10 Ways That Memory Sustains Relationships
Applying memory to enhance intimacy.
By drawing on the potential of memory to work for us, we can nourish our relationships.
Collective memories define a relationship, reminding us how much we mean to each other.
Rehearsal of vivid, positive memories significantly correlates with higher marital satisfaction, especially with memories of laughter.
Relationships thrive on appropriate remembering.
Just as forgetting implies a lack of caring, remembering affirms that we care. Recalling past events spent together and remembering consequential events in our partner’s life shows that we value our relationship and our partner's concerns.
But not all remembering sustains a relationship. Some kinds of persistent recall can weaken the connection between two people. This post focuses on the kinds of remembering that nourish a relationship.
1. Creating New Memories – Going Places Together
Long-term relationships are enriched by creating new shared memories that build on the foundation of established memory. Adding mutual memories allows a relationship to grow.
Memory is connected to and distinguished by place, so going to different places together forms vivid memories that endure.
Travel encourages new memories, but it need not be extensive. Day trips, visits to unfamiliar neighborhoods in one’s town, or a break in geographic routine can provide distinctive place cues for new shared memories.
2. Defining Memories – Forming Collective Memories
Evolution bequeathed to us the potential to remember consequential events for our entire lives. Early hominids with the capacity to form long-term memories of one’s family and mate had a greater chance of survival than hominids who had less ability to form these bonding memories.
Just as personal episodic memories define individual selves, shared memories define a relationship, reminding us how much we mean to each other.
Noteworthy long-term memories experienced by both partners are referred to as relationship-defining memories. In an extensive meta-analysis of couples, agreement on these relationship-defining memories was positively related to measures of relationship quality and negatively related to divorce.
Recalling these shared memories also ensures that we are part of each other’s thoughts, and the more we are together in thought, the stronger the relationship.
3. Remembering Good Times and Laughter
A substantial study of married couples showed that the rehearsal of vivid, positive, and emotionally intense memories significantly correlated with higher marital satisfaction.
In particular, recalling events when we laughed hard with our partner increases reported relationship satisfaction more than any other type of happy event.
This elevated relationship satisfaction connects directly to the research on laughter itself, which creates considerable physical and emotional benefits.
When we recall a time of uncontrollable laughter with our partner, we bring back a primary memory of that uninhibited time, retrieving and reliving the sights, sounds, and joyful emotions.
4. Creative Reminiscing – and Living Forward
Creative reminiscing uses shared memories as a springboard for plans and ideas for future activities. In this way, memories themselves become the present life we’re living, and we can build from them.
5. Finding Themes
Particular interactional memories can coalesce into patterns, providing enduring knowledge about a relationship. It may take a while to detect these patterns, but they should be remembered once established.
Possible themes include working together to overcome adversity, creating fun from challenging situations, and being surprised by unexpected romantic gestures.
6. Being Understanding With Forgetting
We forget a lot, naturally. Everyday forgetting is usually not a moral failing or a personal slight. It’s simply forgetting. Every so often, however, this natural forgetting creates conflict. If our partner forgets we had a late work meeting or a dinner with friends, it’s best to acknowledge this forgetting and then put it aside and not consciously rehearse it.
In general, everyday forgetting itself should be forgotten – even if it seems inconsiderate or uncaring.
Notably, we are capable of remembering the gist of conversations but not the detail. Recalling specific words is not how our memory works. We should not be expected to remember what was said verbatim.
7. Helpful Forgetting
Some forgetting can be beneficial to a relationship. Recalling an unresolved disagreement is necessary for successful conflict resolution later, but once resolved, we are better off putting the disagreement behind us and moving ahead.
It also helps to forget the harshness of an argument or an interaction that was out of character and that our partner apologized for. Letting go of atypical irritations is beneficial.
8. Recognizing Individual Differences
When remembering together, it’s necessary to keep in mind that we each have different strengths and weaknesses with memory. We should acknowledge our own distinctive ways of remembering, as well as those of our partner, and realize that ingrained patterns of remembering and forgetting shape what we remember. (For example, I can remember who starred in a movie 25 years ago, but I forget who gave me a gift from my last birthday.) Differences in memory and forgetting should not be taken personally or taken to heart.
When we’re young children, we are taught the value of remembering, largely through interactions in the family. Our parents teach us the importance of memory by asking specific questions about past events, even before we care much about the past. In particular, gender-related differences have been identified in what children are typically asked to remember, which then influences what they remember later in adulthood. When this research was conducted, girls were asked more about friendships and emotions, and boys were asked about facts and activities. (Refer to the references below.)
9. Remembering Prospectively
Prospective memory is remembering about a future action or event – buying a birthday present next month, taking medication before dinner, remembering to call someone at a particular time. Online calendars and scheduled reminders can tell us about meetings and appointments, but many informal daily events rely on prospective memory.
In particular, we should strive to remember what we promised to do – in the most effective way possible (post-it notes, emailing ourselves, spending time rehearsing the promise). Prospective memory is also helpful with our partner’s important professional obligations and busy or difficult days.
10. Deciding to Reminisce
Reminiscing can be useful early in relationships and in mature relationships. People who rehearse relationship-defining memories are usually younger than 30 or older than 70. In new relationships, remembering firsts can be fun and sustaining. Later, landmark events are helpful to review – trips together, weddings, births of children – and grandchildren.
Between a relationship’s formative years and much later years, reminiscing should be called on judiciously to avoid using nostalgia to replace lived experience. (Reminiscing can have the disadvantage of implying that a relationship is mostly in the past.)
We live our lives forward, but every so often, we can pause and reminisce with our relationship partner.
Memory has multiple effects – suggesting, supporting, disturbing, validating, exacerbating, comforting, and guiding. We should not call on memory to dwell on isolated unpleasantness, uncharacteristically harsh words, occasional forgetting, or resolved arguments. Instead, memories should be used to plan, discuss new activities, note patterns of commitment in our relationships, and savor happy, funny times together. By drawing on the potential of memory to work for us, we can nourish our relationships.
Robert N. Kraft, Ph.D. - website
Davis, P. J. (1999). Gender differences in autobiographical memory for childhood emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 498–510. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1998
Fivush, R., Haden, C., & Reese, E. (1995). Remembering, recounting, and reminiscing: The development of autobiographical memory in social context. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.), Remembering our past: Studies in autobiographical memory (pp. 341-359). New York: Cambridge University Press.