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Inga Gentile, MFT
“Why does she always seem to get clingy right when I have to go out of town for work?”
“Why does he lock himself in his office after work and watch Netflix while I’m alone in the living room?”
Many couples experience confusion and frustration related to often repeated scenarios like these. But it’s not a sign that your partner doesn’t love you. Or that you’re not the right fit.
There’s actually a psychobiological reason these scenarios play out among couples everywhere. It’s called implicit memory. Implicit memory begins at birth and is unconscious and nonverbal. It precedes declarative memory, which refers to the conscious recollection of facts and events. Implicit memory, on the other hand, because it involves older, more primitive parts of your brain, operates rapidly and largely outside of your awareness.
How does implicit memory play out in your relationships? One way is through your attachment style. Your attachment style is based on your experiences early on in life, and the type of care you received from your parents or first caregivers. Those experiences – especially in the first two years of life as the brain structures needed to support declarative memory develop – become stored as implicit memory and drive much of the way you act and interact with those closest to you. These implicit memories can be activated by everyday events, like separations and reunions, and because there isn’t an awareness that you are remembering something as there is with declarative memory, it can be mystifying.
Seen in this light, a partner who clings at the moment her loved one is leaving isn’t intentionally trying to make her partner’s life difficult; she may have early experiences of separation that induce distress and in turn activate her attachment system to seek proximity and comfort.
If your partner is sensitive in this way, move towards them, physically or verbally. Embrace them, look them in the eyes and say something like, “I know you get anxious when I go away. I want you to know I’ll never leave you.” If you’re the one in distress, be aware of your response and take responsibility. Ask your partner for what you need: “It’s hard for me when you leave. Can you please hug me tight and tell me that I’m the only person for you ever?”
The partner who locks himself in his office isn’t necessarily trying to punish his partner by being withholding but may have difficulties with transitions from one state (work) to another (home) and may lean towards “alone time” as a way to reset—again, a possible adaptation to early relational experiences.
One sensitive way to respond: Say in a friendly tone, “I know you need some time alone. Netflix together in the living room in 10 minutes, baby!” Conversely, the partner could take responsibility for his hardwired tendency by understanding that, although it might feel unfamiliar, learning to “reset” in the presence of his partner can actually be soothing, on a nervous system level.
Appreciating that memory exists in many forms—both conscious and unconscious—can help you create mutually satisfying and safe relationships: Understand what drives your own reactions. Learn what drives those of your partner. Take responsibility for your own automatic reactions. And be sensitive to those of your partner.
Learn and practice new ways of meeting and caring for one another’s implicit memories in the present and watch what happens in the future.