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He Said, She Said

Telling tall tales about your partner can improve the way you think about relationships—but worsen your actual memory.

Your boyfriend buys you a flower from a street vendor. A small gesture, but you reimagine it as a grand romantic act, tell all your friends, and weeks later still think he's the best lover in the world.

Sound familiar? The tales we construct about simple events can take on a life of their own—and, according to a study, not only influence our memory of the events but also shape our current views of our partners and relationships.

Ian McGregor, Ph.D., and John Holmes, Ph.D., asked volunteers to read a vignette about a conflict between a fictional couple, then told them to stick up for either one partner or the other. Two weeks later, participants were asked to recall the original story and objectively decide who was wrong and who was right. By and large, most people replaced the actual incidents of the story with their own subjective version, based on the defense they'd been asked to give weeks earlier. Instead of the true account, subjects recalled only their perspective of the story. McGregor explains that storytelling naturally leads to a selective memory. "Details that are embedded in a story get encoded better," he says, "and are therefore more easily retrieved later," so we remember these facts and not the whole tale. Similarly, the way we retell a happening depends on our initial impression of it. If a story is easy to recount and sounds true to us, like the idea that your flower-bearing boyfriend is a real-life Romeo, the gist of the story remains the same in the telling, albeit with embellishment. But if the original incident rubs us the wrong way—say, aforementioned boyfriend forgot to pick you up from the airport—we may tailor the gist of the story to one that suits us better (he was stressed about work and it naturally slipped his mind, for example).

This "storytelling effect" holds true not only in the lab but in real-life friendships and romantic relationships, say the researchers, professors of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Spinning yarns about our lives helps us to resolve the ambiguity of people and events in our lives, allowing us to make sense of them. By idealizing them, we allay our fears about them. But McGregor points out that creating satisfying tales about our partners and relationships only reassures us if they are compelling and based somewhat in truth.

"Not all stories work," he says. "A bad story can have the reverse effect"—leading us to doubt the ones we love.