Our consciousness is like a lone person wandering around within the confines of their own small island-body. We see people on their own islands all around us, but we can only wave and call out to them at a distance. But sometimes, miraculously, we happen upon a rope-bridge spanning the void at the same time that another discovers their end of the bridge, and we can come together, embrace, and share our islands as one.
Unfortunately, rope bridges easily fray, and all of our running back and forth together inevitably wears them out. If we are not extraordinarily smart and careful, the tenuous bridge binding us together collapses irretrievably. How do these interpersonal bridges get frayed and can we prevent it?
Four years ago I blogged about the relationship between memory and happiness (see here). Long story short… the better your memory the more unhappy you are likely to be. People with “good” memories invariably remember every insult, every slight, and every disappointment. Those painful memories pile up and eventually weigh one down with bitterness, regret, fear, and anger. These are often directed toward your partner.
When it comes to maintaining a close, loving relationship, a bad memory can be a good thing. Sure you may forget that occasional birthday or anniversary, but you can chalk that up to your bad memory. Hopefully your partner will forgive those oversights. But much worse is to carry every inevitable and unavoidable insult or emotional injury with you in your unforgiving memory banks – especially since it is likely to get worse and worse with each recalling (see here).
But how does a person with a good memory forget a bad experience? Excellent question. One thing you can do is to consciously resolve to wake up each day like Lucy Whitmore as played by Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates” (see here). Resolve that even though you may indulge in being justifiably crabby, sullen, snippy, or plain pissed with your partner till bedtime, come morning you’ll reboot and revert to normal, just like Lucy. You may need to “show them how it feels” or simply shut down emotionally for a day, but don’t carry it on past the morning light.
And if you are the on the receiving end of this behavior change, don’t adjust to a new normal too quickly. Help make it easy for your partner to return to normalcy without either of you losing face.
Because if both partners do not reboot quickly, you run a even bigger risk than adding on another toxic memory. You run the risk of falling prey to an insidious type of “behavioral memory.” What happens is this sort of sequence… say you get angry with your spouse so you do or don’t do something in response. In the morning you feel not ready to let up so you don’t. Throughout the day, you continue with your response, because you now feel awkward going back. By the next day, you no longer know how to go back. Your temporary anger or hurt reflex has become internalized and both you and your partner have adjusted to it. Now, it’s a permanent part of your relationship and there is no way back. You may forget the precipitating event, but your response has become a permanent behavioral memory. It is your new normal, and it diminishes your relationship. The bridge between your islands is frayed and weakened.
So, after a trying episode, wake up like Lucy and try to forget your pain or anger from yesterday. Of course you can’t and shouldn’t forget real abuse and mistreatment. But do try to let go of those minor spats with those who you love and who love you. Don’t allow something relatively minor to fester and grow. Most importantly, don’t allow your response behavior to become ingrained as a permanent behavioral memory.
Second, be on the lookout for any time when, in response to hurt or anger, you say to yourself “for now on I’m gonna…” This is almost always something unfortunate. When you hear yourself think that, just stop that line of thought. Don’t make behavior changes that arise from negative reactions.
If your partner didn’t laugh at your joke, don’t resolve to never tell jokes again. If your partner insulted your lasagna, don’t resolve never to cook again. If your partner shrugged off your hug, don’t resolve to never to risk showing affection again. Each time you decide to make some long-term change out of hurt or anger or just as your sensible adjustment to your partners behavioral change, just stop as ask yourself if your reaction is really worth the cost. Don’t whittle away at the bridge that binds you together.
Finally, if your partner does establish a destructive new behavioral memory, try not to adjust to a new normal too quickly or too deeply. Don’t lock in their behavior through your own adjustment to it, as reasonable as that may seem. Remain open to creating or finding opportunities to restore or strengthen the precious bridge you share.
The picture accompanying this article tells a tragic story of a couple that didn’t start out more interested in their cell phones than in even a merely perfunctory embrace. They started out strongly connected and madly in love. But years of memories that only fester and grow have wedged them apart. A hundred ingrained behavioral memories have destroyed all that they once gave them so much joy. Now their once mighty bridge is merely a tenuous thread.
You don’t need to become them. Choose not to become them. Choose to be Lucy.
I like the frayed bridge metaphor.