On Why You Should Never Forget What It Was Like To Be Single
The Debrief: Also known as 'How Not To Be An Awful Friend'
There’s a common saying and universally acknowledged truth that goes something like this: if we didn’t forget pain, women would never go through childbirth twice. The same, I think, could very reasonably be said about break ups.
Another trope that gets banded around a lot is that falling in love, somehow, makes us whole, that it completes us and fixes us. Love, after all, is supposed to be the Platonic union of souls and all that, isn’t it? In my experience of falling in and out of love, of breaking hearts and having my heart broken, I’d say the opposite is true. I think we’re all whole to start with, love opens us up from the first time we experience it. It exposes us to a heady concoction of hormone-fuelled feelings and can, when it is good, be exalting. When it’s bad, when it’s unrequited when it goes wrong and when it’s taken away from us by circumstances beyond our control, it can be excruciating and devastating.
Far from being completed by love, I think we’re cracked open by it. Our hearts break and mend, and the scar tissue that knits our most important muscle back together shapes who we are. With every break up we have a chance to learn and evolve, but it’s often from pain, fear and sadness that we must pick ourselves up and get back on the dating horse.
If we didn’t forget, supress or erase the acute pain, fear and abject loneliness that follows when a romantic relationship ends, I wonder how many of us would have the pluck to download Tinder after being dumped, the courage to leave bad relationships and marriages or the guts to let new people anywhere near our scarred hearts when they’ve only just healed?
Studies suggest that humans can actually deliberately forget bad memories. The most recent from Dartmouth College, which you can read here, is fascinating. It found that we can intentionally forget memories by letting go of their context. Think of context as the brain equivalent of your bottle that holds your drinking water, without it the contents spill out into the elements, eventually, evaporating. Context is how we remember, it’s how we organise and retrieve our memories. If you delete the context, your grey matter index card, the one that catalogues your past, is gone.
The study’s authors use the example of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. If this song reminded you of your first love, as it does me (I’m a cliché, I know), then it forms the context for that memory. I hear that song and I’m reminded of being 19 years-old, sitting on the cold kitchen floor at my parents’ house and drinking my dad’s beer with someone who shaped my late teens and early twenties. If I heard it on the radio, if someone stuck it on in the final hours of a party, if it came on in a noisy pub and I was on a date trying to get over someone I was once very much under, it triggers that memory and I can’t help but remember.
However, what this study found was that if people want to forget something, they can actively push the context that supports it out of their mind, effectively deleting it. I can’t say for sure, because I don’t often put my friends in MRI scanners, but I’m convinced that many of them have done this. They’ve deliberately forgotten past pain in an attempt to preserve their present and future selves.
I can see the benefits of doing this, the appeal of wilfully forgetting and, in particularly traumatic circumstances, I get the necessity of it. But, recently, I’ve discovered that remembering has its benefits too.
I’m 28 years old and in a relationship. It’s a good one. From where I stand now it would be very easy to forget the heartache that brought me here, to delete those bad memories from my hard drive and believe that things were only ever like this. I’m not sure whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, but I haven’t been able to find the button which allows me to wipe it all. And so, I can remember how it feels to sit in your room alone, reasonably believing you will die alone and connecting to Adele on a very deep level. I can still feel the hot, prickly embarrassment of going to friends’ weddings as a newly single person who has had their plus one revoked, still hot with rage at the very sight of a happy couple. I still know that one night stands which seem like a terribly good idea at 2am are hit and miss. They can be great, but they can also leave you feeling lower than low when the sun rises and there’s no way of knowing which way it will go until you’ve done it. I still get angry when I think about the unique agony of WhatsApp’s blue ticks.
This has come in rather useful recently after a close friend found herself newly single for the first time in four years. Things have changed since she was last single, when we were in our early twenties. Dating apps aside, the biggest change of all is the fact that all of her mates (myself included) who were once her 5am party crashing comrades are now in relationships (see also how your friendships change in your late 20s).
What must be very frustrating for her is that I’ve caught our mutual friends offering up shallow platitudes by way of sympathy. Where once they would have bought a round of shots, thrown their arms around her and stayed up sloppily discussing the meaning of life with her they say things like ‘you just need to be OK with being on your own’, ‘what will be will be’ and ‘it’s for the best’. It’s all very well and good to say this sort of thing if you’re going home to a warm body who has cooked for you food and washed your pants. But, if you’re the one who is going to spend the hours before you fall asleep scrolling aimlessly through Tinder it’s about as helpful as an empty wine bottle.
Friendship expert and psychologist, Dr Irene S Levine, tells me that remembering is actually a crucial part of keeping friendships alive when some of you are single, some of you are married and some of you are happily shacked up. ‘When you're in a relationship, it is easy to forget what your life was like before. When you were single and uncoupled, you were more eager for female companionship---a friend with whom you could spend time, someone with whom you could share intimacies’, she explains.
Being single can be great but it can also be isolating. ‘Put yourself in her shoes’ Irene says, ‘even if she's happy for you, she still has to feel bad for herself. Your being coupled makes her feel left behind and ‘stuck.’ While you can't change her situation, you can try to be sensitive to the sense of loss she must feel.’
If you’re in a relationship and a single friend calls you for a chat, answer. If you’re in a relationship and a single friend wants to go out and you can’t be arsed, make the effort. If you’re in a relationship and you’re feeling pretty good about never having to play WhatsApp roulette ever again, try to be interested when single friends want to dissect messages with you. If you’re in a relationship and a single friend is in mourning because someone she went on three dates with and slept with once has ghosted her, don’t dismiss it. If you’re in a relationship and a single friend goes quiet in the pub because a song comes on that calls painful memories up for her, don’t hesitate, just hug her.
You were there once and you might find yourself there again.
Love makes no sense when you’re looking for it and once you’ve found it it’s easy to forget that. We were all whole once and then we were cracked wide open. We’re all the products of what we’ve been through. Scar tissue will develop, knitting everything back together again but it’s that pain that make you who you are, never become desensitised to that.
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