“I didn’t say that! Are you sure I told yuo that? I don’t remember”. Sometimes the people we interact with forget things that are important to us, which often leads to heated arguments or creates frustration. When that happens systematically in a relationship, we can feel lonely.
What is relational amnesia?
Relational amnesia goes beyond forgetting one year the anniversary of the couple or the birthday of the other. It refers to the systematic forgetting of everyday moments or special details that, at least for one of the people, are significant.
One of the people forgets shared experiences or distorts them, to the point that the narrative differs considerably from the memories of the other. As a result, this forgetfulness dynamic often leads to misunderstandings that create tension in the relationship.
Why does my partner forget everything?
Forgetfulness can be a defense mechanism. Sometimes our memory suppresses certain experiences because they are traumatic for us or we do not have the psychological resources to deal with them without turning our world upside down. Then our unconscious decides to “hide” those experiences where we cannot find them.
However, relational amnesia is not a clinical entity but a normal phenomenon in which there is no cognitive deficit, but is mainly due to emotional reasons.
In relationships, we can forget things so we don’t have to deal with the anxiety they generate. For example, we may forget what we said in a discussion because that topic continues to act as an emotional trigger that bothers us. We can also forget a promise or a plan because, deep down, we don’t like it that much.
In other cases, relational amnesia is an expression of a passive-aggressive personality. The person uses forgetfulness to manipulate and harm the partner – consciously or unconsciously. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Michigan indicates that this profile is linked to traits such as narcissism and/or emotional instability. These people can deny the experiences to invalidate the other, avoid responsibilities and manipulate them, even engaging in gaslighting behaviors.
In fact, relational amnesia brings certain psychological benefits to the forgetful person:
• Avoidance of conflicts. If we do not remember anything, we avoid conflicts by deviating from the main topic that generated anxiety and tension. At least in that matter we will be “innocent”, because they can only blame us for forgetting, which acts as a mitigating factor.
• Avoidance of responsibilities. In many cases, when a forgetfulness dynamic is established, the other person lowers the expectations and demands, which translates into fewer responsibilities for the forgetful person.
• Cognitive freedom. Forgetfulness is a mechanism for freeing up space in the mind. If we do not overwhelm ourselves with many details, we will have a clear mind to think about other things that are more attractive or rewarding.
In other cases, relational amnesia is the result of routine habits that are established in non-present relationships. It occurs when two people share the same space-time but are actually far away emotionally, either because of monotony or because they have lost interest in the relationship.
When experiences are lived carelessly, with the mind elsewhere, it is easy to forget them or keep distorted memories. Ultimately, emotions act like a glue for memory, as a study carried out at the Universiti Teknologi Petronas showed. If we live things without passion, it is likely that those experiences are not meaningful and we end up forgetting them.
In the worst case scenario, relational amnesia can be the result of an almost complete loss of interest in the partner. When there is no longer love, the interest in shared experiences is lost, so that they become inconsequential and not very memorable.
The consequences of relational amnesia: a dangerous unique narrative
When forgetting is established in a relationship, is generated an unhealthy dynamic that in the long run generates disappointment. Generally, are created two different roles. The forgetful person is seen as immature, arrogant, carefree or clueless while the person who has to constantly remember begins to carry the weight of the relationship on his or her shoulders.
That throws the relationship out of balance because one invests more energy and commits more. Little by little, the custodian of the relational memory stops trusting his or her partner and stops sharing things because he or she thinks it is useless. In the long run, he or she stops consulting the other because sees him as childish and irresponsible.
The psychological weight carried by the custodian of the relational memory often makes that this person becomes more rigid, irritable, and bitter, distancing him or her from the forgetful person. That dynamic ends up corroding the foundations of the relationship.
If the relationship is not broken, is usually established a unique relational narrative. The custodian of the memory claims the right to construct the official narrative of the relationship, a story with which the other must agree. If he or she disagrees, discussions and reproaches are guaranteed.
The custodian of the memory believes that he or she has “the truth” and ends up ignoring the other because believes that is not reliable. The problem is that ignores not only his or her memories but also the opinions and emotions. In this way, one of the two ends up isolated from the relationship and, as a result, both end up feeling misunderstood and alone.
A life in common: Different stories with similar feelings
Honesty is key to dealing with relational amnesia. If that systematic forgetting is due to disinterest and a lack of commitment, it will be necessary to reevaluate the relationship and decide if it is worth moving forward or if there is a possibility of building a rewarding relationship for both of them.
However, we must be clear that whenever two people come together, there will be two different perspectives and memories of the shared experiences. Being a couple or living something together does not mean experiencing it in the same way. Our experiences depend to a great extent on our expectations, desires or even on the emotions of the moment.
Not living and remembering things in the same way, does not always mean that love is over or that there is no interest in the other. We must accept that each person builds his or her story of what happened, which can make them pay more attention to some details than to others. What matters is that both of them be willing to respect each other and commit by sharing their vision of things.
Romanell, A. (2021) Relational Amnesia: The Toll Forgetting Has on Your Relationship. In: Psychology Today.
Tyng, C. M. et. Al. (2017) The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Front Psychol; 8: 1454.
Hopwood, C. J. et. Al. (2009) The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder. Psychiatry; 72(3): 256–267.