Help! I Can’t Remember the Positive Times in My Relationship

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Reader’s Question

I recently reunited with a man I dated a year ago and for whom I developed strong feelings over the course of several months. I still love him but we went through a lot with his depression, suicide attempts, and multiple personality, and we decided it was best to stay apart until he was better. The problem now is I cannot remember anything good about our relationship. I remember the negative events but it seems I blocked out all of our good times. I don’t remember particular events, time spent together, intimacy, and so forth. He, as well as my family, have been telling me what happened and the information from everyone matches, but I still have no recollection of any of it. Is there any way to recall these months of my life? I hate not remembering such a special time of my life that obviously was a very happy time and that led me to love him.

Psychologist’s Reply

Memories of our experiences are frequently referred to as episodic memories, or autobiographical memories, and they can be difficult to explain. One thing we do know is that such memories are not stored in our brains as a movie would be, as a straightforward recording of events. Instead, we seem to encode or store bits and pieces of experiences, and when we recall an experience, we pull together those fragments and construct something that feels like a coherent episode. The key term here is “construct,” rather than “replay.” So, knowledge, experience, and emotions subsequent to the event can certainly alter our memory of the event.

The fact that memories can be affected by subsequent experience underlies a statement I’ve heard more than one person declare: “I don’t remember what I ever saw in him/her!” In these cases, the individual intellectually recognizes that there must have been good reasons for liking or loving another person, but because of everything that has happened since then, it’s difficult to remember what those “things” were that lead to the initially positive feelings. Given that the difficulties in your relationship were most likely more traumatic for you than for your boyfriend or your family, it makes sense that your memories have been affected more than theirs were.

We also tend not to remember events that are relatively routine or uneventful, even if they are positive experiences at the time. Consider sexual experiences with a long-term partner. We may have had hundreds of such experiences, yet the only ones we remember are liable to be those that were unusual in some way (good, bad, or otherwise). Because the negative or traumatic events in your relationship were likely more unusual and emotionally charged, they’re liable to be more easily remembered than the relatively calm, pleasant times that occurred before.

For better or worse, there are no reliable ways to prompt memories (assuming the memories were encoded and reinforced to begin with). The fact that you have loving feelings toward your boyfriend belies the fact that you must have had positive experiences upon which those feelings were formed and associated with your partner. Those feelings appear to be providing sufficient motivation to re-start the relationship. So, rather than trying to recall initial experiences together, why not focus on forming new memories of shared positive experiences? Regardless of the number and intensity of shared memories, the future of your relationship is much more dependent on the present as it unfolds. Enjoy each other and take each new memory as it comes.

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