Back in grad school I learned about the Zeigarnik effect, and I ran into the concept again when I was attending a Gottman workshop last month. You don’t have to know everything there is to know about this, but the bottom line is interesting: humans have a hard time forgetting unfinished business.
Think about a relationship you’ve had that has gone sour. This usually happens over time: you and your partner (or friend, or mother, any relationship) have little interactions over a span of months (or even years) in which you feel slighted, misunderstood, maybe even mistreated. And then you discover that you’ve been collecting these grievances and keeping them in a little bitter file in your mind, your anti-partner file, if you want to call it that. Your memory of these events may be distorted, but there’s little chance you’ll forget them because you keep rehearsing them in your mind, over and over. They may not be accurate memories, but they’re certainly powerful ones.
Meanwhile, anything neutral or good that has happened in your troubled relationship is either forgotten, or (worse) discounted and twisted into a bad memory, ready for the anti-partner file. You are suffering from the Zeigarnik effect. Until you resolve your unfinished business with the other person, you won’t be able to let go of these nasty memories.
But once you do resolve them, something happens that almost feels magical. They slide away. They become distant echoes of a bad time for which no one is responsible…or if someone is to blame, they’ve copped to it really well, so no problem! And you start collecting positive memories again. Bluma Zeigarnik studied and described this effect by working with restaurant servers: if they had taken an order but not turned it in to the kitchen, or if they had served a customer but the customer hadn’t yet paid the bill, they could remember with sharp clarity what the customer ordered. But as soon as the business was transacted—the cook had the order, the customer paid the bill—the servers had no idea what the customer ordered. The now-irrelevant information just slipped away.
Wouldn’t that feel good? If you’re nursing an old wound,* or if someone you love feels wounded by you, it might help to simply sit down, listen non-defensively to one another, and resolve the problem. After that, may not even remember what all the fuss was about!
*I need to say that some wounds run very, very deep, so this concept is not a suitable replacement for long-term relationship therapy or individual therapy when a person has been seriously harmed, abused, or betrayed. The problems I’m referring to here are in the category of everyday slights and injuries. And, I’ll also say—since it’s what I do for a living, after all—that working through small problems is also easier when you’re seeing a counselor!