Remembering the Future Is Usually Pretty Sunny, but Cracks Can Show Up in Our Rose-Colored Glasses [20]

In Neurobiology by Dr. Keith Witt

couple_conflict-300x191“You slept with your high school girlfriend and lied to me! How do I know you won’t cheat again?” Carrie, an attractive woman in her late thirties glares at her husband Mike of ten years, sitting across from her in my office. They have two sweet daughters (five and eight) a great house, good friends, and meaningful jobs, but life has unraveled since Carrie discovered Mike’s infidelity. It’s our eighth session. Contrary to most media representations, those of us who work with couples usually insist they sit facing one another—so they don’t spend the session looking at you while complaining about each other. Mike looks down in shame (a good sign, actually, that cheating feels wrong). I think to myself—not for the first time—“Men and women sitting in these armchairs in this room for over twenty years, hating and loving each other across three feet of carpet, always revealing universal principles of love.” This is our eighth session, and Carrie and Mike are making more progress than they think. Frustrated with Mike’s silence, Carrie raises her voice, “Well? Say something! Don’t just sit there!” Mike looks over at me hopelessly. “I don’t know what to say. I’ve told her a hundred times I’ll never do it again. No possible way. But she won’t ever believe me.” Carrie gets even angrier, “I’ve always been a positive person. But I’m not a fool!” I look at them with affection and admiration. Carrie has always been a positive person, even more optimistic that most (and humans are by nature generally optimistic). Mike almost certainly won’t call his ex-lover again. He saw her at his twentieth high school reunion, only had sex with her twice, and didn’t enjoy it all that much—when we pursue infidelity fantasies they almost always become tarnished realities. Catching their eyes I say, “I think you two are remembering the wrong future.” As I intended, they both look confused. Optimism, evolution, and remembering the future. We use the same brain mechanisms for anticipating the future as we do for remembering the past. Yes, I know it’s mind-boggling, but when thinking about what we’re going to do later today, we are actually remembering the future, even as we create it. Imagining the future involves almost exactly the same neurological processes and brain areas as thinking about the past. And these memories change all the time. How we anticipate and remember depends largely on our states of consciousness—secure, safe states yield more optimistic memories (both past and future), and defensive, anxious, and depressed states yield more pessimistic memories (both past and future). Not only can we change memories of the past and beliefs about the future, we automatically do it all the time. This is because brains evolved to protect and guide us more than to keep accurate historical records and make realistic predictions. When we feel safe, we’ll usually err on the side of optimism—life is good, it’s fine to take risks and give people a second chance. When we feel unsafe, we’ll usually err on the side of protection—life is dangerous, watch out and don’t trust anyone. People who feel safe and connected usually anticipate good futures, and people in general have an optimistic bias—we tend to see our futures as unrealistically positive. That’s why 70% of the respondents in one study believed American families are less successful than in their parents’ day, but 76% were optimistic about their family’s future. That’s why 0% of marriage license applicants think their marriage will fail, when 50% of marriages end in divorce. That’s why people anticipate no problems and lots of fun on their next vacation, even though there are usually issues like cancelled flights, child meltdowns, and stress-driven arguments. We tend to remember the future through rose-colored glasses. Of course, like most human reactions, this all breaks down in the face of trauma, depression, and defensive states. Angry, defensive, frightened, or pissed off people like Mike and Carrie tend to view the past with skepticism (“Were you always in contact with her?” asked Carrie in our first session, “You’ve probably been carrying on for years!”), and the future with doubt (Mike’s, “There’s nothing I can say. You’ll never trust me again”). I explain all this to Mike and Carrie, and, even though they find it interesting, they don’t get how it applies to them. “So, what does this mean about what we’re going through?” asks Mike, while Carrie nods her head. I don’t point out that this is the first cooperative activity they’ve engaged in since they sat down (you need to pick your spots in therapy). Instead I focus on the dilemma of his infidelity. “First of all. Both of you are weighing your future way too negatively because this has been such a nightmare.” Carrie interrupts indignantly, “What do you mean? He cheated on me. With his high school sweetheart!” I look at her and breathe deeply, which she unconsciously mirrors—relaxing a tiny bit. “Carrie, one of the worst things about this for you is that, before you discovered Mike cheating, you believed there was zero possibility he’d stray. As it turns out, there’s actually very little chance of him doing it again, since it wasn’t that satisfying and it has created this hurricane of pain for both of you.” Mike nods vigorously. “But, ‘very little chance’ isn’t ‘no chance.’ No matter how much better things get, you have to deal with the possibility it will happen again. That’s a big loss for you—even one percent possibility is completely different from zero percent. Brains don’t do statistics. One percent will feel like ninety percent if you’re upset, and you’ll relate to Mike as if it is ninety percent.” Carrie looks thoughtful as I say this—it makes sense to her. I turn to Mike, “Before you cheated, Carrie completely trusted you. You didn’t realize how important this was until you lost it. Now, no matter how honorably you behave, she won’t completely trust you again for years—maybe never—and that’s a huge loss for you. Knowing her even a little from our sessions, I predict she will gradually trust you more if you consistently practice honesty, integrity, and transparency (I see Carrie nod slightly at this), but your nervous system doesn’t believe in her when you’re bummed out. When you get depressed and pessimistic, your brain projects her being just as pissed and rejecting for the rest of your marriage as she is now.” Now I look at both of them, “That’s what I mean when I say, ‘You’re remembering the wrong future.’ Upset people lose their native human optimism and create unrealistically negative visions of the future. The wounds are still too deep for Carrie to think this might ever work out OK. “All I know is that I’ll have doubts for years to come, no matter how well we do.” Mike looks her in the eyes and says, “I can’t really blame you, but I’ll keep doing my best to prove to you that it will never happen again.” I smile at them, “Carrie, this is the first time in eight sessions that you’ve seriously considered even being with Mike for years to come, much less that you might ‘do well.’” Both look surprised (and a little pleased) as they realize that they’ve just remembered a different future.