5 Reasons It's Worth Sharing Old Memories with Your Partner
New research shows 5 ways relationships can benefit from mutual reminiscence.
Posted March 19, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Reminiscence is often a beneficial way to make sense out of the high and low points of your life and it can also apply to relationships.
- According to new relationship research, those "we" memories serves 5 essential bonding functions between romantic partners.
- Practicing joint reminiscing about when you and your partner first met can be a growth-stimulating relationship tool.
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)?
Borrowing a strategy from the measurement of autobiographical memories in individuals, the studies included in the German research all involved what’s called a “narrative” analysis in which someone writes about an experience and the researcher comes up with a categorical rating. You and your partner, then, might complete a task in which both of you tell a relationship “we story,” either of a time that was stressful or one that was happy.
Another task to elicit an RDM can involve both you and your partner retelling the timeline of your relationship. The raters would then be able to count instances of coherence or agreement both in content and emotion. A few of the studies did use a structured questionnaire to tap into reminiscence, including one with the intriguing name “LASS,” or “Love As Story and Storytelling” questionnaire. Both types of measures produced data that could be compared to those standardized relationship outcome questionnaires.
Turning to the findings, as the authors predicted, RDM’s rated as high in agreement were positively related both to the subjective measures of relationship satisfaction or quality and the more objective outcome of divorce. Indeed, the findings were remarkably consistent across studies despite differences in some of the specifics of how RDM’s and outcomes were measured.
The 5 Reasons Shared Relationship-Defining Memories are so Important
The statistical findings produced by the Majzoobi-Forstmeier study beg the question of why, specifically, an RDM can provide such value for a couple. As the authors note, there are potentially as many as 5 possible explanations, summarized below:
- Social bonding. The very act of retelling a powerful couple story can help to promote intimacy, drawing you closer to your partner.
- Self-expansion. When you and your partner share a story, both of you enhance your identities as individuals, charting out the overlap that binds your past histories together.
- Self-determination. Relating their findings to a prominent motivation theory, the authors suggest that RDMs are “need-satisfying,” creating a “scaffold” or structure to your relationship. Pinning memories to that scaffold helps satisfy your needs as individuals and as a couple.
- Sense-making. When you retell a story from your past, you often do so with the goal of finding meaning in it. As you tell your story to your closest partner, you each gain insight into yourselves and each other, helping to alleviate even the distress of an unpleasant memory.
- Self-regulation. Retelling a story that you share with your partner can help you engage in what the authors call a “mastery experience,” showing how you were able to “express and control your emotions” (p. 24).
As you can see from this set of possibilities, even a negative RDM that you and your partner are able to share in similar terms can become a process that helps foster positive change in your relationship. You gain a better understanding of yourself, whether it’s your emotions or your motivation, and build stronger connections with your partner, much as you do when you use memories to gain greater insight into your own sense of yourself as a person.
To sum up, a couple’s relationship history can provide a fertile ground for exploring and building upon their bonds. Conversations that allow you and your partner to delve into and explore your past together can help create memories now that will last over the years you will share together.
Majzoobi, M. R., & Forstmeier, S. (2022). The relationship between the reminiscence of relationship‐defining memories and marital outcomes: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Family Theory & Review doi: 10.1111/jftr.12442