Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology and law professor at the University of Washington, has been researching the topic of memory since the 1970s. In talking about how selective memory is, Loftus says, “You remember things in selective ways so your memory conforms to how you wish the past was.” If that’s true, and we are trying to justify why we are divorcing our partner or why they might be divorcing us, we tend to embellish the stories of our past to fit the narrative that helps us manage our anxiety and makes us feel better about our position.
In one study about false memories, Loftus and her colleagues used information provided by their subjects’ families to create false memories for their childhood events like being lost in a shopping mall, being rescued by a lifeguard, and being attacked by a vicious animal. The fact that the information supposedly came from the subjects’ own families, and the context of a formal research study, gave the information credibility, and many of the subjects believed that they had experienced these false events, even though the family members had told the researchers explicitly that these events had not happened.
When you put these two things together, it is wise to be very careful about relaying your possibly embellished stories to your children. Not only are children likely to believe them because you said so, but they may then alter their own memories about family life and their other parent, which could unfairly distort the parent/child relationship in their minds. When children ask why you are getting a divorce, be honest about memories. Say, “Your dad/mom and I probably have very different perceptions of the same events, so it’s best not to tell you either of our stories or else you might feel like you have to side with one of us. That’s not your job. We want you to form your own opinions about us based on your relationship with each of us. I’m sorry that doesn’t make you feel better, but hearing our competing stories wouldn’t feel very good either.”