Every relationship is bounded in the pages of stories.
The chapter when John was late for date night, embarrassing you as you sat alone in a romantic restaurant by yourself. Or the countless nights your wife puts on her “no sex” sweatpants to tell you she’s off limits.
Our lives and our relationships are constantly narrated by the storyteller of our minds. This narrator is either going to write a miserable love memoir, or the best damn romantic novel in existence (despite the dark times).
All relationships, happy and miserable, experience regrettable incidents. According to John Gottman, 90%1 of the time couples misunderstand one another, leaving the plot of love ripe for a dark tale. I’m not talking about the 50 Shades of Grey dark tale; I’m talking about the story that no one wants to read.
The one where you cheat on your partner. The one where you live in the home with your lover, only to live a parallel life as you become unhappier and lonelier.
Whether you’re Brad Pitt, Barack Obama, or Sofía Vergara, negative events are inevitable in your relationship. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is how these events are processed. They’ll be processed together. Or not at all.
Meet Bluma Zeigarnik.
In 1922, Bluma Zeigarnik watched waiters handle large, complicated orders without ever writing them down. It blew her mind. She interviewed the waiters and found out that each order was completely forgotten once it was delivered to the customer. Her observations lead to the famous Zeigarnik effect, which states that the memory of human nature has a better ability to recall unfinished events in comparison to completed events.
Let’s say Molly, your girlfriend, is a flirt-a-holic. And one night while you’re out clubbing with her and your friends, she somehow finds her way next to Tom every time you go to the bar or the bathroom. You start to wonder if she likes Tom more than you. If she’s as in love with you as you are with her. That night, as you lay next to her in bed, your mind replays the scene over and over again. It’s like watching the same Youtube cat video 122 times at 3 am.
That night your intrusive thoughts turn you over and over under the sheet of theories on why she did what she did. Since you never talk to her about it, the event stays fresh in your mind. It bothers you. You start to experience what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.
On one hand, you know you’re madly in love with this woman, but at the same time you’re conflicted with the story that she may not love you. That she may desire someone else. Over time, this single incident edits the “story of us” in your head.
Eventually, this negative event trumps the good feelings you have in the relationship. It slowly deletes the ink of trust splashed on the early pages of your love story. To stay consistent with your current feelings about Molly, your mind rereads the prior chapters of your relationship to find further evidence of why you shouldn’t trust her.
If enough “evidence” is found and you avoid bringing this up with Molly, you will eventually reach a threshold where the history of your relationship flips. You recall all of your relationship experiences in a negative light; even the good ones. The time she cooked you a fancy dinner, you start to believe, wasn’t because she wanted to do something nice for you. She did it because you made her feel guilty about flirting with Jake.
The mind is a funny thing. It’s like a talented con artist, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception in detail so compelling that the inauthenticity goes unnoticed. Throughout our lives our brains have taken millions of photos, recorded millions of sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Every single day. Year after year. We’ve been saving these experiences in a memory bank that never seems to overflow. We can easily recall that time during our anniversary where our partner forgot the day, making us wonder how much they really care about us.
So how do we store the vast universe of our experiences into the small hard drive between our ears?
We lie to ourselves.
The details of our experiences are not stored in our memory as they are. For example: think back to a meal you ate 9 days ago. Now think about your favorite childhood hangout spot. The latter probably comes easier to mind than the former. That’s because our memory is designed to focus on the significance and meaning from our experiences before it fills the meaning of our experiences with the nitty-gritty details.
When we recall a memory, our brain quickly recreates the threads of our experiences by our current perception. The meaning of our current experiences. As our brain does this, we soon find our partners to be a great irritant in our lives. We develop a negative attitude towards them as the hurt from the incident is replayed in our mind again and again.
Eventually our minds, like a magician, transforms our continual negative feelings about our partner into a show that only enables us to see lasting negative traits in our partner. Most of us start to see our partners as “selfish.” Shortly after you start seeing this, the relationship dies.
When a negative event happens in a healthy and happy relationship, the partners come together to discuss the event. Each partner becomes grounded in the other partner’s point of view, even if they disagree. They empathize with the underlying emotions and can even laugh during the disagreement. As the underlying hurt is addressed, the event is completed by the mind and no longer lurks around in the sea of your consciousness, waiting to be replayed again and again.
With the regrettable incident receiving closure, both partners avoid the Zeigarnik effect. They don’t remember the incident with vivid details and can even put a positive spin on the pain. When they remember the event, only good feelings come to mind, making their commitment to their partner stronger. This is the first step to writing the most epic “Story of Us” they’ve ever read, with them as the protagonists.
Hiding things that bother you from your partner will do more damage than just ignore your partner’s willingness to help meet your needs. It will turn the narrator in your head against your partner, and slowly erode your relationship without you even realizing it.