Marcel Proust, who is often cited for his depiction of involuntary memory—the so-called “madeleine episode” of Swann’s Way—probably had an even better understanding of voluntary memory and how selective it can be. “Voluntary memory,” he writes, “preserves nothing of the past itself.” He knew that life's vicissitudes exert immense pressure on the ways we remember things. And never is that truer than in our romantic lives.
But what is it that makes us remember only the good times in a relationship, while with other lovers, or in other times, we only seem able to recall the bad? An international team of psychologists led by Laura B. Luchies, of Redeemer University College, in Ontario, suggest in a new paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that they have isolated the cause. And it’s all about trust.
Citing previous scholarship, the authors define trust as “the expectation that a partner can be relied upon to be responsive to one’s needs and to promote one’s best interests, both now and in the future.” That expectation is partly based on past experience. If your partner has cheated, you’re less likely to trust that person won’t do it again.
But trust is also based on some degree of blind faith. The combined weight of experience and faith, when favorable to the relationship, “signals that it is safe to be dependent on a partner,” they write, adding:
Those with higher trust in their partner are confident that their partner has the self’s interests at heart and will behave in ways that promote the self’s well-being. Therefore, they tend to feel safe and relatively invulnerable and can afford to go yet further out on a limb, risking greater dependence on their partner because they are confident that their partner will act in ways that reinforce their feelings of safety and security.
In other words, trust—or lack thereof—is a matter of survival. Researchers guessed we would exaggerate about the past in ways that served these basic safety and security needs, disproportionately remembering the bad times when we need to protect ourselves, and remembering things “in a way that prioritizes relationship dependence over self-protection”—that’s to say, positively—when we do.
Testing hundreds of subjects in four separate longitudinal studies documenting both long-term and fledgling romances, the authors found that trust levels were a strong predictor of the truthfulness of our memories. We tell ourselves stories, the study suggests, to better preserve our relationships or withdraw from them. Or, as Joan Didion puts it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
That holds true particularly with regard to memories of what the authors called “transgressions”—behavior in which a partner acts in voluntary ways we don’t like, “violating relationship specific norms.” For some couples that could be sleeping with someone else. For others, it could be always forgetting to wring out the dish sponge.
Because transgressions can undermine our sense of stability in a relationship, we exaggerate those memories in particular, researchers found. What’s more, we recall our own transgressions more accurately because we don’t interpret them as such a threat. The one exception concerns forgiveness: when we are the transgressor, we remember whether or not we were forgiven (the withholding of forgiveness being another kind of threat) better than our own acts of forgiveness.
Past scholarship has suggested that other relationship factors—like overall satisfaction with a relationship—might also color our memories. In the 1980s, this was known as “sentiment override theory,” which held that feeling happy in a relationship might cause us to remember the early days better and vice versa. However, later research on relationship satisfaction, along with studies about commitment levels, attachment, and self-esteem, indicated that none of these things consistently colored our memories. Researchers in the current study controlled for those factors and found that trust was still a strong predictor.
Which brings us back to Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time may be the most convincing portrait of jealousy—trust's opposite—ever committed to paper. He understood that trust and jealousy had the potential to sabotage our memories when we’re falling in and out of love. Proof that love, as he writes “is a striking example of how little reality means to us.”