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The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse; or: "We Said".

Updated: 9 hours ago

I write these blogs mainly to help new couple therapists identify problems they can help their clients notice and understand. Some couples may find them helpful as well.

The idea that there are "four horsemen of the apocalypse" that a couple can identify and stop summoning–thereby saving their relationship– is by now familiar in couple therapy circles. But there's a fifth horseman that tramples and distresses couples. Naming it and watching out for how it can show up and derail partners in conflict is useful, partly because it's pervasive, destructive, and yet it's obvious on reflection. For a little energy in dealing with it, there can be alot of gain.

The Fifth Horseman in Action

A: I'm not sure what you are talking about. You said you didn't want to see that movie because it's too long.

B: No I didn't. I didn't say that. I just said I was worried I wouldn't like it.

A: No that's not what you said. You said you you'd rather not see it.

B: No, I didn't say that. You're the one who said we shouldn't see it then.

A: No, what I said was we maybe shouldn't see it, not we shouldn't see it. I was asking.

and so on.

Arguing over what was said, or for short, memory of speech, is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. Though this dialogue above appears to simply show a childish moment, the phenomenon is pervasive in adult relationships. Arguing over the minute details of past events is a dubious exercise because of the fallibility of our memories. We all know we can't rely on our memories: it's always an incomplete record of anything that happened or was said, but in arguments this incompleteness is easy to forget. Furthermore, anything said may have been interpreted in the moment differently from its intention. What I say is likely to land in you differently from where it came from in me; my intentions with it may not be as transparent to you as they are to me; sometimes also, they are not utterly transparent to me either. If I dispute this and insist that what I heard is what you said, ie, meant, or vice-versa, we are already in a fight. Now, incomplete memory and only partially-overlapping interpretation conspire to frustrate us in the here and now.

Why do we find it so difficult to let go of our fights over memory? Why don't we simply see that we disagree and move on? When we can't move on, it may be because our memories support our sense of who we are and what we can count on. Often this involves mental cinema, or simulations: versions of reality that are actually a mixture of then, now, my purposes, and also, not least, valuation of one person's behavior (mine) that is probably more sympathetic than the other's (yours). Until partners lower stress and recover a sense of humor about how differently we respond to, interpret, and remember the same event, we may continue to question their (and our own) hold on reality. It's not uncommon for couples to experience a kind of outrage at the alternative memories they present us with.

Adding injury to insult, in arguing over what one said, insistence on memory of what they said effectively puts words in their mouth, words they don't recognize. This will feel intrusive, and now they are not only fighting over memory but over the experience of intrusion, which can only summon up further defense and offense. Most therapists recognize this intrusive fight carried out through arguing over memories of speech and lesser experienced couples feel helpless to work with it. For the therapist, there are solutions. Conveying an understanding to clients of how fighting over memory of speech is a dead end, since no one remembers in any completeness what was said and because the stakes–our sense of reality–can feel so high; and that what we remember has more to do with how we interpreted what was said even if some or many of the words are accurate. A phrase such as "memory of speech" is useful as a short hand for intervening during medium-to high conflict: "arguments over memory of speech will get you here and keep you here". However, longer explanations are best not delivered in the heat of the moment. The necessary higher cortical function to understand it is not active under high stress. They should however, be returned to when stress is lower.

The following is an excerpt from (admittedly incomplete) memory of at interaction from a couple that had been addicted to the fifth horseman, to their own memory and thus their own interpretation of what was said. They had worked on it; now, in session, partner B, has started to become aware of how "you said" ignites conflagrations, and cues both themselves and their partner to a different path:

A: I'm not sure what you are talking about. You said you didn't want to see the movie because it's too long. A could be about to ignite a memory of speech war.

B: Ok, I don't want to get into a memory of speech thing, so here's what I want you to know: I want to see the movie. What about you? B wisely sidesteps the question of whether they said that or not. Referencing a concept from couple therapy is fine, as long as the partner is ok with it and the name of the therapist is kept out of it!

A: Let's skip it and watch something new from X on youtube..... A moves on, wisely.

B: Deal.

B and A saved themselves from their recurrent memory-of-speech purgatory. A could have done even better to have been the one to ward off trouble one turn earlier:

A: So, about the movie, I'm not sure what we said before that you you want. Do you want to see the movie?

B: Yeah. I mean, No.

A: Youtube instead?

B: Deal.

When trouble has been warded off, it leaves only a little trace of the potholes that had been there before.

Bottom line: when someone wants to know what their partner wants, needs, thinks, etc, ask them to speak now, for now, rather than trying to get them to be loyal to what (you think) they said. And maybe they did use those words, but they don't feel it now, so what a partner thinks they said is now irrelevant. And both partners are very likely to be wrong in, if not details of words spoken, the additional messages that their speech conveyed if they insist that these are the only messages that would be reasonable to mean. These context cues (indirect messages or meta-messages) are quite varied and hard to pin down later on, but are often what was actually meaningful to the speaker. For instance, in the first dialogue above, speaker A clarifies a context cue at the very end: "I was asking." By that time, though, it's too late, the clarification probably won't land. Clarify intention in the beginning, or in the middle, not the end.

In contrast to an "I said-you said" argument spiral, "we said" is a cue to memory of speech that we can allow ourselves under stress. "We said" points to well-worked out explicit agreements as a couple. "We said we wouldn't argue over speech" is a legitimate reminder of our agreements. And it doesn't inflame in the same way because it is unlikely to be felt as intrusive. We agreed, together, out loud. If partners haven't agreed on these basic things, and need to, this is the next order of business for couple therapy, the couple's fundamental agreements.

Finally, don't weaponize: with all the patterns partners notice such as the fifth horseman, we/they have to be careful not to weaponize them. Weaponizing is tempting because the annoying pattern, now carrying a name, will now jump out at us, and when an annoyance has a name, we may harness and overuse the name to shore up our arguments, in the process putting our partner down. Instead, agree with your partner to not argue over memory of speech and to cue each other gently if, you one or both, accidentally start doing it. A cue like "we don't argue over memory of speech," spoken gently, is a reminder to an agreement to not invite the fifth horseman into our conflicts.

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