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The Unsettling Truth
Men and women just can't agree on how to argue
Illustration A COUPLE OF researchers found that a husband could get into an argument with his wife and forget what the argument was about 15 minutes later. A wife will get into an argument with her husband and remember every little detail 15 years later.

When I read about this study, the only thing I could say was, "Well, duh!"

Anyone who has been married for more than a week knows that the memories of men and women are completely opposite. Men can't remember birthdays or their children's names, but they can relive every play in the final quarter of a high-school football game they were in 20 years ago. A woman may not remember her husband telling her about that big game he played 20 years ago, but she does remember not only his birthday but also the birthdays of his brothers and sisters as well as his parents.

When it comes to remembering arguments, wives play totally unfair. I won't say they take notes during arguments, but women seem to have an uncanny knack for remembering certain things that men forget, like details.

Basically, in arguments I like to use the 30-second rule while The Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston believes in the 30-year rule.

I approach arguing with Mrs. Johnston with the idea that I still have to live with her after the argument so I want to make my point and get on with living. Thanks to a short attention span, I can usually get my point across within the limit of 30 seconds, forget what we were arguing about in the next 30 seconds and move on to another subject.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Johnston doesn't believe in the rapid-fire argument. She likes to mull over the various statements her husband made in his allotted 30 seconds and come up with a reasoned rebuttal. The reasoned rebuttal may happen right after Mrs. Johnston has heard her husband's argument. Or it may happen several days after the argument when her husband, who said his 30-second piece of pure logic and then went about his life, forgot the whole point of the discussion.

So when Mrs. Johnston starts to talk in her "reasonable" voice — that's the voice she uses on her children, husband and wild animals — about some event that rings a vague bell in the back of my head, I should be smart enough to nod in agreement and hope I'm not caught with a direct question about the old battle.

But here is where those researchers say the breakdown between men and women comes in. Women are not content to debate the general idea of the argument; they want to go over each and every point of it. Mrs. Johnston even goes so far as to remember what I said during my 30 seconds.

(I must digress here. When it comes to remembering stuff, I have to depend on Mrs. Johnston's memory. She will remind me what I said I wanted to pick up at the store and what I was going to write about. She'll tell me the story I just told someone was the same story I told that person a week before, only now it has a different ending. When it comes to details, I am at a disadvantage. If Mrs. Johnston said I said it, then I must have. I was going to say one more thing here but I forget what it was, and Mrs. Johnston isn't here to remind me, so I'll just get to the next paragraph.)

When you can't remember what you said in an argument, the other person can make up all sorts of terrible things and claim you said them. In your defense, all you can do is say, "Yeah, but . . ."

The last time Mrs. Johnston and I exchanged words and she came back with a snappy retort a week later, I promised myself I would take notes during our next argument so I can say something witty the week after.

I'll just have to ask Mrs. Johnston to remind me to get a pen and a piece of paper.

Steve Johnston is a retired Seattle Times reporter. His e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.

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