Relationship Memories & Objects We Shared

Relationship memories can feel joyful, painful, or remind you of heartbreak. How do 'things' trigger memories? And what should we do with the objects we shared? Kia Handley and The Sugar Doctor discuss the Museum of Broken Relationships, and what to do with Things after a relationship has ended.

[Full Transcript Below]

relationship memories - journal and photo
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Episode Transcript:

Kia: When you’re in love with someone it feels like it will never end. You’ll live happily ever after so all those things you give each other ; appliances, puppies, jewellery, stuffed toys, love letters, naked photos, they will always be yours together. Relationship memories never tarnished by hatred or heartbreak.

*sighs*

If only that was life. So what do you do with those gifts given to you by an ex? Give them back? Throw them out? Regift them? Or could you put them in the Museum Of Broken Relationships? It’s in Australia right now, Tara Whitewood, good morning.

Tara: Good morning, Kia.

What is the Museum of Broken Relationships?

Kia: What is this Museum of Broken Relationships?

Tara: It was put together by a film producer and a visual artist who had been in a relationship. Then when their relationship ended, decided “wouldn’t it be great to curate a museum of mementoes, of objects, of things, objects that represent the end of a relationship.

While I haven’t seen the exhibition, it looks absolutely incredible; if I were in Melbourne I’d be there in a heartbeat.

Kia: Well it’s really interesting as well one of my colleagues went and saw it overseas, it just happened to be on when she was there. And she said while there were stories around relationship memories of heartbreak but there were also stories of loss.

The one that stayed with her the most was a peg, that’s in the exhibition. There was a poem that sat with the peg and it was a daughter, and the last thing she remembers her mother touching were these pegs that were in her mouth as she was hanging out the washing on the line. So it’s all that sort of story of loss as well. Which is quite beautiful in a way

Tara: Incredibly moving

Why do We Place So Much Importance on Things?

Tara: Humans are meaning making machines and we like to look around us, and see the objects in our space, and attach meaning to them. Make them mean things.

But there’s also this process that we call anchoring, which is when you have a powerful emotional experience, and its coupled with a sensory experience.  Then that becomes a trigger for you later for that memory.

[Read More: What is a Negative Anchor? (And how did Kissing become Yuck?)]

For example, for me the smell of coconut always reminds me of the beach because it smells like 80s sunscreen [laughs]. Or the smell of lavender might remind you of your Nana. Or you might have your relationship song; A song that reminds you of someone particular. So every time you hear that, it reminds you of that person. The more intense the experience, the more intense that association becomes.

So objects are a natural source for us to anchor relationship memories to. You might have a memento of a holiday and every time you see it, it reminds you of that holiday. You might have something that a partner gave you, or that someone who you love gave you. Or that they used all the time. It might be a kettle that your nana used all the time and when you see it you remember that experience of having tea with Nana.

Do Emotions and Relationship Memories Change Over Time?

Kia: Does that emotion change as our relationships change?

Tara: The emotion, and the relationship changes, depending on how you are reinforcing it. So if every time you pick up nana’s kettle you think “tea with Nana” then that is going to continue to be a really positive relationship with that object but sometimes when the relationship changes it can be a source of sadness so often you see people who have built a household together and are now separated or divorced, are now surrounded by reminders of what they don’t have anymore.

So it’s almost sometimes a grief for the loss of potential, for what you no longer have.

Kia: Almost mourning what could have been.

Tara: That’s right. But I think it really depends on how you interact with those objects. If you interact with them in a way that it’s a trigger for beautiful relationship memories,  then it will continue to be that. But if every time you get up you think “bloody John, you know, wish I never met him” then that object is going to change the association and maybe that’s one that could go out for council pickup.

Are You a Keeper or a Discarder of Relationship Memories?

Kia: And see it’s really interesting, I remember having this conversation in high school, with high school relationships. You know, that high school boyfriend gave you something, and it probably wasn’t of much value because we were 16 and had no money… from the two dollar shop a little plastic peace ring…

The conversation was; when Julie and Brad broke up, does Julie keep that? Or should she give it back? Or do you regift it? Or do you throw it out? What do we often do with these items that carry relationship memories from broken relationships?

Tara: it depends on the person, so you can loosely divide people into Keepers, and Discarders.

Kia: [laughs] Bye!

Tara: I am 100% a Discarder. Well, moving back towards 80%. Traditionally I am a discarder. I don’t really feel that much for “stuff”. So I don’t have a problem getting rid of it. So if I have had furniture, or mementoes from, gifted to me from people who I no longer want to remember or think about… Well it’s not that I don’t want to remember them, I just don’t want to be making coffee and think “ugh, John”. Right?

So I’ll get rid of it. And often for me that is just giving it to a friend who might appreciate it more than I do. Some people like to have [laughs] a small ceremonial burning. In the BBQ in the backyard.

Kia: I did see a picture of one of the teddy bears that is in the museum that has had its head ripped off.

Tara [laughs]

Kia: A bit of resentment for that teddy bear!

Tara: That can be cathartic! I do actually remember at one point a mother-in-law of mine had  point gifted us a purple ceramic duck, about, what’s that? About 40 cm?

Kia: About the size of a small dog!

Tara: Ugly, ugly, ugly, and I REALLY enjoyed smashing it at the completion of that relationship.

Kia: We can be petty little things, humans, can’t we!

Tara: Well I think though it’s a really functional or resourceful way to express a huge emotion that maybe doesn’t otherwise have an outlet. If you’ve got something like that you can just go and… theres’ a line, theres a line between crazy and resourceful!

Why Do Some of Us Keep the Things We Shared?

Kia: Why do some of us hold on to, even if it is just one item, because you know often these relationships do represent a big part of our life, an important time and a growing time and a way for us to reflect back later and be like “I’m glad that happened because I am now who I am”

Whey do some of us hold onto maybe just one item from those relationships and it does take on that value?

Tara: It is almost curating a history of yourself. Some of us really find, well all of us really to some extent, find our identity and our self-hood in what we have chosen to keep, and what we have chosen to let go of. And how we choose to express ourselves, so the specific thing that we have chosen might signal to other people who we are as people. I think it’s nice to have those mementoes. I would only suggest, I guess, to have a think about; How does it make you feel? Is that an emotion you want to experience a lot? Or a little?

Then maybe it doesn’t need to be on a shelf, maybe it could be in a memento box. I mean I definitely have a box where I keep letters and photos and things with relationship memories that people have gifted to me over the years. Then every now and then when I’m supposed to be doing something really important…

Kia: When I’m procrastinating…

Tara: I’ll pull the box down and go through it!

But that helps to keep those memories current, but I don’t want to think about it on a daily basis.

How Do We Work Through Difficult Relationship Memories?

Kia: Yeah because it is important to recover from any sort of hurt or heartbreak.

Tara: yeah, I think so, and there might be a period of time especially after a break up or if you are experiencing  grief or loss, there might be a period of time where it would be healthy to give yourself a break from thinking about those relationship memories, maybe put them in the cupboard, and then when you come back and you’re not triggered so negatively by that association, then you can really enjoy the fact that, you know, I remember when we bought that vase, or couch, or shirt. Or whatever the thing is.

Kia: It’s really interesting because people around the world are donating to this museum, why do we think… why do we like to learn these stories about heartbreak? Because songs are full of them, movies are full of them, museums are now full of them. What do we love about sharing stories of heartbreak as humans with each other?

Tara: I think it brings us together and it allows us to feel like we’re part of a community, and like we’re not alone. Sometimes that experience of grief, whether it is from death or a break up or the deterioration of any relationship. That experience can feel very lonely, and you can feel like no one has ever been through that before.

So to see other people bring it together, and I know the curators of this exhibition have said, it brings a sense of lightness. So “wasn’t that difficult, but oh my gosh isn’t this funny.” I saw in the exhibition there was a note written by someone’s husband, and it said something like “Maree, I’ve found myself an apartment and I’ll be back on Sunday to pick up the rest of my things” and that was the first that she knew that he was leaving. And she had said in her blurb, “ oh my gosh, isn’t that presumptuous of him not to sign it. How would I know who that was from”

[Both laugh]

Kia: It’s those little moments of humanity, and how our brain works, when we’re delivered what is a really big shock!

Tara: That’s right, and it brings a bit of lightness. So now it has empowered those people to change the association and relationship memories with that object. Now, no longer is it an object that reminds them of their heartbreak.

Kia: The worst day of their life.

Tara: it’s something they’ve shared, it has a different meaning for them. And it’s allowing them to move forwards.

What Did You Keep After Your Breakup?

Kia: We’re 8 minutes away from ten o’clock and you are listening to ABC Newcastle with Kia Handley, my guest, Tara Whitewood from The Sugar Doctor, our Relationship Coach here on a Monday morning.

Some of your thoughts coming through on the items that you have kept post breakup, you can share yours 1300 33 1233

Lyn says: She kept her dignity

Heather says: She kept her pets because there was nothing else worth keeping

Lots of you saying you kept your kids after a broken relationship

Bodeen says she kept her sanity,

Lots of these things aren’t physical things to hold onto, except Tony who says he kept his balls… soccer , tennis, football.

Tara: Very good, you’ve got to be clear on what you’ve got and what you don’t [laughs]

Kia: I think it is sometimes hard to focus then on those physical items when there is so much emotional pain

Tara: Sure. Absolutely. Because it does trigger that association. But I really love the idea of having a home or having a life that does contain some of those relationship memories. It’s a device that lots of memory champions use, they call it a memory palace

Kia: ooh, I love that

Tara: so as you walk through your house you ‘attach’ something to each item. But you know, they use that for groceries, or lists, or remembering card decks. But it’s also kind of nice to be able to walk through your home and say “ oh I remember when I bought that, or when I was gifted that”

Like you said though, if it’s a painful memory or a thing that is hard, it’s probably best to keep your exposure to that small.

When Should You Move On From a Relationship?

Kia: I know that we’ve talked before about, moving on after the end of a relationship and what is the right time or wrong time.

Do you think what this museum does, as it tours around the world, is opens the conversation on heartbreak and pain a little bit more than maybe we have right now?

Tara: Yeah, absolutely, and on that conversation about how long is long enough…

Kia: What’s the right length?

Tara: There just isn’t. You often see…I mean Patton Oswalt who I love, who is an American actor, was under a lot of criticism and also Rove McManus in Australia, for marrying “too soon” after their partners had passed away. And I think you know, if they’ve been through this long period of grief through long illness, and fallen in love again, what a wonderful thing!

I don’t know that there’s any “right” amount of time. If it… Grief is going to take a while, and it’s going to be individual for you. If you think “maybe I’m ready to put a few things away” there’s no need to put everything away. Maybe I’m ready to start putting a few things away, and just see how that feels. Maybe start putting it in a box before you get rid of it, and just check how that feels.

What Kind of Things Have You Kept?

Kia: Jen says “I kept the deep freezer. 17 years together, and more than that with the freezer”

[Both laugh]

Just hoping there were no bodies that came with that!

Tara: That did pop into my head!

I mean, I know my partner and also a friend of ours have kept a car that belonged to their fathers. So there’s some really cool ways that you can reuse and repurpose . If you end up as someone who has A LOT of memories, there are some really great ways to sort of, Marie Kondo those relationship memories. You might like to think of making a photo album. So taking a photo of a t-shirt and putting it in the album… instead of having to have a cupboard full of memorial shirts!

Kia: I’ve seen people make quilts out of them! And bears out of men’s shirts for kids whose dads have passed

Tara: Yeah, or you can frame memorabilia. You know there are some really funky ways that you can take that memory, take that object and make it really resourceful. So you can move forward, but still incorporate it into your life so that it’s not a blank page of your book.

Kia: Robert says he kept an old cricket bat that belonged to his father; he gets it out every now and then to hold, but not too play with. His says it’s too special, too precious.

 

And Leah in Scone says “I put the marital bed in a bonfire and danced around it”

[Both laugh]

Definitely a discarder, says Leah.

She’s like “Nope! Bye!” don’t need it.

Tara: Yep, definitely. And that’s a big one! The bed from an old relationship. That’s often the first thing to go.

Kia: and then there’s that awkward moment… when you realise you’re sleeping on a bed… anyway.

[Both laugh]

There are lots of elements to this story. Tara, great to catch up with you, we’ll catch up next week.

Tara: My pleasure, Kia.

Kia: From The Sugar Doctor, that is Tara Whitewood, our regular guest.