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When does a wedding mark the beginning of a new chapter in one’s life?

Publikation: Bidrag til tidsskrift/Konferencebidrag i tidsskrift /Bidrag til avisTidsskriftartikelForskningpeer review


Life story chapters may be formed in relation to substantial and enduring changes in material circumstances, and we explored this idea by capitalizing on naturally occurring variations in the change of material circumstances associated with marriage. In two studies, we asked participants to report whether they cohabitated before marriage and whether they relocated in connection with marriage, using these as proxies for material change. Participants described their wedding and rated it on memory characteristics along with scales measuring material change, psychological change, and centrality to identity. Next, they identified chapters within the romantic domain of their lives. Finally, they placed the wedding memory in a chapter and marked the temporal location of the memory on a timeline representing the chapter. In study 2, not cohabitating before marriage was associated with greater likelihood of locating the wedding memory as a starting point for a chapter. The results provide some support for the role of material change in shaping the formation of chapters.

TidsskriftScandinavian Journal of Psychology
Sider (fra-til)675-682
Antal sider8
StatusUdgivet - okt. 2021

Bibliografisk note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Allison McHayle and Rachel Abbott for their assistance in collecting the data. The study was supported by Denison University and by a grant to the first author from the Velux foundation (VELUX33266). Preliminary results of this study were presented at the 2018 Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference.

Funding Information:
We found some support for our main hypothesis that individuals who experienced more material change in relation to their wedding were more likely to form a new chapter with the wedding as the starting point. In both studies, participants were more likely to locate the wedding memory to the beginning of the chapter, but only in Study 2 was this significantly related to material change (in the form of cohabitation, but not relocation). Study 1 may have been underpowered to detect effects, indicating that Study 2 results should be emphasized. Still, numerical values for cohabitation in Study 1 did not indicate a strong effect of cohabitation. The mixed results may reflect individual differences in degree of material change captured in our proxies of cohabitation and relocation. For example, cohabitation may be a larger change for someone who has spent less time with the spouse-to-be before the wedding. Future research could probe this further by recruiting large samples of non-cohabiting individuals and examine whether high versus low self-reported material change is related to a greater likelihood of placing wedding memories at beginning of chapters. Critics may argue that the chapter methodology utilized in the present study led participant to identify more loosely defined chapters and that this explains the mixed findings. However, given that marriage often shows up as a chapter in life stories (Thomsen et?al., 2017) and that relocation is a prototypical example of material change, we would argue that the chapters that wedding memories were located to represent well-defined and consolidated temporally extended autobiographical memory. Our mixed findings should be viewed in connection with studies indicating that change in material circumstances followed by stability offset the formation of autobiographical periods (Shi & Brown, 2016; Uzer & Brown, 2015). Together these studies indicate that change in material circumstances is involved in the construction of chapters. However, other processes could also be involved, partly explaining the mixed findings in our studies. Reviewing the literature, Thomsen (2015) suggested that culturally shared knowledge about periods in life as well as goals may shape the formation of chapters. Furthermore, memory conversations may scaffold the construction of chapters (Leichtman, Steiner, Camilleri, Pillemer & Thomsen, 2019). Culturally shared ideas that marriage is the start of a new life chapter, a personal goal to be happily married, and labeling the wedding as beginning a chapter may scaffold thinking about marriage as a new chapter in life even when few material changes occur. This would be consistent with studies showing that the cultural life script, that is, culturally shared knowledge about the types and timing of important life events, shape the retrieval of specific memories (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004; Bohn, 2010). We also found mixed support for the expected differences on characteristics of wedding memories between the groups experiencing more or less material change. In Study 1, only one effect was significant and in the opposite direction of expected. In Study 2, three of six effects reached significance, and one of these effects was in the opposite direction of the Study 1 effect. Given that this prediction rested on the assumption that wedding memories would serve as starting points offsetting a new chapter for the high material change groups and we did not consistently confirm this effect, the mixed findings for differences in memory characteristics is less surprising. Still, across both studies centrality to identity was higher for individuals with more material change, suggesting that such changes may impact which personal memories become key to identity. While the present study is the first to directly examine the formation of chapters in relation to naturally occurring variation in change of material circumstances, there are limitations to the study. First, the sample size for Study 1 was relatively small as it was challenging to recruit individuals who had not cohabitated before marriage. This problem, however, was addressed in Study 2. Second, establishing whether wedding memories were the starting points of new chapters was assessed with a single task where participants placed the wedding memory on a timeline representing the chapter. Although this method has been used in other studies (Thomsen & Berntsen, 2005), a more thorough examination of whether the wedding offset the formation of a new chapter would be desirable. Third, the samples were generally highly educated and oversampled White and Christian individuals. Future studies could seek to replicate the results in other demographic groups. In conclusion, the present findings provide some indication that material change in the form of cohabitation is involved in the formation of chapters, although more studies are needed as results were not consistent. The study contributes to expanding the knowledge base on a memory phenomenon that has received little attention so far. Given that chapters are an important part of natural remembering and central to constructing coherent life stories, knowledge on chapters facilitate our understanding of how memory works in everyday life. The authors thank Allison McHayle and Rachel Abbott for their assistance in collecting the data. The study was supported by Denison University and by a grant to the first author from the Velux foundation (VELUX33266). Preliminary results of this study were presented at the 2018 Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference.

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© 2021 Scandinavian Psychological Associations and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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