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Was It Really Love at First Sight?

New research shows how regularly we misremember romance.

Source: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

Do you remember the first time you met your partner? Was it love at first sight? And when you tell the story of your meeting, are you accurately remembering or misremembering?

I heard a beautiful line about memory while listening to an interview with Annie Dillard. She said, “Old memories are very easy to get, except that once you write about something, you’ve destroyed it. You no longer have the memory. You only have the memory of what you’ve written.” Our memories, even of important things associated with our romantic relationships, are constantly rewritten. We may destroy our memories whenever we tell the story.

We all have memories concerning our romantic relationships. We remember our first date, the first time we met, and our first fight. You’ve probably repeatedly talked about some of these important relationship events. You’ve told the story of how you met with your partner and to your friends. I’ve heard my mom’s story of how she met my dad. I’ve told my sons the story of my first date with my wife.

But are the stories we tell true?

Am I accurately remembering, or am I misremembering the most important events in my life? My memories certainly feel true, but can I trust them?

My colleague Sarah Drivdahl and I recently looked at the consistency of relationship memories. We asked people to remember classic relationship events—the first time they met, their first date, their favorite memory, their first fight, and their most embarrassing memory. People recalled these events twice, separated by three months.

We were studying whether people would be consistent in recalling these memories. First we had to decide how to judge if someone’s memory was consistent. We didn’t expect people to recall it exactly the same way with the same details and words each time—and people certainly didn’t do that. When we looked at the details, we found very low levels of consistency: Only about 25% of details were reported both times. Clearly, when considering the details, people’s memories aren’t consistent.

But we also considered consistency at a more general level: Do people provide the same basic information—the same activities, the same location, and the same people? No. Even at this level, people aren’t particularly consistent. Only 25% of the stories were consistent. For most memories, people changed some features. They shifted the locations, changed some activities, and added or subtracted the people involved. About one-third of the time, it seemed people had recalled completely different events.

Even for critical relationship events, such as the first meeting or first date, people changed stories. I remember my first date with my wife. I’ve told the story many times—with my wife, to our friends, and to our sons. But is the story in my head now the same story that I told 20 years ago or even last year? On the other hand, why should I expect my memories to be consistent, imperturbable recordings of the past? I’ve changed. My wife has changed. Our relationship has grown and developed. When I consider the past, I see things differently, with a new understanding.

This is the crucial aspect of what Sarah Drivdahl and I found: Most of our respondents were in the same relationship over the three-month interval, while a few had broken up during that time. But another group had not been in a relationship during the research project and described events from a previous, ended relationship. And those people describing events from a completed relationship made the fewest changes in their stories. They weren’t involved in the relationship any longer, they weren’t learning more about their partner, and they didn’t have reasons to consider themselves in that relationship. Like the relationship, their memories were completed.

In contrast, people still in relationships had memories that were continuing to evolve and change. As they developed, and the relationship changed, their memories changed as well. When you progress in a relationship, your memories will also grow and change.

Memories are important for defining who we are. They are also important for defining our shared past with someone else. As we change and our relationships develop, we construct a shared version of our lives together, and our memories are reconstructed to fit.

Was it love at first sight? Think about all the people you’ve met in the last month. Try to remember your first encounters with them. For some people, that may be both the beginning and ending of the relationship. You’ve seen that person just the one time. Did it feel like love at first sight? If it was a single chance meeting, then the love has likely faded as the memory has dimmed. We forget most of our encounters because we don’t develop friendships and relationships with everyone we meet.

Some of these people may become your friends, or your enemies. Your understanding and memory of your first meeting will change and grow with the relationship. As you share this memory with one another and tell friends about the encounter, the memory will become a shared version of the past, different from your original memory. (See my previous post, "Stealing Memories.")

Maybe one of these recent encounters will lead to a new romance. If so, how will your memory of that first meeting change? You can be sure that it will: You’ll highlight different features, and note the aspects that foreshadowed the love affair to come. When you look back, you may focus on the aspects that blossomed into the love you now feel. As you share the story with each other, you’ll develop a shared version of your romance. The memory will change. Today, you may remember falling in love immediately. But at that original moment, maybe you weren’t so sure.

Annie Dillard was right about destroying our memories. As a memory grows and changes, the original event is lost—and when we tell the story, we destroy the original memory. The story we've told now becomes our memory, as our relationship rewrites the past.

Was it love at first sight? Maybe not. But that’s the story you tell now.

Drivdahl, S. B., & Hyman, I. E. (2014). Fluidity in autobiographical memories: Relationship memories sampled on to occasions. Memory, 22, 1070-1081.