Love and Memory: A Cheat-Sheet on Remembering Birthdays and Anniversaries

Nothing is more lonely than having an important memory with a person that they can’t recall

It’s been a scene in a hundred movies: a big important executive walks into their office. We know that they’re important because when they arrive, an assistant or secretary greets them. As they walks in a hurry,  s/he (but usually she) follows behind and tries to tell them about all of the meetings or decisions that await them, as though life could not continue and progress could not be made until their important arrival.

Then, at the end of a stream of urgent information, she will mention something personal: it is soon to be their spouse’s birthday, or perhaps an anniversary— should she handle it?

Because it’s the beginning of the movie, and the audience is meant to learn something about the marriage from this interlude, the big important executive tells the assistant to yes, please take care of it. The audience is meant to learn: this is a marriage in trouble, this big-important-executive has prioritized work over love. Offloading an expression of love is a sign of not-caring. By the end of the movie, (especially if it’s a certain kind of movie), we expect that we will see this big-important-executive making sacrifices “to take care of it” without the assistant’s help, in gestures that will be deeply meaningful and well-received.

Dr. Gary Chapman made waves (and a fortune) a couple of decades ago, by detailing five distinct love languages in which humans give and receive love: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Taking the time to choose a gift and write a card touches upon an awful lot of them, which is what makes this a popular and evocative movie scene to set the romantic stage.

But there’s an even more basic “love language” that didn’t make the list, and I wonder if it was just too basic to make the list. I might call it remembering things. The whole scene is triggered by the fact that the assistant has remembered a date, identified a need. More generally and beyond important dates, these could be things like what kind of dessert your partner likes, the vegetables they can’t stand, and core memories. I call it basic because perhaps it is fundamental: you can’t give a gift or spend quality time unless you can remember what kinds of things that your spouse likes. You can’t hit the mark on words of affirmation without remembering what is in a loved one’s day and where they might need it. And nothing is more lonely than having an important memory with a person that they can’t recall. 

This morning, the Business Section of the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Honey, I Love You. Didn’t You See My Slack About It?” with a surprisingly tenuous connection to what might traditionally be called “business.” It was about how couples are using apps to manage their household tasks.

The article profiles a man named Ben Lang used an app called Notion (which used to employ him) to manage grocery-lists and household tasks. While this was innocuous enough, he then burst beyond its intended use to add sections for keeping track also of more intimate things he wanted to remember in his marriage: things he and his wife agreed to value about each other, ways to connect, date-night memories and Meyers-Brigges results And when he offered to share this template with people,

“The internet responded with a venomous outrage. “People have told me my wife is cheating on me, people have told me I have a dead body in my basement, people have told me I’m autistic,” he said.”

First of all, these are curious things for people to claim knowledge of, on account of any app. (I’m being dispassionate here, but really— dead bodies in basements?) Second of all, it is peculiar for anyone to dismiss what works for another couple. Is someone who writes to a random stranger to diagnose him as autistic truly likely to have a more loving marriage than a person who shares what is working well in his? (Doubt it).

But more, I’m struck by the idea that people have an instinctive distaste for letting technologies share in functions that feel like expressions of our unique humanity— like memory. If remembering things is foundational to any expression of love, what should we make of someone asking for help in this foundational skill? If that super-important-executive at the beginning of the movie gets pinged by a phone reminder and acts on it, where is the love? 

To some extent, it’s true that we remember what’s important to us, or what we learn under strong waves of emotion, or what we devote energy to remembering. And in the early days of romantic engagement, when we’re flooded by endorphins and emotions, we don’t need reminders on our phones to tell us that we’re next going to see our partners at 7pm; our every minute of the day points toward that next moment with anticipatory longing.

But if that really sounds like the recipe (and litmus test) for continued success in marriage, years later when there are chores and children and budgets and health issues, worries and tasks and losses, mortgages and crises, in-laws and career changes, room-parents and fundraisers and teacher appreciation weeks, then I say: feel free to keep doing what is working for you.

As for me, I’m signing off now to comb X for the post where Ben Lang offered to share his template…

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