Can Longing for the Early Days Reenergize a Relationship?
Nostalgic longing can motivate change.
Posted Sep 24, 2019
Alan Jackson sang: “Remember when I was young and so were you and time stood still and love was all we knew.”
The listener wonders what message this reminiscence will reveal. Would remembering the ideal glow of early romance strengthen a current love? Or will a relationship suffer by comparison with such initial idealism?
Over time, life can inflict the stress of difficult challenges, bitter disappointments, or painful losses. Jackson recounted some of the trials: “Life threw curves . . . We came together, fell apart, and broke each other’s hearts.”
Like hammered copper, will a relationship become stronger and more beautiful having weathered adversities over time? Or will it be weakened and suffer the ultimate “death by a thousand cuts”? It is important to know whether it would be helpful to look back and revisit the ups and downs over time, or if it would be better to forget and move on.
Research suggests that remembering the relationship as it was in the early days can be beneficial, at least initially. Nostalgia for the rosy period of romance can reinvigorate the uncomplicated feeling of loving and being loved before frustration, disappointment, or anger crept in. Such nostalgic reminiscence can reawaken the feeling of the exclusive, special bond between partners.
However, longing for the simpler days can also reflect unhappiness with the relationship as it is in the present. Remembering what has been lost can sharpen the contrast between the idealized image of romance not yet tarnished by negative experiences and the bruised current reality. The sense of unfulfilled promise can make a partner sad and less willing to hang onto a relationship. The urge to regain the former romantic glow could encourage one to stray.
Although research hasn’t yet resolved the discrepancy between nostalgia that is beneficial and that which is hurtful, early studies suggest general guidelines. Couples who seek counseling or who are trying to repair their relationship are likely to find nostalgia a source of motivation to persist in their efforts—at least in the short run. But by itself, longing for the past might not be enough to heal wounds and reignite the romantic passion.
The past may serve best to remind partners why they fell in love in the first place. When both partners are sincere about the effort, nostalgic memories can spark honest dialogue about what could have been, and, more importantly, how to reboot and move forward. In some cases, they might discover that their initial dreams were youthful aspirations that are not so important anymore.
Perhaps early expectations have been replaced by different, more mature ones. Insight might be gained into resentments that have outlived their time. More useful questions about current needs that love should satisfy can be explored. It can be easy to forget that lovers continue to grow over time, and some of that growth can inject different needs and desires that might be perceived as incompatible.
Is it possible that conflicts and disappointments have stirred the feeling that the “grass is always greener”? Nostalgic recollections can remind partners the grass was once greener in their own pasture, and it might be possible to restore love by nurturing the potential that once was.
What made the relationship flourish early on? Can those behaviors be tweaked to suit current circumstances? Why should a couple remain complacent when the “new normal” is allowing passion to wither?
What is special about nostalgia? Essentially, nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion. Because it inherently involves longing, it can motivate people to pursue change. The yearning for what once was and no longer is can energize people to recapture what they miss. The realization that what was lost did exist at one point in their life offers hope that they can recover it, perhaps in an even better form.
Research has shown that nostalgia is associated with greater optimism and inspiration and provides benefits that are especially valuable in maintaining and enriching relationships. A socially oriented emotion, nostalgia promotes prosocial emotions and behaviors. Nostalgic reminiscence has been associated with greater compassion, empathy, altruism, and charitable behavior.
When partners have come into conflict, nostalgia can soothe the emotional landscape and defuse negative emotions, such as anger, and counterproductive motives, such as resentment and revenge. The softer mood that nostalgia induces is more amenable to feelings of loyalty and forgiveness.
In the heat of frustration, one might be tempted to accuse and blame the other. Recalling that one’s partner had been supportive in difficult situations or at times of crisis helps one remember the other in their best light, rather than focusing on their imperfections.
They rushed us to the ER when we thought our panic attack might be a heart attack. They stood by us at the funeral of our parent or grandparent. They encouraged us when we couldn’t find a job. Forgetting is not a prerequisite for forgiveness. In an intimate relationship, remembering can foster the basis for forgiving.
Even if a relationship ultimately falls apart, as when one partner abandons the other, nostalgia can be helpful in restoring psychological well-being in the aftermath. After the initial shock, the one left behind can feel lonely, depressed, stressed, and angry.
Research has shown that nostalgia helps counteract feelings of loneliness and alienation. By reviving memories of those who have valued and loved us in the past, nostalgia refreshes social connections that might have fallen along the periphery of our hectic lives. Reconnecting with others can help us explore our authentic self and regain the strength to nurture that self and grow beyond who we had been within the now broken relationship. What was old can be new again.
Abeyta, A. A., Routledge, C., & Juhl, J. (2015). Looking back to look forward: Nostalgia as a psychological resource for promoting relationship goals and overcoming relationship challenges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(6), 1029-1044.
Batcho, K. I. (2013). Nostalgia: Retreat or support in difficult times? The American Journal of Psychology, 126(3), 355-367.
Batcho, K. I. (2017). When your heart is breaking. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/longing-nostalgia/201702/when-your-heart-is-breaking
Batcho, K. I. (2017). Is there really true love? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/longing-nostalgia/201712/is-there-really-true-love
Jackson, A. (2003). Remember When. On Alan Jackson Greatest Hits Volume II [CD]. Nashville, TN: Arista Nashville.
Mallory, A. B., Spencer, C. M., Kimmes, J. G., & Pollitt, A. M. (2018). Remembering the good times: The influence of relationship nostalgia on relationship satisfaction across time. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 44(4), 561-574.