Relationship problems don’t go away by ignoring them

New research reveals how couples go wrong without even realizing it.

Why do so many people stay in relationships that seem to be going nowhere? A new study from the University of Illinois provides an answer,(link is external) and surprisingly, it has to do with memory:The research team found that couples often stay in doomed relationships because they are in denial.

Brian G. Ogolsky of the University of Illinois and Catherine A. Surra of Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, followed 464 unmarried heterosexual couples over nine months. The couples had been dating for two years on average. Each month, both members of the couple rated their chances of marrying on a scale of 0 to 100. At the end of the study, participants were asked to reflect on their relationship over the time period and rate, based on their memories, how they felt every month about their chances of getting married. The researchers could then compare the couple’s recollections of the progression of their relationship to how they actually rated their relationship at the time.

The researchers divided the couples into three groups—couples whose commitment advanced over the time period; those whose commitment remained constant; and those whose commitment actually regressed.

Couples who had advanced in their commitment to one another remembered their progress perfectly—in other words, their recollections at the end of the study matched their actual monthly ratings.

Those whose relationships had not progressed recalled their earlier commitment to one another (at the end of the study) as lower than it had actually had been. As a result, they believed their level of commitment had progressed somewhat, when it had not.

This effect was even more pronounced in couples whose relationship had actually regressed over the course of the study. Such couples recalled their relationship as progressing over the nine months, when in fact their level of commitment had worsened. The researchers concluded that such distortions provided the couple with a psychological justification to remain in a relationship which was actually in trouble.

Many of us know couples whose relationship seems obviously stalled—or worsening—yet who seem unworried about its trajectory. While we might be baffled about this lack of concern, the members of the couple themselves might have unconsciously distorted their recollections of the relationship so they believe they are indeed making progress toward a deeper commitment and a better connection, although in fact they are not.

The implications of this study are significant because couples rely on their memories of how their relationship has progressed over time to make life-long decisions about marriage and family planning. Unfortunately, couples in troubled relationships might reach the wrong conclusions and decide to proceed forward exactly when the stakes are highest. Since we tend to believe we remember things accurately, such couples might also be highly resistant to friends or family members who voice concern about whether their relationship is progressing in a healthy manner.

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Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011. Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association. In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology, and blogs for Huffington Post.