When it comes to ending relationships, nobody put it better than Neil Sedaka: "Breaking up is hard to do." Thanks to a new study, we now know why the breakup process is so hard -- when a relationship is going poorly, people waste a lot of time and energy lying to themselves about it.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asked a random sample of 464 participants to individually assess their relationship status -- "casually dating," "seriously dating," "engaged" or "broken up" -- as well as their level of commitment to their partners (their desire to marry them) once a month for nine months. Eligible participants were between the ages of 19 and 35, currently in heterosexual dating relationships and never married.
The researchers had a hunch that people don't accurately remember the past, so during the last session, they asked participants to recall how committed they felt over the past eight months. That last month of data collection was where things got interesting.
People in bad relationships tend to wear rose-colored glasses when thinking about the past.
Couples whose relationship status went from a higher level of commitment to a lower level of commitment -- say, from "seriously dating" to "casually dating" -- were the worst at accurately remembering the past. These couples experienced what the researchers called "relationship amplification," in which they remember their past commitment to one-another as being higher than they actually reported in the moment.
"It’s kind of like a rose-colored glasses thing," Brian G. Ogolsky, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "We hypothesize that these people want to believe that their relationship is still OK because they're in it. It feels really crummy to think, 'This relationship's going downhill, but for some reason I'm choosing to stay.'"
In other words, remembering the past as rosier than it was justified their decision to remain in the relationship, despite the fact that they'd regressed in relationship stage. It's worth noting that, even though they felt less committed to their parters, most of the study's "regressors" didn't break up during the course of the study.
If you and your partner are stagnating, you hold on to the idea that you've grown as a couple.
Maintainers, or couples who stayed in the same relationship stage the whole time, incorrectly reported what Ogolsky called "developmental change." This means that they exaggerated their recollections to reflect a change or progression in their commitment. Rather than remembering the past as better than it was, these people recalled having a lower level of commitment in the past than they actually reported at the time.
"The idea behind that is the notion of growth," Ogolsky said. "All of us, especially in relationships, we want to remember getting better over time, as opposed to remaining stagnant or, God forbid, going backwards."
On the other end of the spectrum, couples who advanced in stage -- say, from "seriously dating" to "engaged" -- remembered their past levels of commitment nearly perfectly throughout the entire eight-month period. This makes sense, Ogolsky said, because they were making a "high-stakes decision" to advance toward marriage with their partner. They were more likely to buckle down and think carefully about their past. (For what it's worth, these couples also reported the most positive, committed sentiments throughout the study. So there's that, too.)
The moral of the story? You should find a way to make sure your relationship memories are accurate.
The big takeaway of all of this, Ogolsky said, is to understand that how you perceive or remember the past in your relationship has direct implications for how you experience your relationship in the present. Even if past research has suggested that people aren't so great at making sure their memories are accurate, Ogolsky said to at least try to make it a priority.
"We all have a hard time remembering the past," he said. "But for those who are making a high-stakes decision, it does seem important to be able to do that as objectively as we can."
Our suggestion? If you're in a relationship, perhaps you should start keeping a journal so that you're more attuned with your current and past feelings. Maybe you'll save yourself from wading through an unnecessarily prolonged (sad song-filled) break up.