If you could, would you erase memories of your ex?

As Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind turns 20, we reflect on whether the sci-fi tech at the heart of the film could actually be the best post-breakup medicine.

24 May, 2024
If you could, would you erase memories of your ex?

When going through my first ever breakup a couple of years ago, I remember tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For those who haven’t seen the 2004 sci-fi romance film, a heartbroken Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) finds out that the former love of his life, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), has had him erased from her memory via a painless but intricate medical procedure. Hurt and angry, Barish decides to do the same.

The first step of the procedure, as we learn from a doctor giving Barish the guidelines, is to dispose of any letters, pictures, drawings, or personal items that may be tied to Clementine. ‘I can do that,’ I thought to myself while watching. ‘If only I could totally forget that my ex ever existed, too.’

This year marks 20 years since Eternal Sunshine premiered, and, while I no longer yearn for the futuristic technology at its centre, the film nevertheless continues to inspire and intrigue, most recently as the inspiration behind Ariana Grande’s latest album, the not-so-subtly-titled eternal sunshine, which delves into her all her post-divorce feels. All these years later, then, the debate at the film’s heart rages on: If you could, would you erase all memories of your ex?

The allure of such a possibility was all too real for me at the time. Like Joel and Clementine, I yearned for an escape from the relentless ache of heartbreak. In the back of my mind, I knew the breakup was for the best, there were many things wrong in that relationship, like lying and cheating on his end and trying to ‘fix’ him on mine, but a breakup is easier to wish away than to live with. Just because we were over didn’t mean that my feelings—or, to my dismay, my memories—magically disappeared. In my mind, no relationship was worth this sad, sick rollercoaster of emotions. Would forgetting him help me get off the rollercoaster completely?

The answer is trickier, and more scientific, than you might think. The first thing to understand about memories is that they are deeply ingrained in our brains, in the amygdala, which processes emotions. It’s why those memories can feel so vivid and intense, even long after the relationship ends. According to a 2021 study, our memories of relationships play a crucial role in shaping our cognitive functioning, including our working memory. When you break up with someone, your brain has to actively rewire itself not to entirely forget, but rather to put those memories aside. Where once these memories were vital to the relationship—strengthening it and providing it with a personal history, now they’re no longer a priority, and so your memory system has to try and figure out where they fit.

While research shows that it usually takes people about three months to heal from a breakup, in reality, there’s no time frame, and it can feel endless as your brain struggles to rearrange those synapses and let go of the past.

“Even though memories can be difficult and challenging for us when they’re not seemingly positive in nature, we need to remember that we have a memory for a reason and that it’s protective for us and promotes survival,” explains psychologist Kelsey Latimer. “Negative memories feel hard, and to ‘erase’ them might, in the moment, seem easier because we wouldn’t have to deal with the emotions that accompany them. However, they’re also protective, as they help us learn from the challenges of the past, so that we don’t keep repeating the same patterns over and over again.”

Erasing the bad stuff means that instead of learning from your mistakes, you might be doomed to repeat them. In the short-term, this might help you bounce back much faster after a breakup, but it wouldn’t teach you anything that would help you grow in the long-term.

Had I been able to forget my ex, for example, I wouldn’t have been forced to take an introspective look at myself, my relationship goals, and the emotional qualities I need in a partner. This self-reflection, which largely stemmed from reviewing our shared memories, has helped me learn more about what I’m looking for and what would be an immediate deal-breaker in future relationships.

But what about the painfully good memories? If remembering past mistakes can be beneficial, surely nostalgia about what did work is counterproductive?

“It can be easy to romanticise what you miss about a particular person or relationship,” says Benu Lahiry, chief clinical officer at Ours, a telehealth platform that provides virtual couples therapy. “However, it’s worth digging in a bit further to analyse if these memories are completely accurate, or if your brain might be conveniently leaving out some of the negatives.”

There can be an infinite number of reasons behind a relationship coming to an end, whether that’s differences in life goals, dwindling compatibility, or more significant issues, like infidelity or abuse. Remembering these reasons can help in the process of moving forward. To start this process, Lahiry says that creating lists of the aspects of the relationship that weren’t appreciated can help validate the decision to break up and facilitate the healing process. This can help you avoid the rose-tinted vision, which encourages you to see your ex as the perfect partner and the relationship as faultless, that can be so common after a breakup.

Then, as we start to heal, our brain’s cognitive alterations begin to fade too. This means that the memories that we’d temporarily pushed to the side eventually become distant memories, as opposed to ones that have to be ignored or obsessed over. As hard as it may be, ultimately you have to let go of those memories—good and bad—and move on.

“What works as far as honouring memories will be different for everyone,” says Lahiry. “For some people, it’s too painful to be reminded of the person for several weeks or months after a breakup. For others, it might help to carry out exercises that signify processes of closure or letting go.”

Some of these exercises may include destroying your ex’s favourite sweater he never picked up or deleting all your pictures together—a cathartic experience that helps a lot of people, as it can offer a physical representation of getting rid of memories and feelings you may still be holding onto.

In my case, while it took six to eight months to get over my ex, one day, it did (inevitably) happen. I stopped wondering what he was doing while I was on my morning commute, I stopped wishing he was there as I slept alone, and I stopped caring if he was speaking to other women. I met someone new and wondered why I ever settled for less.

Just like that, my brain rewired itself not to erase, but to let those memories go. I ultimately discovered that true healing comes from embracing the past, not erasing it. Joel learns a similar lesson in Eternal Sunshine. Over the course of the film, we see him learning the hard way that darkness is an essential part of the light. And as the once-cherished memories of Clementine gradually fade away, giving way to a soulless black void, Joel has second thoughts, grappling with the idea of stopping the irreversible process.

Even if, in classic Hollywood fantasy, Joel and Clementine end up finding each other again, the film’s overall meaning suggests that memories serve a vital purpose in shaping our growth and resilience. So, even though the urge to wipe them away might sometimes rear its head, I’ve realised that real healing comes from respecting my past and using it to grow. It’s not about forgetting, but about letting go and making room for new beginnings.


Credit: Cosmopolitan UK 

Lead image credit: Pexels