The Hard Facts: That’s Not How I Remember It

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“As we view the past through the lens of the present, social memory—what’s shared and retold in groups—slides farther from reality, according to a report in Memory Studies. … We’re constantly remolding old situations to fit our present frame of mind.” (“The Good Old Days” Psychology Today, October 2010)

A lot of the motivation for this search comes from wanting to recreate the friendships of my youth. This isn’t new information. I want to dial up my friends and ask them to come out and play. I want someone on call for an I’m-bored-let’s-go-shopping trip. I want someone with whom I’ll talk so fast it’ll seem like we have a secret language. These are the cornerstones of childhood relationships, according to my recollection.

But what if the memory of my youth is completely separate than the reality?

The Memory Studies researchers say that recall is more influenced by our present and what we hope for the future than by what actually happened in our past. Perhaps that’s why I tend to “forget” about the time my fourth-grade BFF decided to not talk to me for a month. On two separate occasions. Or it could explain why the memories of my senior year of college are of 11 girls existing in constant bliss under one roof, which anyone who’s ever met a female knows is an impossibility.

I’m confident there were times back in the day when I dreamt of moving and starting over. I was always the type to romanticize change. A new life, a clean slate, the ability to repurpose yourself as whoever you wanted to be? Sign me up. But these days I have almost no memory of ever being less than perfectly content with my friendships (minus one minor screaming fight with a close friend senior year of college. We got over it quickly). My rose-colored glasses say everything was A-ok. My friendships were apparently all-around perfection, and I want that back.

Clearly the truth is a bit air-brushed in my mind’s eye. What it tells me is not what it was then, but what I believe now. “You remember your high school sweetheart as not-so-sweet if he’s now a cheating ex-husband. And as actual events grow fuzzier, we increasingly invoke stereotypes to help us make sense of old stories.” If I’ve decided to look for friendships modeled after my youth, then it serves me to remember my early relationships as perfecto.

I’ve always said that maybe the BFF I’m looking for doesn’t exist when you reach a certain age. But what if she never existed in the first place?

Do you think memory skews how happy we actually were in different relationships and scenarios? Is it possible that the childhood friendships we talk about actually really sucked, but we just can’t really remember that anymore?

8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Hard Facts: That’s Not How I Remember It

  1. I think the truth is probably somewhere between our rose-tinted memories and a “harsh reality” perspective. For instance, I have one friend whom I dated briefly, broke up with disastrously and then fought with for months. I tend to gloss over that painful time in our relationship and just remember the good stuff. My tendency to do that doesn’t erase the bad times, but it doesn’t mean things were all bad – just that they were a mixture.

    I guess there’s drama with friends at any age – some more than others – and maybe we tend to forget about it as we grow older. But I don’t think that negates the good times that really happened.

  2. megan

    I’m familiar with this memory thing in a different arena. There are moments and events that I long for now but, if I really try hard and think about how they actually were, I hated them while I was going through them. I wonder why the memory does such things…

  3. I’ve experienced the same thing as Megan, in that I’m romanticizing various times in my life simply because I’m not there now. I miss my first couple of years in Chicago, longing for a time when I was single, just starting out and enjoying the exciting adventure of moving to a big, bustling city. What I often forget is the reality – that I was broke, working 60 hour weeks just to make ends meet, living in a less than good neighborhood, had no friends, went on way too many absolutely horrible dates and was often crying because I was lonely and homesick. Why on earth would I want to go through any of that again? I appreciate that all of those experiences have helped shape my life and the person that I am, but there’s no need to relive all of it.

    So I think it’s pretty natural that we gloss over the bad things in our past. Often, I think this happens if we’re not totally satisfied with our current realities. In your case, you might feel like you’re lacking that ideal BFF, so you want to return to a time where you had that, even if it wasn’t as perfect as you remember.

  4. Fanfan

    I’ve read a lot on false memories. It definitely happens more often than we think!
    Rachel, I believe you will find your BFF now without your childhood rosy glasses, because now that you are older and wiser(than the child you used to be, I mean), you will handle relationship issues in more sophiesticated ways. You are better at choosing bff candidates(like the way you are doing it now) , protecting yourself from getting hurt and solving the conflicts in the process of developing the bffships.

  5. Off topic of the friendship but in the same vein as the memory starting to play tricks, sometimes I wonder if my childhood really was as bad as I think, or if I’ve just believed that for so long that it’s become reality. When I go back and read my diary from that time, I realize things were actually worse.

    I have a friend who was a BFF for a long time, and I’d forgotten that we’d really had ANY problems at all until I was (again) looking through an old diary. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I’d forgotten some of the problems that we’d had. Fortunately, I don’t think we’d have those same problems now (those problems were in large part due to both of our immaturity), but it’s kind of nice to remember things with rose colored glasses.

    • Yeah, I would say it’s a good thing, right? Won’t do any good to remember it horribly now, I don’t think…. I guess the only plus side to remembering the bad days would be to protect yourself from going back there again. But as long as things are better now, it seems to me you are better off…

  6. I my own experiences, when I think about the past, no matter how painful a season may have been, I have trouble remembering the pain and recall the good times. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But when it comes to friendships from childhood, I believe that they were as good as I remember. Sure there were moments…but the sisterhood I experienced then, I have been blessed to share in the present with one (unfortunately long-distance) BFF, who is as much one of my sisters, as the three to whom I am related.

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