Many years ago, I got divorced. It was an experience that threw me completely off guard. I wasn’t at all prepared for what a divorce would be like.
Frankly, I never thought I would be someone who got divorced. (To be fair, however, I never thought anyone would want to marry me in the first place, so I was already out on a limb, in unknown territory.)
But there came a point, ten years into my relationship with my ex-husband (and six years into the marriage, as we dated for a while before we married), when divorce wasn’t just an option. It was the only option that made sense.
He grew emotionally distant from me first. Telling me he felt different about me, that as far as he was concerned, we didn’t have a relationship anymore.
But I was the one who ultimately filed the legal documents. He had flown into a rage when I told him I’d opened my own checking account and I wanted our finances to be separate. And then moved cross country.
I Didn’t Miss My Ex-Husband, But I Was Awfully Forgetful for a Bit
Looking back on the journals I kept during the time when I met with a therapist and processed what had happened, post separation and prior to filing, after the filing, and after everything was finalized, I don’t see anger. No heartache.
There’s definite frustration. And a lot of guilt — for going back on an important commitment. Yes, life had grown miserable for both of us (today we’re both happier apart). But I had made a promise. It was an awful feeling.
And the other thing I see as I look back on those months and years is a lot of confusion.
I didn’t miss my ex-husband. I’ve always found that weird. After all, how can you spend so much time with someone that you care about so much and not miss them? But I didn’t.
What I did struggle with sometimes was feeling lost. Disoriented. Forgetful.
Not about big things — but definitely about little minutiae, especially things that had been important to my ex-husband. Movies, video games, etc.
I think it had to do with something called transactive memory.
When We Get Close to Someone, We Remember for Each Other
As I mentioned in a previous article I wrote about transactive memory:
There’s a field of research in social psychology that studies distributed cognition, a phenomenon by which a person can not only access their individual knowledge but can effectively glean extra benefits from those who are in their social environment. No one is an island — or at least no one has to be.
Now, this isn’t like the magic telepathy of the movies — or anything quite so dramatic. You don’t develop a psychic link with other people or anything. But, for example, people can essentially learn to “think together,” in ways that don’t mimic but complement one another.
And in doing so they can recall more together than they would trying to remember things on their own. This is called transactive memory (first proposed by Wegner) and is a form of distributed cognition that describes collective remembering.
It would seem obvious in one sense, that working with other people would be the optimal path if we’re trying to recall information, but actually research has shown that shared remembering can be incredibly inefficient. Not everyone “thinks together” well.
Strong social bonds seem to be the key.
Evidence of distributed cognition is particularly marked in people who spend a lot of time with one another and become emotionally close. It would seem that these factors make it more likely that we’ll come to rely on one another when it comes to assistance with everyday memory and problem-solving tasks — and yeah, “think together.”
Or to use a computing analogy, if you spend enough time with a person and socially bond, there’s some evidence that they become essentially another computer in your cognitive network, one which you can draw upon to access an additional storage, memory, and processing power (and vice versa).
Why Losing Someone Close To You Really Is Like Losing Your Mind
In a certain sense, getting divorced meant temporarily losing my mind — a very small piece of my mind to be fair, but yes… like losing my mind.
Thankfully, as I moved forward, the damage was temporary. I was able to retrack and retrace anything that was worth remembering. The rest is probably gone forever (and I don’t miss that either).
And I moved forward building new memories with the people that I met after that point. Each bond is like its own subculture, its own mini-memory environment.
And yes, I continue to journal extensively both publicly and privately (the latter is a lifelong habit).
I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to breakups. Or even to falling outs with close friends (which can be the same way, I think). I think it’s also a key component of “grief brain,” the cognitive fuzziness that many mourners experience — which lasts for an awfully long time for some people, particularly those who lost a key person. I’ve seen it a lot in my own family lately, since my father died 7 months ago in April, and I’ve been reaching out to my mother more to talk, trying my best to support her as she processes the loss (even though we have a weird and rocky relationship that spans decades).
My mother would definitely agree that losing someone close to you is really like losing your mind.
Even if you have the ability to start over again, start making new memories that are stored somewhere else, it hurts to even have to.
Anyway, I think that’s why certain losses hurt us more than others — whether it’s a death, a falling out, a breakup, or a divorce.