Memories After a Breakup
How should we respond to vivid images of a past romance?
Posted September 3, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
After a breakup, vivid memories of the former relationship naturally come to mind. Images intrude into consciousness, ranging from sweetly pleasant to surprisingly distressing. This is normal. Your memory system is trying to make sense of salient memories that no longer define your interpersonal self as they once did.
In the past, these memories strengthened your relationship, bonding you to your romantic partner and providing the relationship with a personal history. Now your memory system is figuring out where these memories fit.
What should be done with your self and these memories?
1) Put away your important mementos in a sealed box.
Keepsakes serve as tangible retrieval cues for relationship memories, and retrieving the memories only acts to strengthen the retrieval pathways. Putting the actual mementos out of sight allows the retrieval pathways to weaken and become less accessible. Memories of the relationship will remain, but if the retrieval pathways weaken with disuse, then the memories themselves are less likely to be recalled.
Later, you may want some of the objects or the memories, so resist the urge to throw everything away, even if it feels good at the time.
2) Use memory to help itself.
If you are missing your former romantic partner and longing for the impossibility of getting back together, think of a distinctive memory of an unpleasant interaction. Choose one vivid event that reminds you of why the romantic relationship didn’t continue, and go to that memory when you need it. The memory will remind you why the relationship ended.
If you are persistently remembering the other person in terms of the pain they caused, de-emphasize these memories of wrongdoing by calling upon other memories that define the person as a complex and flawed human being. Seeking less dramatic and more nuanced memories balances the narrative memory of the relationship, while making the specific painful events less retrievable.
Memory can idealize and memory can vilify. If you are missing someone, memory will select idealized positive images. If you are feeling angry, memory will select images that support this anger. Balancing each type of memory with realistic images will decrease the insistence of extreme memories.
3) Engage in fun activities you did before your relationship.
Recalling activities you did in the past will remind you of the self before the relationship, while elevating the accessibility of memories from that earlier life you enjoyed.
4) Take a trip.
You don’t need to go far, just away from your usual places. Retrieval cues in your present environment abound and can instantly bring back a memory, especially soon after the breakup. A trip breaks connections between the features of your everyday environment and your memories. If you can't get away on a trip, start a new book.
5) Introduce new excitements into your life.
These excitements don’t need to be large. They can be as simple as breaking routines—taking a different route to work or changing the order for daily maintenance and weekly chores. These simple changes provide a healthy disruption to the engrained patterns of daily memory.
6) Try focused distraction.
Whenever an unwanted memory intrudes, choose one alternative, unrelated memory to think about. Focus on that one memory and think of it as a positive alternative to the unwanted memory. This one positive memory not only replaces the unwanted memory, it also keeps other potential memories from becoming associated with it.
Actively suppressing an unwanted memory without distraction actually strengthens retrieval of the unwanted memory. Concentrating on not thinking about a memory is simply another way of thinking about it, which then increases the likelihood of its retrieval. The unwanted memory needs to be replaced, not denied.
7) Be active.
After a breakup, there is a tendency to decrease activity. This inactivity then allows memories to surface. Directing attention outward into the world leaves less attention for calling up memories. Aerobic exercise, in particular, takes the mind off memory, while also lifting one’s mood. Moreover, the benefits of aerobic exercise are long-term.
Memory suggests, disturbs, supports, validates, comforts, and guides. By rearranging the activities in your life, by avoiding the counterproductive effects of memory, and by engaging the potential of memory to work for you, the aftershocks of a broken relationship can be diminished.