- Nostalgia can serve many functions, not only for your own well-being but for your relationship.
- New research on a nostalgia induction for members of a couple shows how it can promote a sense of commitment.
- Practicing nostalgia, such as thinking back on “your song,” can help offset the challenges of the present.
Thinking back on the early days of your relationship, what memories and images come to mind? Do you recall, with fondness, the awkwardness both of you felt when you embarked on your earliest conversations? Does remembering the first glance you shared with your partner still give you any of the same tingles it produced in that moment?
Recalling fondly the past, or “nostalgia,” is a state of mind people naturally drift into often. The slightest reminder of an earlier time could lead you to daydream about how those “old days” were better than your “new days.” But what impact does this reverse time travel have on your actual well-being? When it comes to your relationship, can revisiting the past give you a temporary break from what might be a less-than-optimal set of struggles you’re experiencing?
Nostalgia as the Antidote to Conflict
According to Texas Christian University’s Julie Swets and colleagues (2023), there are psychological benefits of engaging in this type of “sentimental longing for the past." Note the use of the term “longing"; it’s not just remembering, but wishing for, the earlier days to return.
As a state of longing, nostalgia could therefore have drawbacks. Indeed, as Swets et al. note, it actually is a bittersweet state of mind. Reminders of your awkwardness could generate negative feelings. However, because time heals many wounds, the pleasantness associated with the relationship you eventually formed with your partner should outweigh those negative feelings.
The other feature of nostalgic remembrances, as the TCU researchers point out, is that they often involve other people, but in all of them, you are the “salient protagonist." Together, these features mean that nostalgia is a “self-relevant emotion,” making it different from, for example, homesickness. As you reflect back on those early relationship days, then, you do so from the vantage point of yourself as the “nostaligizer.”
During times of stress, couples may start to walk down that historic path of their early days, Swets et al. maintain. Thinking back on the past nostalgically, also called “relational savoring,” could provide a much-needed antidote to current strains. Generating positive memories, then, could negate or cancel out the negative feelings in the present.
Testing Nostalgia’s Value
To study the possibility that nostalgia could play a valuable role in reducing the negative impact of conflict, Swets and her colleagues first conducted a correlational study with online adult participants, measuring the relationship between nostalgia frequency and conflict as predictors of both commitment to the partner and satisfaction. This first set of findings showed that commitment, rather than satisfaction, served as the main beneficiary of nostalgia frequency.
Taking the research to the next level, the Texas research team then set up an experimental manipulation with a sample of 769 online participants, all in committed relationships. In the nostalgia-induction condition, participants read an induction prompt that instructed them to “think of a past event that has meaning for your relationship with your romantic partner… that makes you feel the most nostalgic.” Alternate conditions involved having participants recall a past positive event and, for the control, simply an ordinary event from the past week.
Try this out for yourself now. Perhaps your nostalgic event was one in which you went to a concert or show. Recall the music you heard, and while you do, the bond that it created with your partner, making it “your song.” To give this the greatest meaning, see if you can recall the music’s words or tune.
Putting yourself into the place of participants, now rate your relationship on the amount of conflict you’re going through by rating yourself on this sample item: “My partner and I have a lot of disagreements.”
Turning to the findings, higher levels of current conflict were related to lower degrees of commitment to continue in the relationship, as you might expect. The nostalgia induction, however, reduced the size of this effect. These findings were consistent with those tracked in the correlational data from the first study.
Importantly, simply thinking back on any positive event did not produce changes in the relationship between conflict and commitment. The reflections from the past had to involve the relationship in order for them to have a positive impact.
Using Nostalgia to Your Relationship’s Benefit
As illustrated in the example from the musical event you shared with your partner, it can be relatively easy to invoke nostalgic reminiscences. They may even happen naturally. You might be in the middle of a prolonged dispute with each other when, for no particular reason, the tune from your song filters through your consciousness. Does this make you stop and pause, triggering a momentary return to those earlier days?
It’s important to note that the findings of the TCU study applied to commitment, not satisfaction. There may be times when you remain unhappy, even after playing that song in your head. The benefit of nostalgia would be to help you realize that the relationship is worth sticking with. You start to think about not only the story you tell about yourself and your life, but also the story you reflect on as a couple traversing life together.
As the authors note, commitment can outweigh satisfaction as the main factor of interest in relationship health because “committing to a relationship is what makes it last." Nostalgia, furthermore, “has the potential to be an accessible, compounding resource for partnerships—as they persist, the repository of sentimental memories grows."
To sum up, whatever helps you return to the state of mind you were in during your early times as a couple is worth pursuing. Doing so together with your partner could help both of you as the “sweet” of the past starts to counteract the “bitter" of the present.
Swets, J. A., Cox, C. R., & Ekas, N. V. (2023). Preliminary evidence that relationship nostalgia might offset romantic conflict to aid relationship commitment. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice. doi:10.1037/cfp0000248