Why You’re Only Remembering The Good Times With Your Ex
Did your ex remarkably change, or is your memory playing tricks on you?
We’re often told that love is blind, but it turns out that it’s also something of a time warp.
You may have once hated your ex, but give it a few months, and you might start thinking that he wasn’t so bad. Maybe he liked dogs. Or perhaps he made a great poached egg. Give it a few more months, toss in Valentine’s Day, and you could even regret your breakup. Did your ex remarkably change, or is your memory playing tricks on you?
Spoiler alert: It’s the latter.
“We have been both blessed and cursed with our mind’s ability to alter realities it finds too stressful,” says Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “This is one of the techniques we use to help people recover from PTSD, so it’s a blessing — and it’s also a curse when our misremembering causes us to repeat old, bad habit patterns or to stay in abusive relationships.”
A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that memory is a combination of our general knowledge of the world combined with our retention of an experience. But the retention of the experience changes to help us cope with our situations, and this is what leads us astray.
Even more significant: A 2019 study found that our memory for pain is malleable. For example, when you’re trying to decide whether you want to have a future dinner with your in-laws, you typically think about your past dinners with those in-laws. If they’ve been positive, then you’re likely to be excited about the dinner, and vice versa. Therefore, your memory is important when it comes to decision-making. But, the study asked, what if your memory of how you felt can be reconstructed and biased by your current goals? In other words, your memory of past events may change depending on how you’re feeling today. If you’re lonely, for example, you may feel like your past relationship wasn’t so bad — even if it was terrible.
This happens because rather than retrieving our memories as a whole, we retrieve them piece by piece, based on the last time we thought about it, says Donna Novak, a licensed psychologist in Simi Valley, California. This can cause changes in what really happened because you’re recalling a memory of the last time you had that memory. When it comes to remembering relationships, this becomes even more complicated, Novak says.
“We remember past relationships differently than they were, as our basolateral cortex of our amygdala and hippocampus work together for emotional memories,” Novak says. Essentially, she says, we are so encapsulated by the good aspects of the relationship that we want to believe and deceive ourselves that it was better than it actually was, in an attempt to justify negative happenings. “If you realize how bad the relationship was, forgive yourself for wanting to see it in a better light,” she says.
But although it’s understandable and forgivable — especially in February — to look back fondly on past relationships, it’s not good to do this, says Shuli Sandler, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey. Memories reflect more than the events that happened, Sandler says. They’re more about our conflicts, our deep unconscious wishes, fears and anxieties. So remembering an ex in only positive ways can make you afraid to move on to an optimistic future.
“Our fears of putting ourselves out there and embracing uncertainty may make us cling to the past in fantasy,” Sandler says.
The key to deciphering fact from fiction in our memories is writing down your thoughts and feelings about the relationship, Tessina says. Writing helps pin down the events and tends to bring you back to reality. Make sure to allow your emotions to flow when you write, and you’ll get beyond them to the facts.
Still stuck? Tessina says you can also ask people close to you who witnessed your relationship to tell you what they saw.
Also, keep reminding yourself of the truths you do know: “When you pine for an ex, you’re more likely to forget about the bad times, and to glorify the good ones,” says Michael Mazius, psychologist and director of the North Shore Clinic in Mequon, Wisconsin. “When you can’t believe you were in a relationship with an ex, the negative moments may become even more bold. Isn’t experience an interesting teacher?”