Betty (not her real name) is taking longer than six months to recover from a fling that lasted just half a year, proof that as Taylor Swif quoted poet Pablo Neruda in her 10-minute film for "All Too Well", love is short and forgetting is so long.
Swift dropped the "Taylor's Version" of her "Red" album the week after Halloween and instantly, fans were haunted by ghosts of past relationships and their digital traces, from Facebook memories to archived tweets.
Unfortunately, it really does take a while to erase everything. “Mahirap kasing kalimutan. We cannot just forget,” clinical psychologist Joseph Marquez told reportr. It’s different for everyone, but the greatest loves and strongest emotions may stay with us longer than we intend.
Many will claim they’ve moved on from a relationship, but it doesn’t take much to remember the past. The brain’s pretty good at making memories feel a little too real, even if it’s been 6 months or 10 years ago.
Stumbling upon an old love letter like Claudine Barretto or hearing that one song from the Red album could be classified as retrieval cues, “kind of like breadcrumbs leading back to a particular memory,” science communicator Hank Green said.
Before the brain can even forget, it must first remember, and how it’s encoded can dictate how long it will stay in our minds, along with how well it is ingrained.
“To make it stick, you want to connect it to something meaningful or related to your own personal, emotional experience,” he said.
While brilliant, our brain is only human and mixes memories with our context. “Our memories are not like books in a library of our mind—you don’t just pluck a neatly packaged memory right off the shelf,” he said.
“Our emotions can influence whether we remember or we forget. Memory is extremely powerful, it’s constantly shaping and reshaping your brain, your life, and your identity,” Green said, stressing that emotions can even alter what feelings or realizations we retain from the actual experience.
What’s the worst that could happen?
People cope in different ways and at different paces, said Marquez, the psychologist. “Some people tend to be productive with their work, some people gusto nila mag-bakasyon to free themselves," he said.
For some, never getting over an ex limits growth. “You can look back, wala namang masama doon, it’s just that a lot of people tend to dwell looking back, so it is not really helpful,” he said.
“Kasi magkakaroon ka ng mga what if, what if ganito yung ginawa ko, mga regrets, sana pala naging ganito ako.”
Worse, some people may keep recalling the memories and never see beyond the breakup.
“You’re losing someone that you’re used to. It can lead to depression. Dapat okay ka na, but you’re stuck there,” he said.
Moving on versus forgetting
Forgetting completely may require a biological abnormality, or even severe head trauma before it can happen.
“Whenever we remember a memory, may kasamang feeling na siya. I think it’s just more of a memory than actual hurting,” Marquez said.
It’s possible to retain memories and move forward with your life. It’s acknowledgement that what once was is now no longer, and that there are other things to focus on.
You may never forget past loves—and remembering from time to time can serve as a good lesson for the present—but over time, its intensity will wane and you can function again.
Mel, not her real name, refused to talk to anyone in the middle of 2020 after her boyfriend broke things off via text. When the breakup was still fresh, she just wanted to wipe her mind clean of all the memories. A year later, she realized what she wanted was to move on, not entirely forget.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now without all that happiness and hurt. I’m thankful for it, but it’s not who I am anymore,” she said.
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How to move on
It’s easier said than done, but acceptance truly is the first step.“Once you accept things are over, you begin to see other things," Marquez said.
“It’s a form of a choice initially. Everything is a process, so you have to take it step by step,” he added, noting that it's a good time to recalibrate and allow that choice to naturally snowball into liberation from the attachment.
“Pag nasabi mo na ba yung sama ng loob mo, will you feel better? Pag minumura mo ba siya or when you speak ill of him, will you feel better? Kasi, naka-focus ka pa rin sa kanya. You’re still focusing on the person instead of focusing on your healing,” Marquez said.
“Your closure is for yourself. Yung closure, dapat manggagaling sayo. Hindi mo kailangan ng ibang tao or ng ex mo to help you close yung situation,” he added.
Time seems like it won’t fly and you’ll be paralyzed by it, but you have to at least try to be yourself again. Isolating yourself is tempting, but it helps to surround yourself with friends, reconnect with people you might have lost touch with, and appreciate the connections that stood the test of time.
Someday, you'll forget about it long enough to forget why you needed to. “It means you’re more mature, you know how to handle yourself well. You’re back to being functional, you’re back to yourself,” Marquez said.
Clinical psychologist Joseph Marquez is based in Taytay, Rizal. His services can be accessed online. You may contact him through his page.