happens in another person's head but we learn through a high-stakes, biologically driven life-long course of study to map others' inner states based on all sorts of outward signals, mostly without the use of language. What's more, these researchers contend that we don't just seek to know what others know, or to plan with others.
Importantly, joint attention is not just two people experiencing the same thing at the same time, but rather it is two people experiencing the same thing at the same time and knowing together that they are doing this (authors' emphasis)
We believe we know what is going on in the other person's head and we experience that not as a belief, but knowledge. 'Knowing together,' in the authors' evocative, mysterious phrase phrase, is a magic fairy dust that we sprinkle over our very detailed ideas, assumptions and guesses about other people's mental states is that we share them, that they are mutually held even when we haven't put them into words. This is particularly true with our romantic partners, we think we understand them before they even open their mouths, we assume that they know all information that we know and that they feel the way we feel, that they remember as we remember. We know together.
The Dalai Lama once asked a group of neuroscientists, "Where is mind?" It is a question that has a lot to it. You could try to answer in many different ways, but one dimension to that question is "How much of our mind is shared or shareable? What elements of our 'inner' state is social?"
What is most significant to me about reality fights is not that the couple remembers the incident very differently but how disturbing these differences are to them, how focussed they become on the details of where each person was, and what words were said, if the chicken was in the tupperware or already on the late. The couple having a reality fight is manifesting dissatisfaction at lack of attunement in their mental states. Different memories of the incident aren't unusual, but they are significant to the people involved, painfully significant, because they show that the two people feel that their mental state was not aligned and may still not be aligned. I seek to force you to see things as I saw them because, if you agree that the chicken wasn't in the tupperware when you came down the stairs, then we will be back in a shared mental state. Even couples that don't like each other very much do this. The only thing harder than being married to someone you know very well and don't like very much is being married to someone you don't like very much and who you don't know very well.
This is most remarkable where there has been an affair. The spouse who is betrayed is confronted in a profound way with the fact that what they thought was the couple's shared reality was partly illusory. While I thought we were a loving couple who were faithful to one another and sexual monogamous, you were sleeping with this other person. When I thought you were at work, you were in bed with them. The revelation that what I believed was a shared mental state was, in fact, not shared can be deeply destabilizing for people because the possibility of 'knowing together' seems not only to be gone, but to have become threatening.