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Can We Change the Way We Remember Romantic Relationships?

Image result for Can We Change the Way We Remember Romantic Relationships?We like to think that our memoriesare accurate representations of the past as we experienced it, as if there were a dispassionate and objective biographer in our head recording our life’s events. But the truth is much different: We play a large role, consciously or not, in crafting our memories and constructing the narrative of how we remember our lives (in a process researches often call narrative memory).

I was reminded of this when I saw this report of recent psychological research into the effects of mood on how one remembers their parents, which concluded with this paragraph quoting the lead author of the study, Dr. Lawrence Patihis:

“The significance of this research lies in the new knowledge that our current evaluations of people can be lowered if we choose to focus on the negative, and this can have a side effect: the diminishing of positive aspects of childhood memories,” says Patihis. “We wonder if wide-ranging reappraisals of parents—perhaps in life or in therapy—could lead to intergenerational heartache and estrangement. Understanding this subtle type of memory distortion is necessary if we want to prevent it.”

The study was conducted with reference to parents, but I think the results also apply to our romantic relationships, especially past ones, of which our memories can change over time.

Any relationship is made up of a number of experiences both good and bad, and to the extent that we choose to think about them at all, we have no choice but to remember them selectively. According to the study cited above, things that happen to us now can trigger changes in the way we remember relationships from our past. If we see something about an ex that puts them in a positive light, we may be led to remember more good things about the relationship and have a better overall assessment of it, and vice versa.

Although that effect is unconscious, this also suggests that we can play an active role in how we choose to remember past relationships. For example, I tend to focus on the negative aspects of past relationships, not only the break-up itself but also events that precipitated or led to it—and we all know that if you go down that rabbit-hole, you can find as many “causes” for a break-up as you want. (“She didn’t pass the salt when I asked that one time at dinner seven months ago—that was the beginning of the end, I just know it!”)

For those of you who do this as well, we need to realize that this is a choice. No one is forcing us to remember the events of a past relationship a certain way—it all depends on how we want to construct our narratives, which is based on our self-image and also reinforces it in a vicious cycle. The more we remember our past relationships as disasters, the more likely we are to imagine that any future relationship will also be a disaster as well, because that becomes part of how we conceive of ourselves.

But this can work the other way too. We can choose to focus on the good parts of a past relationship without denying that there were bad parts. The more we choose to remember that there were times we were happy in a relationship—times that our partners were likely happy too—the better this reflects on us as persons and partners, which will put you in a better mindset to seek out a new relationship and be successful at it.

There is an argument to be made for trying to remember past relationships in the most accurate and objective way, like a manager performing an employee review or a journalist reporting on a major news event. Why would we want to remember something any other way than how it “really” happened? But these ideals don’t apply to romantic relationships, which are too personal, too subjective, and too emotional to be remembered according to any ideal of perfect truth. There is no Archimedean point from which we can view the relationship from outside of it, and therefore no “objective truth” to be remembered.

This doesn’t mean that we should remember things that didn’t happen or deny things that did—we shouldn’t lie to ourselves. To make sense of the mess of memories involved in any major life event, though, we have to sort, frame, and prioritize them in some way to form a narrative, so why not do this in a way that serves our best interests going forward? The American pragmatist philosophers said that truth must serve a purpose, which is controversial, but whether or not you agree, it does help us think in a different way about the purpose of how we choose to remember our relationships (for which there is no definite truth anyway).

Every memory, every experience, every feeling, is ours—and they’re ours to remember how we choose for whatever reason we choose, and you can choose to remember them in a way that makes you feel better about yourself. (Radical idea, I know.)


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