By: Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. | March 19, 2022
"Do you and your partner ever spend time deliberately talking about the “good old days” when you first started seeing each other? How about the high points in your relationship’s history, such as a particularly romantic getaway or an action-packed vacation? If you’re not engaging in these conversations on a regular basis, new research suggests you might want to give it a try.
According to the University of Siegen’s Mohammad Reza Majzoobi and Simon Forstmeier (2022), “Memories couples have about their ongoing marital relationship appear to be one of the decisive interpersonal variables in their close relationship” (p. 8). Their study delved into the existing published literature to understand just how decisive these old memories could be in helping partners legally committed to each other become and stay close throughout the course of their time together.
How Can Couple Memories Help Improve a Long-Term Relationship?
When understanding the role of memory in your own mental health and well-being, it might strike you that aside from helping you function better in the world, your recall of your past life helps stitch together the various events and experiences that shape who you are today. As the HBO Max series “The Tourist” illustrates (with an amnesiac main character), people without long-term memory lose all sense of their identity. Whether accurate or not, your memory of who you were forms the basis for your awareness now of who you are.
Indeed, in the words of the German authors, “Just as memory serves as the knowledge database of the self, memories couples have about their close relationship are also expected to operate as their relational identity database” (p. 8). When you are your partner reminiscence about the early days of your relationship, you’re digging into that “database” in a way that can promote the intertwining of your identities as individuals but, more importantly, as a couple.
It's possible, of course, that relationship memories can become sources of tension and disagreement. What if your memories of a past shared experience differ not only in the details but also in their emotional associations?
That adventurous vacation may have been harrowing for you but exciting and deeply fulfilling for your partner. You might not even agree on when you took the vacation or where you went. Such divergence could either be a symptom of problems you and your partner have in your relationship now, or could start a snowballing process as each of you starts to question how well you understand each other.
Relationship Defining Memories and Their Impact on Couples
As the term implies, a “Relationship-Defining Memory (RDM)” has the quality of being highly specific, significant, and closely connected to emotions. That awful vacation (from your point of view) might not meet those standards, so it could remain a chronic sore spot unless, or until, it’s thrown into the back of your relational database.
The University of Siegen researchers used the technique of meta-analysis (looking at results of previously-published research) to identify, from a pool of 285 studies, a final set of 19 considered acceptable in terms of the study topic, the nature of the sample, and coverage of such topics as autobiographical memory or reminiscence in connection with either positive outcomes of satisfaction or distress. Because the authors chose married heterosexual couples only (for the sake of uniformity among studies), this is something to consider when you interpret the findings.
Measuring marital outcomes was a relatively straightforward process for the studies included in the meta-analysis but the qualities used to define an RDM required more imagination. Think about your own RDM’s. If they involve the first time you met, what words would you use to describe them? And what would those words have to be in order to count as a “match” to your partner’s recall of the same event (or perhaps even a different event altogether)?"