While planning a get-together with my friends recently, one of my girlfriends immediately took a happy hour venue off the table because the location reminded her too much of her ex-husband. The odds of running into her ex-husband were very low at this watering hole, but she did not want to be reminded of him while we were out. I have known many people to do this — avoid travel destinations, restaurants or bars, or even stop doing a hobby that they previously enjoyed because it reminded them too much of their ex-partner. Admittedly, there have been times in my own life when I have avoided doing things because it was too painful to be reminded of a lost love, such as not listening to a whole genre of music (reggae) for a few years because it only reminded me of my ex-husband.
I have always wondered whether this coping strategy is effective. Much of the research on grief has focused on bereavement or loss when a husband or wife dies, and not as much on break-ups or divorce. Essentially, when we hold onto past memories and put ourselves in situations where we constantly remind ourselves of our lost loved one, we experience greater grief. For example, one study found that when partners try to recall and hold onto memories of their loved ones after their death (e.g., holding onto their possessions), they experience more severe grief over time.1
Research on memories, however, has made me question these bereavement findings in terms of their applicability to lost loves (vs. lost lives). Is it not useful to make new memories or associations with the intent to make the previous ones less painful? Memory works by association; places, music, and even smells are associated with particular events and individuals. When we are exposed to them again it triggers these associations,2 making us flash back to our lost loves when we smell the cologne or perfume they used to wear, or how they made you laugh when you tried something for the first time together. I experienced this a few years ago on a family camping trip. The previous year I had gone on many camping trips with an ex-boyfriend; I used the same tent on my family camping trip, and I spent the majority of the trip crying and feeling sad about losing my ex. How’s that for family fun time?
I decided to go camping a few more times that year, with the sole intent of “wiping out” the association between camping and my ex. Some of my friends called me crazy: “Why would you subject yourself to that much pain? If you are not having fun, don’t go!” The first few times were still admittedly painful, but by the end of the summer, and numerous new camping adventures under my belt with other friends and family, I stopped making a strong association between camping and my ex. Why? Novel or unique associations tend to be the strongest in our memories.3 When I had only associated camping with my ex, I immediately thought of him and our experiences camping together. Over time, when I added new associations to the camping experience, the initial association weakened. It became less painful over time.3
Therefore, while it may be adaptive to avoid some situations and experiences during the early stages of grief and loss, avoidance of memory-triggering situations in the long run may get in the way of being able to move on. I finally convinced my friend to reconsider the happy hour venue that she was adamant about avoiding…time to make new, fun memories of the place that are independent of her ex-husband. The prospect of doing this with close friends rather than alone with a beer made her reconsider her position. Despite a few sad moments at the bar surrounded by her girlfriends, we ended up having a great girl’s night out, and she is more willing to return sometime.
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1Boelen, P. A., Stroebe, M. S., Schut, H. A. W., & Zijerveld, A. M. (2006). Continuing bonds and grief: A prospective analysis. Death Studies, 30, 767-776.
2Isarida, T., Sakai, T., Kubota, T., Koga, M., Katayama, Y., & Israda, T. K. (2014). Odor-context effects in free recall after a short retention interval: A new methodology for controlling adaptation. Memory & Cognition, 42, 421-433.
3Poirier, M., Nairne, J. S., Morin, C., Zimmermann, F. G. S., Koutmeridou, K., & Fowler, J.(2012). Memory as discrimination: A challenge to the encoding–retrieval match principle. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38(1), 16-29.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles |Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.