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When is nostalgia healthy, and when does it become counterproductive or damaging?

Memories have a huge role in shaping our lives. They provide a point of reference, as mental snapshots contributing to the story of life. Nostalgic memories contain their own special flavor, the treasures of the past, gifts that keep on giving. These memories exist outside of space and time; close your eyes, reminisce, and you realize those moments aren’t lost, but always accessible to live again in the cinema of mind. Memories are beautiful relics, snapshots, and ways to connect to how things once were.

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But nostalgia is bittersweet. Its very definition is intertwined with a sense of sentimentality and melancholy, because nostalgia comes with a subtle question: are things as good now as they once were? Were moments already gone as good as they got? Nostalgia has an interesting place in self-development and overall relationship satisfaction. This article will focus exclusively on nostalgia in the context of relationships. When is nostalgia healthy? When does it become counterproductive, or even damaging? Let’s dive in, and through the process, explore the notion of skillful reminiscing.

When Nostalgia Improves Romance

couple kissing

According to an expert in existential psychology, Dr. Clay Routledge, nostalgia has many useful purposes. Revisiting cherished memories provides a sense of soothing when experiencing difficult emotions, such as loneliness, distress, or sadness. It improves feelings of optimism, positive mood, the sense of social connection, and even benefits the future by motivating people to continue to nourish relationships and achieve goals.

I’m sure all of us can relate to times when nostalgia feels incredibly uplifting. From talking through funny memories with friends, thinking about moments shared with someone you miss, or reflecting on pleasant experiences. When it comes to romance, the pull to nostalgia can be even stronger, especially during a break-up, where it feels as if the floodgates of nostalgia burst and your mind is filled with only positive memories of the past.

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When in a relationship, nostalgia has an important role, too. Thinking back to your favorite holidays, or how things were when you first met, can be an incredibly heart-opening experience. The science behind this agrees. A recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships explored the role of nostalgia in romance and found:

Romantic nostalgia was positively associated with greater relationship commitment, satisfaction, and closeness.

Researchers initially questioned people in current relationships, to explore how important nostalgia was to them. Those who reported a higher frequency of nostalgia ranked higher in overall relationship satisfaction. This was followed up by two additional studies. The first was a writing task that separated groups into recollecting mundane memories, versus nostalgic memories. The second encouraged people to listen to music that reminded them of their partner. Both resulted in an improved sense of connection.

The ‘Dark Side’ of Nostalgia

man looks in mirror

Despite these findings, nostalgia is still like a dessert for the mind. It’s sweet, tasty, enjoyable, and makes you feel good. But it’s probably best avoided in high doses. As a function, most of the research tends to show that nostalgia has a short-term purpose. The risk is getting stuck in the past, turning to nostalgia in order to escape present discomfort, or inducing a specific emotion that feels as if it’s lacking in the present.

Again, this brings us back to an experience I’m sure most can relate to, of replaying moments from a past relationship over and over. This type of nostalgia stops you from moving on and grieving in a healthy way. It’s not bad in its own right, and can support healing, but trouble arises when nostalgia becomes intrusive, or even addictive. The same applies to current relationships.

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Relationships are dynamic and ever-changing. One of my favorite pieces of relationship advice was the idea that any two people staying together long-term have to constantly choose each other again. As both people evolve, so do their wants, needs, and lifestyle choices. If stuck in the past, always reminiscing about the way things used to be, you might miss the changes that take place before your eyes, and end up over-committing.

Nostalgia Vs. Skillful Reminiscing

Silhouette of couple holding each other gazing into eyes at sunset by Oziel Gomez on Unsplash

This leads us to the idea of skillful reminiscing. The premise of which is that nostalgia is good for your relationship, in certain doses. Avoiding it at all costs, for the sake of “being in the now,” might cause you to overlook a tool that could enhance your feeling of connection, as the recent study showed. But getting too caught up in nostalgia might keep you trapped in an ideal of the relationship, how it used to be, and overlooking present-day incompatibilities.

I’ve integrated skillful reminiscing unconsciously. I come from the background of being a hopeless romantic, which meant in the past, I was highly sentimental in relationships. I’d attach meaning to memories, and often find myself distracted or daydreaming, revisiting those moments in a way that pulled me from the present. I became aware of this tendency and how it caused me to suffer more than necessary.

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By getting stuck, I’d hold onto relationships, or fail to see when they’d changed, or when they weren’t right. I started to untangle the link between nostalgia and meaning, by understanding that, even if you have the most exceptional memories with someone, it doesn’t mean you have to last forever.

As is often the case in self-development, I then went to the other extreme and became highly cautious of nostalgia. When I met my current partner, I shut myself off from journeying into the past. Slowly, as I found a better balance, I saw the value in reflecting on moments we’ve shared together. During difficult moments or conflict, they reminded me of the beauty that was present when we met, and all the reasons I love her.

Applying the Insight

young couple flirting outside smiling
(Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash)

So, how do you make sure you’re practicing skillful reminiscence? Start by reflecting on the role of nostalgia in your relationship. Couples with a higher frequency of nostalgia reported higher satisfaction, so this is a positive thing. Do you reflect frequently, or avoid the past? Or do you reflect too often, avoiding the present? These questions lead to a deeper understanding of love.

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As you hold this in mind, consider a conversation with your partner to discuss the role of nostalgia. In addition, these steps can help you apply the insight:

  • Be purposeful with nostalgia: often this happens spontaneously, but consider ways you can become more deliberate with the way you reminisce. Perhaps once a month you sit down and share your favorite memories with your partner. Or, you could try the writing task the study suggested.
  • See nostalgia as part of the bigger picture: it’s important not to rely on nostalgia to energize the relationship or justify it continuing in the face of significant problems, but instead to see it as part of a much more complex set of tools that lead to relationship satisfaction. If you feel disconnected, distant, or annoyed in your relationship, take some time to indulge in happy memories, and see if that shifts.
  • Notice when you get stuck: if you find yourself reminiscing obsessively, or going to the past whenever you feel tension or difficult emotions, you might have slipped into the ‘dark’ side of nostalgia. If that’s the case, just be aware of it, and instead seek to tackle whatever issues are present. Why are you turning to the past? What are you trying to avoid? What emotions do you feel you lack?

How to Avoid the Dark Nostalgia Trap

dock couple

Memories are the building blocks of a fulfilled life. As you grow old and gray, hopefully with your beloved, the happy moments you’ve shared can add extra spice and enjoyment, contributing to an overall sense of satisfaction towards a life well lived. Nostalgia plays an important function, and is an overlooked practice to enhance the well-being of your relationship.

As long as you are wary of falling into the trap of nostalgia, and its dark side, it might be the secret ingredient to bring you and your partner even closer together. So reminisce! Look at old photos, share stories, listen to music from days gone by, find joy in how much you’ve changed and grown together, hand in hand, side by side, co-pilots in this journey through time.

KEEP READING:

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