Peter Pearson

In a recent couples therapy session we were talking about Taylor’s memory. He forgot (yet again) what we had discussed the previous week.

Interestingly, this is a common occurrence for many couples I see even though they are intelligent, high-achieving, and powerfully positioned in major corporations.

It turned out his memory problem went beyond forgetting our meetings. And it bothered him a lot.

We discussed the impact of his bad memory on his partner Ashley. She had to compensate in multiple ways. She would feel unimportant to him and react in pouty punishing ways which then triggered him.

She then asked if the reason he didn’t ever call her during the day just to say “Hi” was because he couldn’t remember.

He paused and said, “No, it is a problem of intentionality. I make work a priority over calling even though you ask me to.”

Ashley’s “reptilian brain” could easily have responded with righteous outrage for yet again feeling like a low priority.

Taylor knew he was potentially creating a firestorm. He could have told a lie and nobody including me would have known.

So how did Ashley respond?

She thanked him for being candid and responding with integrity.

It was a terrific example of how couples can communicate when not coming from their self-centered, self-protective “reptilian brain.”

They both responded from their higher selves, the part of the brain that can envision how they aspire to be when feeling threatened.

It was a big step toward creating a strong team where both partners can learn to trust the integrity and honesty of their partner.

This is what you want, right? To trust the integrity and honesty of your partner.

Of course it would have been simpler to say a little “white lie” but they had been on that slippery slope before. One cover-up after another had led to a vast emotional distance between them. They avoided as much as possible talking about anything that could be disagreeable. Or that would evoke displeasure.

The distance grew. And they could not talk about that, either.

The “reptilian brain” doesn’t care about emotional distance. It only cares about avoiding the stress of an argument. It wants to be safe right now even if the cost is greater distress later. Kind of like “ice cream today and diet tomorrow.”

The lizard brain lives in the moment and for the moment.

Taylor and Ashley were collaborating to create a better future. One “simple” transaction at a time.

What would you have done?

This is the third blog in the series. Click to read the first blog or the second blog.


Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples

Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Ellyn Bader.

Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple.

Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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5 years ago

Getting back to Taylor’s memory…what can a couple do when one partner can’t remember what was discussed or decided? I am endlessly frustrated when I think something is decided, only to find that my partner doesn’t even recall the discussion, let alone what we decided. He asks me things, but never remembers the answers I give. Things don’t get done because he doesn’t remember agreeing to do them, or even that something needs to be done. We have the same discussions over and over. How can we ever progress when it’s like living in a time loop?

Karen Noble
Karen Noble
5 years ago

Selective memory loss is a passive aggressive character trait. Please research passive aggression. My husband came from a family that never allowed him to express his views or disagree. He observed and learnt that he could rebel in a subtle way, by appearing to hear and agree and then decide to forget the conversation. He carried this behaviour forward into our marriage, I would ask him to do something, he would agree and then should he not want to do it, he would conveniently forget, or else say I made it up. For the people on the receiving end of passive aggressive behaviour it is ‘crazy making’ the co-dependant dance has to be acknowledged and stopped before healing and growth can begin in the relationship. Knowing the truth will set you free and victory will follow.

5 years ago
Reply to  Karen Noble

Crazy-making is right! My partner had a similar upbringing. So how do I deal with it? I’ve learned not to believe/trust him, and I take care of anything important myself, to make sure it’s done, so I’ve reclaimed my life from the disasters he’s caused. But that leads to a lot of resentment on my part, that I have to take responsibility for everything. Is there any way to FIX this, or is this as good as it gets?

Pete Pearson
Pete Pearson
5 years ago

Lynn – what does the word FIX refer to? You? Him? The relationship? it is unclear.
The other question about “is this as good as it gets” are you referring to you or your partner?
Do you believe this is as good as it gets for you?
This is not an idle question- it goes deep into your core convictions and values about what you will or will not stand up for and will you accept and deal with the consequences of your choices?
For better or for worse your dilemma is about the painful choices you are confronted with. At some point in many people’s lives we are confronted with extremely painful choices with no easy answers or solutions.
With all sincerity I wish you well with your tough choices

5 years ago

So far all the changing has been on my end, and I’ve bent as much as I intend to. By FIX, I mean two people trying to work things out to have a fairer, more balanced relationship; an equal partnership where we both contribute, in terms of keeping the our lives running (house, bills, food, etc) and improving our relationship. He has not been open to discussing it; he gets sulky because he can’t help that he ‘forgets’ things and says it’s not intentional. Is ending the relationship my only option?

Pete Pearson
Pete Pearson
5 years ago

Lynn -I don’t know if ending the relationship is your only option. You could consider seeing a couples therapist (one with A LOT of experience). If you have bent as much as you intend and he is not open to discussing it, then having a third party help each of you out of this impasse may be your best alternative at this time.

2 years ago

I also join the ladies with husbands who conveniently cannot recall important discussions. In my case, I married someone a decade older so it really did seem like a physiological issue and I worried about Alzheimer’s. But soon I realized he remembered what was significant TO HIM. This really is a vicious cycle of frustration, arguing, and zero resolution. Ultimately we divorced because I couldn’t take the feeling of spinning my wheels and wasting my breath talking!

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.