Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Transactive Memory For Couples

With increasing longevity we have become very concerned about the impact of old age on memory. Notwithstanding the importance of this focus, it is worth remembering that we have been forgetting all kinds of things throughout our lifespan – our violin in fourth grade, the due date for the final paper in High School, and the time of our first job interview.

Understanding and enhancing memory is actually a life-long process.

A particularly interesting area is the way in which memory operates between partners.  Research findings remind us of the potential that couples have for maximizing mutual use of this precious resource.

Research Findings

A recent study in Science of “Google Effect on Memory” reports that our brains are adapting to technology such that we remember less information when we expect to have access to it on the computer. What we do remember is where to find it.

What the authors suggest is that we have come to use the computer as an external source of stored memory much like the transactive memory used between partners.

Couple Transactive Memory

Transactive Memory between partners is a shared system for encoding, storing and retrieving information.

  • She does the bills and is the source of information about the finances.
  • He knows everything about the kids school and sport schedules.

Back and forth, each partner enjoys the benefits of the pair’s memory while only having to assume responsibility for certain categories.

While it is likely that the partners will each capitalize on the use of computers to enhance their domain, it is not likely that computers will put couple transactive memory out of business. It will more likely mean that the partner who holds the information for vacations will know where to find what she needs.

Given life’s events and unexpected turns, it becomes important for partners to continue to update information each has about the other’s knowledge as well as bring new expertise into the stored external memory.  Most partners do this overtime in both implicit and explicit ways – He observes that she is incredibly good with foreign languages.  She knows that he understands and can give her the reasons why they should refinance the house. They both think they know more about cooking!

Like any system there will be the glitches

No one is happy with the scene at the airport with both partners yelling, “Why was I supposed to remember the passports?”

Given that passports are not daily fare in most couple’s lives, the gap becomes understandable although not easy when standing in security.  Most couples recover and expand the system.

When a system crashes, a liability for couples is the misuse of their domains of memory to hurt or belittle their partner.

“Do you even know how much we pay to heat this place?”

“Do you even know what tests she is taking tomorrow?”

  • In such cases, one wonders why the memory system has become the area of contention.
  • The repair may need to involve consideration of whether the system is working.
  • It may need to take into account some discontent on the part of one or both partners with the distribution of shared information or responsibility attached to it.
  • The goal of transactive memory is expansion of a couple’s memory capacity but not at the cost of the self-esteem or respect of its partners.

In this non-stop multi-task culture with an expectation of answers in seconds and decisions in minutes, a partner with whom you build a shared memory bank is a valuable thing.

Photo by Steve Ryan , available under a Creative Commons attribution license.