Since many popular songs address romantic relationships, I often recognize common themes that show up in couples therapy. Earlier this year, I began listening to House of Memories by Panic! At The Disco because it was congruent with my general preference for minor scales and chords, or as my husband calls it, my “brooding dark side.”
The opening lyrics immediately caught my attention. Lead singer Brendon Urie croons, “If you’re a lover you should know, the lonely moments just get lonelier, the longer you’re in love, than if you were alone.” Consistently, couples report that being with a partner and feeling alone is lonelier than actually being alone.
I view this lonely feeling as a huge risk factor in marriage, because it is these moments, just as House of Memories, suggests, when people float back in their minds to previous relationships which they imagine as more satisfying than the present lonely relationships. Because it’s so easy to connect with past relationship partners through technology, the risk factor of loneliness in marriage is likely more threatening to relationship stability than in the past.
As the song progresses, the chorus repeats, “Baby, we built this house on memories, take my picture now, shake it ‘til you see it, and when your fantasies become your legacy, promise me a place in your house of memories.” I believe the song is suggesting that an individual wants to be remembered with fondness by a past lover, and is somehow hinting that the memories are associated with a more powerful connection than a present relationship.
Unfortunately, many people experience life by living in the past instead of intentionally generating ongoing memories in the present. Memories in relationships matter because they are related to perceptions of the present relationship and to future happiness and stability. Memories of the past are also shaped by the present emotional environment in a relationship.
We can influence our emotions and hope for the future by strategically accessing specific memories and generating new ones. Here are some ways to maximize the power of marital memories to influence future happiness and stability.
- Recall and revisit the moment you fell in love. I like to tell my husband that I fell in love with him because I fell in love with his father (but not in a creepy way). My husband had invited me skiing with him, his father and a bunch of male friends over President’s Day weekend. As the day progressed, my husband was trying to coax me down a black diamond hill of moguls which I knew exceeded my skill level. His father volunteered, “You go with your friends and I will stay with her.” He accompanied me down the slopes, skiing to the bottom of a hill and waiting for me at various points while I skied down at my pace. This was the first time I met him, and I was embarrassed that he had to wait for me. Eventually, I said, “I’m really sorry you got stuck with me,” and he warmly replied, “Oh, it’s ok. I prefer taking a slower pace down the mountain anyway.” I knew my father-in-law, who highly identifies with his Norwegian ski roots, was just trying to make me feel better, but he was an incredibly safe and warm person. I thought to myself, “If Steve is anything like his father, he will be a great husband.” This event was a tipping point in our relationship, and I remember it every February, when we celebrate Valentine’s Day with a ski date.
- Identify a past struggle you have overcome together. Speaking of my father-in-law, a difficult event for my husband and me occurred when he suffered a head injury in a cycling accident. While my father-in-law was in a coma for weeks, I think I cried more than I ever had previously in my life, because he had always been so kind to me. My husband considered his father his best friend and was understandably devastated. When he finally came out of his coma, he recognized that he had a relationship with my husband, but when my husband asked if he knew who I was, he smiled and said, “I don’t know who she is, but she’s really really cute.” I was so happy to have my father-in-law back. We recall how we counted on each other emotionally and spiritually during this time, and we are so glad that he’s still around.
- Look at photos of key happy moments. Our present feelings can be influenced by the recollection of memories. Sometimes viewing photos of key moments, like a child’s birth or a favorite vacation can elicit positive hopeful feelings. Looking at one of my children’s scrapbooks is a powerful source of happiness for me.
- Spend money on experiences instead of things. Recent happiness research suggests that people get more bang for their buck in happy memories from experiences rather than things. I can elicit immediate happy feelings from remembering a time when I was overwhelmed with 5 small children and my husband surprised me by driving me to the airport for a spontaneous trip to Monterey, Carmel and Bug Sur in California. He knew I loved the California coast from my childhood experiences and wanted to recreate that for me.
As the song House of Memories suggests, our fantasies do become our legacies, but we can continually shape those fantasies by focusing on positive memories in our core relationships.
How a couple views their past predicts the future: Predicting divorce from an oral history interview by Buehlman, K.T., Gottman, J.M., & Katz, L.F. (1991) Journal of Family Psychology, 5(3-4), 295-318.
Revision in memories of relationship development: Do biases persist over time? by Frye, N.E. and Karney, B.R. (2004). Personal Relationships, 11, 79-97.
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