The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse; or: "We Said".
Updated: Nov 19
I write these blogs mainly to help 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 feeding, thereby saving their relationship, is by now familiar in couple therapy circles. But there's a fifth horseman that tramples and distresses couples in the relationship corral. Because over time it's easy to learn to identify, there's a lot of gain for the energy couples and their therapists spend in watching out for it.
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 stupid.
B: No I didn't. I didn't say that. I said I was worried I wouldn't like it.
A: No that's not what you said. You said you thought it was stupid and you'd never want to see it.
B: No, I didn't say that. You're the one who said it was stupid to not see it. I said....
A: No, what you said was.
B: What I said was..., and then you said..., and that's why I said what I said.
Arguing over what was said, or for short, memory of speech, is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. While arguing over the minute details of past events is a dubious exercise because of the fallibility of our memories, there's something particularly challenging to us in having our memory of words spoken disputed by others. Memory is not just fallible, it's always incomplete, and in arguments this incompleteness is easy to forget.
The dialogue above is a caricature, but not uncommon in early couples' sessions. Memory-of-speech can be even more pernicious when it's more subtle. If a partner even starts up a complaint with "you said" it's about as welcome as being pulled over by a cop– you've been caught and are being written up. The stage is set for an argument over speech, actions and anything else that the record of memory doesn't actually provide in any completeness. But we think it does, and therein lies the problem.
Why are memories of speech such a relentless drumbeat summoning the horses of war? Because in conflict memory supports your idealized, face-preserving image of yourself. Your identity. Your apparent self. Your ego. And because your partner's memory supports their own identity, apparent self, their ego. In a conflict-turned-fight, both memories work overtime to support the speakers' sense of heroic place in the world and simultaneously their unfair victimhood. You are hero but also victim, and they are villain and certainly not heroic. Under stress, memories of heroism and villainy can crowd out any others where you were less heroic or less victimized and they more heroic or at least less villanous. Until you lower stress, it will be hard for you to recover or speak from temporarily suppressed but relationship-preserving memory where you are friends and equals rather than adversaries.
Adding injury to insult, in arguing over what you said and what they said, insistence on your memory of what they said effectively puts words in their mouth, words they don't recognize (at least under stress, but also possibly even when not). And they may be doing the same to you. This can feel to you and them like you are shoving words down their throat or to you like having words shoved down yours. It's intrusive, and now you are not only fighting over memory but over the experience of intrusion right here, right now. If you don't recognize this intrusive and identity-preserving fight carried out through arguing over memories of speech, then you are not the target audience for this blog. But if you recognize it, there are simple solutions: cold turkey and at times the even more important "we said."
As to the cold turkey solution: Train yourselves to replace all "I saids" or "you saids" with: "here's what I want you to know". Or: "here's what's important".
e.g: here's a couple that has worked on this problem, and where one partner, partner B, has started to become aware of how "you said" ignites conflagrations:
A: I'm not sure what you are talking about. You said you didn't want to see the movie because it's stupid. A could be about to ignite a memory of speech war.
B: Ok, here's what I want you to know: I want to see the movie. What about you? B wisely puts a stop to it.
A: Let's skip it and watch reruns of the Sopranos..... A moves on, wisely.
B saved both of them from 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 you want. Do you want to see the movie?
B: Yeah. I mean, No.
A: Sopranos instead?
Bottom line: when you want to know what your 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 say it....but they don't feel it now, so what (you think) they said is irrelevant. And you are likely to be wrong in, if not details of speech, the context that their speech conveyed. Furthermore, don't give them bait to argue over what they think you said. Instead of arguing over speech and its root in fallible yet self-preserving memory, enjoy the infallibility of theirs and your taste in The Sopranos, one of the best of all shows.
"We said" is another way out. "We said" is the only cue to memory of speech that we should allow ourselves under stress.. While it can still provoke a counter argument ("no we didn't"), "we said" still points to our agreements as a couple, rather than to my identity or yours. And it doesn't inflame in the same way because it is less likely to be felt as intrusive. "We said" points to us, and if you are good at not falling into a memory of what I said or what you said in the process, arguments over what "we said" can give way to a resolution that sidesteps the quicksand. Give it a try; what matters in conflicts is what we say as a couple, and if it wasn't clear to both what we said–ie, agreed to– in the past, fine, make it clear now. Bottom line: Combining cold turkey & "we said" will keep you out of unnecessarily escalating conflict.
Finally, don't weaponize: with all the patterns you notice such as the fifth horseman, be careful not to weaponize them. Weaponizing is tempting because the annoying pattern will now jump out at you, and when an annoyance has a name, we may harness and overuse the name to shore up our victimhood or their villainy. 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. "Let's not do that" is the best, simplest cue. Or: "we don't argue over memory of speech," is a bit more specific but sometimes necessary as a reminder to our fundamental agreement not to invite this horseman into the home.