What can I do to deal with my boyfriend's bad memory?
February 1, 2011 5:46 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend has the worst memory I've ever encountered. Can we hack it? If not, what are my coping mechanisms?

My boyfriend has really poor short-term and long-term memory. It doesn't seem to affect anything other than our relationship: He has a steady job that never seems to suffer for his inability to recall conversations that happened the day before, and he's a bit of an introvert, so other people don't notice it, or don't comment if they do.

Usually, his memory problems are not my problem. For instance, he gets confused when we watch TV and can't remember what happened in the previous episode, even if we watched it a half-hour ago. He needs a reintroduction to the characters each time we start watching again. ("No, that one's Doctor Who. Yes, we've seen him before. For the past five episodes. The show is named after him. Yes, I'm sure.") I used to think he wasn't invested in whatever we were watching, but now that I know him well, I can tell that isn't the difficulty he's having. He's the one who chooses what we watch, after all. And I can deal with that sort of thing; it can even be endearing.

He does the same thing with books. He can't remember what we're cooking while we're cooking it or whose wedding we're attending while we're attending it. He can't remember my friends' names and confuses details about his own friends. Once he forgot where I go to grad school.

Sometimes it leads to small fights. I'll ask him if he wouldn't mind choosing a recipe for dinner because he's a pickier eater than I am. He'll insist that he suggested and planned the last five dinners we cooked over the past week or so, even though it's absolutely untrue. But he's completely convinced he did and gets annoyed when I gently try to correct him because his false memory is so clear to him.

Recently it lead to a large fight. He was upset that I'd gone to dinner with an old ex-boyfriend and told me he was worried I'd cheat on him. I was hurt that he didn't trust me and so waited until I was less hurt to talk to him about it. I approached the subject two days later. He swore up and down that he'd never said such a thing, enough that I doubted my own memory even though I have documentation of it in text messages I sent to my best friend right after the initial conversation happened. This lead to a large blow-up because I brought up his bad memory, which he doesn't think is a problem at all. He doesn't even think he has a bad memory. He doesn't get that the majority of people can remember the conversations they had earlier in the day or the day before and is skeptical that I do.

For the most part, this isn't a problem, but we're moving in together soon, and I don't want to spend time fighting when he can't remember agreements we've made or disagreements we've had. I don't want to document everything we talk about and then show it to him when we argue; shoving that sort of "proof" in his face seems unkind when he has a genuine recall problem. More often than not, I shrug and say, "Oh, hm, maybe you're right. Who knows," and move on to something else, since I'm not really one to stand on principle, but for more practical matters, I need ways to handle his inability to recall important things.

Has anyone dealt with a significant other who has a really, really poor memory, or does anyone out there have a poor memory? Has anyone had success in pointing it out to you and showing you examples? Are there tricks you can use to improve your recall? How do you cope with it, and how does your partner cope with it? What happens when it leads to disagreements?

I'd love any suggestions that help me prevent this from becoming a subject of discord between us when we combine houses and I'm up against it every day.
posted by pineappleheart to Human Relations (50 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
To be honest, that level of forgetfulness seems to go beyond "bad memory" and into "should see a doctor" territory.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:51 AM on February 1, 2011 [81 favorites]

Has he had a medical examination? I mean, I'm old and have CRS but that seems like a serious problem.
posted by fixedgear at 5:53 AM on February 1, 2011

he has to accept the difference in his memory reach and trust you more to start off with. I mean if he doesn't remember that's one thing but if he misremembers insistently that's quite another.
posted by the mad poster! at 5:53 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, he should see a doctor. That's really extreme.
posted by amro at 5:54 AM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. Upon seeing early answers, I'm wondering if maybe I should change my question to, "How do I convince him that his memory's bad enough that he needs help?" I mentioned seeing a doctor about it last week, and he thought I was nuts. He has no idea that he has a problem.
posted by pineappleheart at 5:57 AM on February 1, 2011

are you in contact with his family/own friends? do they think he's forgetful or have you not discussed it yet? it has to be broken slowly I think but more than one person has to let him know that it's a characteristic
posted by the mad poster! at 5:59 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with what others have said. This level of poor short-term memory is simply not normal. If he can't remember what he's cooking while he's cooking it, or can't remember whose wedding he's currently attending - he has a real problem.

Has he ever had a traumatic brain/head injury? I have a friend whose heart stopped for a few minutes and he was oxygen deprived before people were able to restart his hear with a defibrillator. His memory works a lot like what you've just described observing with your boyfriend.

I would find some way to convince him to seek medical help.
posted by MorningPerson at 6:01 AM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If he doesn't see it as a problem, how are you going to work on it together? This whole thing is giving me a really bad feeling. He thinks you're going to cheat on him, then uses his bad memory as an excuse to avoid dealing with it? Frankly this sounds like a little bit of bad memory mixed in with a little or a lot of avoidance and/or denial. If his memory really is that bad, he needs to see a neurologist or psychiatrist.
posted by facetious at 6:01 AM on February 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

IANAD, but I do experimental psychology research focused on memory.

See a clinical psychologist. Ask him or her to administer the WAIS (full-scale IQ test with a memory component) or the WMS, which is focused solely on working memory. That will provide hard data to show him, "See? Your memory really IS that bad." If they don't, his problem lies elsewhere, and he's already at the dhrink's office.

I hate to think the worst, but there could be something medically wrong with your boyfriend. I've never heard of a memory that poor. A psychologist will either be reassuring and help him deal with his naturally poor memory, or will refer him to a neurologist. Either way, the shrink will help him deal with it in a non-destructive way.

Until then, though, remember that one of the surest ways to cement a memory is TESTING. While you're cooking, ask him something about the dish you're making. He'll have to remember what dish it is to be able to answer your question. Vary the study-test interval based on his abilities. Naturally, this is much easier for trivial things. He might not like being reminded, "Hey, remember factor X about that fight we had an hour ago?"

See a psychologist, possibly a neurologist. At the very least, a professional is better equipped to help him cope with memory deficiencies. At best, they ate an early warning sign for something more serious.
posted by supercres at 6:02 AM on February 1, 2011 [29 favorites]

My partner knows a ton of people, and when we go to events, we often see people that I've met before, but only once or twice, or perhaps I only see them once a year or so. I often don't remember their names, but I do generally remember having met them.

Your boyfriend's level of bad memory - can't remember which character is the Doctor after a half-hour break? can't remember a big fight that happened very recently? - is something that seems really, really out of the ordinary. Nthing that he get a medical checkup for that.
posted by rtha at 6:04 AM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I see three problems...

BF has a serious (SERIOUS) problem.
BF does not recognize he has a problem.

GF (you) is making a questionable decision by moving in with him.

As to the last.... do you think this is the best you can do? Is there some compelling reason why you are about to move in with him?

What on earth makes you think that this will be any easier once you live together than it is while NOT living together? Do you not see how this will just set you up for more stress of even larger proportions once you co-mingle your stuff and lives?

There isn't a magic bullet for hacking memory, any more than there is one for growing wings. Find a mind with all the pieces, at the very least.

Metafilter can't rescue you from a bad decision. The best thing to do is not to make it in the first place.
posted by FauxScot at 6:10 AM on February 1, 2011 [9 favorites]

I have a friend with memory issues. Really bright guy, but when we have a conversation he can easily forget what I said and attribute it to himself or forget it completely. He admits to it though. That said, I think your boyfriend needs to get checked out. Sometimes it could be something as simple as a nutritional deficiency. For example, a Zinc deficiency can lead to poor memory as well as other symptoms. Otherwise, it seems like recent science shows that improving memory is most effective by practicing recall. So the easiest way to improve memory is to use it. Another direction might be neurobiocs.
posted by blueyellow at 6:10 AM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing he needs to see a doctor - you may need to record him saying something he later forgets or something like that, since he may not actually realize how severe his issue is if he is forgetting that he didn't remember something (if you see what I mean), he may also be downplaying it because he is frightened or embarrassed by it. I have a terrible memory for some things, but I don't forget what I'm cooking, and I don't forget who characters are on TV series I watch (I do sometimes forget the details of what happened last week or last season, though, but that's because I tend to forget stuff like that if I don't consciously try to remember them). My memory was definitely affected by concussions I suffered from horseback riding falls, has your BF ever had a head injury?
posted by biscotti at 6:17 AM on February 1, 2011

"He doesn't even think he has a bad memory. He doesn't get that the majority of people can remember the conversations they had earlier in the day or the day before and is skeptical that I do."
This part is kind of scary, any other advice really isn't going to matter with that sort of attitude in place. Would he even go to a doctor and talk about the correct symptoms if you aren't there? If it really is that bad it'll start affecting his work soon enough without some discipline, organizational tools [note taking phone apps, etc], and generally trusting at least a few people. The defensiveness is understandable, I mean, his whole sense of reality is under siege and I can imagine he'll take it out on you without realizing it.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 6:18 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let's say it is just a forgetfulness thing and not anything more sinister (cancer, tumor, tbi, etc).

You can't change him. You can't ask him to change and expect that he will. You will have to decide whether or not this is a sticking point and move on with your life.
posted by TheBones at 6:19 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree with others that finding ways to cope with this problem is not as important, right now, as getting him to the doctor. However, even convincing him to get to the doctor will likely require some time and effort.

You should write down everything. Even better, if possible, get him to write down things. Keep significant logs of what happen, and when. Who made dinner, what was for dinner, who went to the store, what you watched on TV. Etc. This will be useful whenever he insists that his memory is right and yours is wrong. Don't do this as a way to show him wrong, but to add a bit of sanity back into your own life: living with someone who constantly insists on a different reality than you remember must be hard.

The most important things to have records of are any promises or comments he makes about his own memory troubles. You get him to say, "Fine, FINE! I'll take the test and prove that I don't have memory problems!" Get him to write that down, and you keep the note. Otherwise, you may find him insisting, the next day, that there's no way in hell he would've made such a promise. Remember: his spoken word means nothing, because he'll just deny he ever said anything. If it's not in writing, just accept that it's as good as having never happened. You'll stay sane if you just accept having to interact with him on his terms, until you can get him to understand the severity of the situation.
posted by meese at 6:19 AM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is definitely not normal. I'm surprised that, other than you, that his family and friends or colleagues have not brought this up to him. Tell him it's not normal.
posted by anniecat at 6:23 AM on February 1, 2011

Best answer: I'm with facetious - this seems weird. Is there a chance he's exaggerating his memory problems to manipulate you for his benefit? I have trouble believing it could truly be as bad as described with him not acknowledging that there might be a problem.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:24 AM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Has his memory always been this bad? How did he remember you when you were first friends/dating? How did he remember when/where to meet up with you for dates? He definitely needs to see a doctor, but if his memory was as bad at work as it is at home or with things like TV, he would probably be having some kind of issue there, so it almost seems like a selective memory thing. Not necessarily intentional, but possible (unless he is having problems at work but forgets he got reprimanded at work that day by the time comes home or just isn't telling you).
posted by elpea at 6:25 AM on February 1, 2011

Response by poster: Re: his family: They're great, but he's only seen them once a year for the past fifteen years because they're far away. His job as an architect involves so much documentation that it's probably easier for him to remember things at work than it is at home. His friends are all work friends, which means that they see him at his best, surrounded by irrefutable data. Now that I consider it, it seems really strange that I'm the only one who could have noticed, but I can't think who else would have. I mentioned it to his best friend, who thought my examples were hilarious but not too serious. He's never had a traumatic brain injury and he doesn't do drugs, but his family does have a serious history of cancer.

Thanks for the perspective, everyone. I really thought people would say, "Oh, lots of people are like that. When my husband forgets ABC, I jog his memory by asking leading questions like XYZ." I needed to hear that this was more than regular absentmindedness and will proceed with that in mind.
posted by pineappleheart at 6:29 AM on February 1, 2011

Response by poster: And facetious and J. Wilson: I've been wondering this for some time and haven't been able to pin down whether or not this is what he's doing. I thought maybe I was being uncharitable in that assessment, but if outside viewers think so, too? Maybe I need to be less generous in my explorations of this.
posted by pineappleheart at 6:32 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

The part about this that strikes me as odd (besides, you know, the whole thing) is that apparently he is capable of holding down a job and living successfully in the world while still having this problem. If he forgets what he's cooking while he's cooking it, then why doesn't he forget where the grocery store is, or how much money is in his bank account, or at the very least to pay his bills? How can he function at work? How can he drive places, or, if he uses public transportation, remember bus routes? If this were truly a general impairment, one would think that things like that would be at least somewhat difficult for him too.

I have slight prosopagnosia, so I too sometimes need to be reminded of the characters in a TV show or movie, and I almost always forget faces, and won't recognize people in a context where I'm not expecting to meet them, but other than that I have an excellent memory. Is there a general theme, or perhaps a few, that you can identify that separates things he does forget from things he doesn't?

This sounds like a very strange difficulty. I hope you guys can figure it out. This is *much* more problematic than my husband asking me three times in one day what time my doctor's appointment was-- at least he remembered I had an appointment, and what it was for! That was the kind of memory problem I was expecting when I clicked. This is much more serious. You are showing great compassion in trying to work with this instead of just throwing up your hands in frustration and leaving him over this, by the way. I hope you can get it worked out, and your efforts are rewarded.
posted by Because at 6:34 AM on February 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

"Now that I consider it, it seems really strange that I'm the only one who could have noticed"

If anyone's mentioned it at work as being odd, it's not like he'd remember that conversation. It's possible his functioning is significantly impacted in other areas of his life, but he can't remember that it's occurring.

This is really serious, and part of what strikes me as so serious about it is that he can't remember so many CATEGORIES of things. If it was just, "He can't remember my friends" or just "He forgets social engagements," or just "He can't remember TV shows," I think people would be like, "Oh, ha ha, yeah, my spouse is like that too." (In fact, my husband gets nuts because I can't ever remember that I've seen a particular Law & Order episode before so the ending is always a surprise! I think I just don't pay very good attention while it's on.)

But THIS MUCH memory problem over THIS MANY topics/types of things -- that's really scary and really abnormal. Either he needs to see a doctor like yesterday, or he's using it as a really sociopathic control mechanism in your relationship. And I doubt he'd forget who Dr. Who was if he was using i as a really sociopathic control mechanism.

(My husband is doctor-resistant and it often comes down to, "Do you want to just go, get this over with, and make me happy, while proving to me that I am crazy and you do not have a problem and getting to say "I told you so," or do you want me to keep nagging you about it every day for the next six months? Because those are really your two choices." Just like with toddlers, persistence wins in the end.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:39 AM on February 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

How old is your boyfriend? Honestly, reading this makes him sound like he's in his 80's and has impending dementia/Alzheimer's going on, because he sounds a lot like my grandma. I don't know how the hell this guy can manage to do his job if he constantly forgets who the Doctor is from episode to episode. I cannot imagine working with someone who forgets everything and nobody ever noticing this or having a problem with it. It sounds overall like he's got an actual problem, but I do kind of wonder if he's faking at times at home. I think I just can't imagine this not being a problem for him 40+ hours a week and it's only a problem when he's with you. Either that or he is in trouble at work and you don't know it.

Anyway, I'd say not to move in just yet and rethink things depending on how the doctor visit goes. Things are kind of dubious here even on top of the memory issues.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:47 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would be hesitant to move in with him right now, were I in your shoes. Can you postpone that?
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:49 AM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

His job as an architect involves so much documentation that it's probably easier for him to remember things at work than it is at home.

I think he's bullshitting you. No architect would be able to do their job competently with the memory you describe. I don't know what exactly his job involves, but being a design professional means having a lot of things in motion at once. Documentation helps, but if he had to rely on transmittals and phone logs to get through his day, that's all he'd be doing.

For what it is worth, I went out with a girl who pulled this shit all the time. With her, she'd "black out" from alcohol and conveniently forget everything from 6PM onwards. Obviously blacking out from alcohol every time you drink is a huge problem and she's either drinking like a sailor or has some sort of serious medical problem. The serious medical problem ended up being "manipulation" and I picked up on it fairly quickly.
posted by geoff. at 6:56 AM on February 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

I can see someone maliciously intent on messing with someone else pretending to have forgotten a recent argument, or pretending they think they've done all the cooking lately, but there is no reason for him to pretend he doesn't remember the characters in a TV show.

At work he is using some other parts of his brain, drawing/drafting/spatial relations/math/physics, etc. If he has some kind of brain damage these parts might not have been affected. (I am not a neurologist, I know this from first-hand experience.)

Does he interact a lot with clients or does he mostly work in the office? If he does spend a lot of time with clients you might be able to use this as a way to convince him to see a doctor: "Hey honey, you can't remember who's getting married here, and I'm worried that some day you're gonna forget why you're meeting with BIG Client, and what his/her name is."

The sooner he sees a doctor the better.
posted by mareli at 7:24 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a terrible short-term memory, though it's not as bad as your bf's. Still, it sucks. For instance, if you tell me your phone number, I will have forgotten the first few digits by the time you tell me the last ones. I am not exaggerating: if you say your number is 886-4552, by the time you are saying that last "52," the number, in my head, will be ??6-4552. And if I ask you to repeat the first two digits, the number in my head will then be 88?-????.

I also can't remember directions of like "turn left, then turn right twice, then do three blocks straight, and the turn left." I'll just remember that last "turn left."

I chose to be a director, not an actor, because memorizing lines is agonizing for me. But I CAN do it. In fact, I've occasionally played lead parts in Shakespeare plays and the like. Here's my strategy: supposedly, most people can store 5 to 7 discreet items in temporary memory (note that phone numbers are seven-digits long). With me, it's more like 3 or 4. But I definitely CAN hold 3 or 4. (I wonder if your boyfriend can. Try testing him on this, if he's willing.)

So I can easily remember to go to the store any buy eggs, cheese and butter. Eggs, cheese, butter and milk is a little tricky. If you ask me to buy eggs, cheese, butter, milk and ice cream, and I don't write down a list, you're probably not going to get everything you want.

So when I'm memorizing lines, I do it in four-word chucks:

To be or not, to be or not, to be or not, to be or not...

I say it over and over again, until I can push it into my permanent memory (maybe 100 repetitions). My permanent memory is fine (maybe even a bit better than average). If I say "to be or not to" over and over, it won't work. I can't hold that in my temporary memory long enough to get it into my permanent memory.

Once "to be or not" is cached, I move on to

not to be that, not to be that, not to be that...

Notice that I've overlapped the "not" at the end of "to be or not" with the "not" at the beginning of "not to be that." I need to do this, or the complete phrase won't wind up being linked together in my permanent memory.

When I'm going to the store to get stuff, or completing tasks at work, I write EVERYTHING down. Everything. I have owned the fact that my temporary memory sucks, and I don't pretend it doesn't. I don't use paper much. I use various computer tools like Evernote. That works for me, because I'm pretty much always near a laptop or an iPhone. But if I'm not, I'll use napkins or whatever. I've been outsourcing my temporary memory to paper or computers for so many years, it's not a big deal to me, and, in general, my life seems to be about the same as someone who can do this stuff in his head. When I go to the store, I return with all the ingredients.

The difference between me and your boyfriend is that I'm aware I have a disability; I've owned it; and I have strategies to deal with it (strategies that don't generally burdon other people). BEFORE going into the gas station to ask for directions, I get out a notepad and pen. (Back when I used pens and paper, I always carried several pens with me. I wasn't going to let running-out-of-ink be an excuse.)

So, as everyone here has said, he needs to get tested. But even after that, unless the doctor gives him a pill that instantly solves the problem, he needs to come up with coping strategies. You can help him by buying him notepads or whatever, but he has to do the real work himself -- he has to be WILLING to do it. He has to (a) admit that he has a problem, and (b) take responsibility for it, rather than saying, "Whatchagonna do." There ARE things you can do, and it's selfish of him to not do them.

One thing to note: ALL human memory is imperfect. You remember things much better than your boyfriend, but don't create a fantasy in which he has a broken memory and you have a perfect one. Your memory is good, I'm sure, but it's not perfect. People who know that I have a crummy memory tend to think that means their memory is always right.

About once a month, I get into a weird argument that goes like this:

Me: we agreed to go to the movies tonight.
Other person: no, we didn't.
Me: Really? I remember us agreeing to that.
Other person: Well, you know you bave a bad memory.
Me: You're right. Maybe I'm misremembering it. But is it possible that you're misremembering it?
Other person: No. I promise you. You're wrong.

Then it turns out -- via objective evidence, like an email -- that we DID agree to go to the movies. So just note that though you have the good memory and your boyfriend has the bad one, that doesn't mean that 100% of the time, you're right and he's wrong. I am at a disadvantage in arguments about remembered things, not just because I have a bad memory. Also, because, in those arguments, I will admit that I may be misremembering. In my experience, people with generally good memories won't admit that even as a possibility. They think good memory = perfect memory. But NO one has a perfect memory.

Still, most people seem to assume that if a memory feels really strong -- not fuzzy or misty -- then it MUST correspond to truth. That's simply not true.

I have often wondered my my temporary memory is so bad, but no doctor has ever been able to explain it (or cure it). However, I do now have a possible explanation. I am not a doctor, a psychologist or a neurologist, so take this with the appropriate grain of salt:

I have Asperger's Syndrome. Is it possible that your boyfriend does, too? (If you don't know what it is, google it. See if he has any of the symptoms.)

I didn't know this until a few weeks ago, and it never occurred to me to check, but short-term memory problems are often (but not always) symptoms of Aspergers. Worth checking!

Good luck to you both. This is really not a big deal, as long as it doesn't point to some other serions illness, and as long as he TAKES RESPONSIBLY FOR IT!
posted by grumblebee at 7:33 AM on February 1, 2011 [18 favorites]

My husband doesn't have a poor memory; in fact, it surpasses my internet-rotted one by far. But, he does have significant hearing loss, and misses things all the time. This leads to similar problems, and arguments, such as you've described. He's been tested - he knows it for a fact, and over seven years later is finally coming around to considering hearing aids. Their first question was "Does your wife mumble?" and the resounding "YES!", while funny, pointed out that for years, for him, it's mostly been my fault for not speaking up. If this is only happening around you, but not at work - something's very wrong. Even so...

In dealing with him, I have learned not to let resentment build. I know after seeing a band or in a room with a certain noise level, his hearing is worse. I don't have important conversations or I position myself so that it's clearer for him. I adapt - I don't expect him to. He reads lips, he puts together the words he does catch and tries to figure out the rest at the best of times -- what I'm saying is, he does try. Your guy isn't really trying with you - is he? That can be a manipulation. When I'm grumpy with the mr. , I mumble on purpose. After all, if he wants to know everything I say, he could work harder to make it so he can hear better. We both have to watch this behaviour if we want to continue to have a good marriage, so flare-ups are rare. But, I've also learned to read him, and to work with what I know he can do. I would argue that I've done more adapting than he has as the loss has progressed. I would call myself the introvert, because it takes so much energy for me to recharge after a day around monitoring, listening for two or three, repeating, speaking more loudly than I normally would etc.

How this translates is that I'm his translator, his ambassador, his hearing-ear dog and I get tired of it sometimes. So, I give myself breaks. You may find yourself doing more of this, especially if you move in together. You become the person who answers the phone, who makes reservations, who does all that kind of work. The one who's responsible for that whole part of your time together. If you don't like doing that kind of thing, it puts a lot on you.

I don't go to certain social events if I'm not going to enjoy myself having to shout to be heard by him or to carry the conversation with friends. I try to recharge as much as I can. When I'm tired, I'm crabby and can't deal with that one more annoyance, and I get snappy. I have to watch myself, because I don't want to be mean about it. If he does his pause and quizzical look thing that means he's working out what someone might have said, I don't try to cover it up any more, I just say, "He didn't hear you." At his places of employment, he has had signs on his monitors that say "Don't talk to the back of my head." I try not to joke about his hearing loss in front of people we're not very close with, because he's frustrated and embarrassed by it, and it doesn't help. I'd advise against joking about his memory if he's sensitive to it. And even if he's not, it's just not nice, and not a really good way to productively remove your own stress. Use the "I" statements. My example: "I find it frustrating when I have to repeat things. The second time I say them, it doesn't usually sound as nice, because I feel resentful."

I do ask him to repeat things to prove things I've said have registered - you may want to try th at - and I do position myself so I have his full attention and no distractions when we have to discuss events and make plans. It is very hard to talk to him in the car, so I've just left off that. You might find that as a coping skill, your boyfriend has become a unitasker - trying to juggle is when things begin to slip. You might need to work on your communication that when you talk, you're facing each other and you're reading his face to see what's going on in his head. I'm curious about what your boyfriend's body language is like when he's not remembering things. I wonder if there are "tells" that indicate truthfulness, or how he expresses his emotions while he's claiming not to remember.

I will warn you, if you proceed with moving in with him, it's EXHAUSTING to deal with stuff like this, multiple times daily, for years - especially if it progresses. And if you ever plan to have a child with him, that's a huge consideration. The mistrust and extra work of being a go-between between yet another relationship, the inability to relax, the tension - it's unhealthy, unless everything else balances it out. Imagine - forgetting feedings, diapers, pick-ups from daycare, a kid in the back seat of the car on a hot day... That's a lot different than how I am always the one that hears the little moan that proceeds an upchuck in the middle of the night and can make it to her bed with the wastebasket before the big mess, while he's solidly sleeping. Talk about resentment! I haven't slept the whole night through for seven years, because I listen for our problems with our daughter or house at night for both of us. Imagine how tired you'll be, and see if it's worth it then. A few weeks ago when my husband wrote down the name of a tiny hearing aid he'd be willing to try, I nearly wept with relief.

I know from experience it's a lot harder to extricate yourself than it is to get involved - I'd say hold off on the move-in, at least, until you can forecast what life is going to be like when you never get a break from it.

I'll echo it - this is part of who he is, even if it gets better. You can't necessarily change him, you can only change how you adapt yourself to him. How far do you want to go to change yourself?
posted by peagood at 7:34 AM on February 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

By the way, the link I posted explains how many Aspies have crappy short-term memories compensated by long-term photographic memories. Alas, this doesn't apply to me. I have a crappy short-term memory and just a normal long-term one.
posted by grumblebee at 7:37 AM on February 1, 2011

he's only seen them once a year for the past fifteen years because they're far away.

I have been reading and then rereading Martha Stout's "The Myth of Sanity". It treats the topic of dissociation -- not just DID (MPD) and fugue, but other, somewhat less pathological forms of dissociation. While your boyfriend doesn't sound *just* like the cases she describes, he sounds more like that than any case I can imagine (especially look for the case/character "Matthew", I think.) And the line "I didn't realize other people remembered stuff" almost straight out of the text, though that case/character was talking about long term memory, not short term memory.

That's why I highlighted the "only seen his family of origin once in 15 years". That says a LOT. Even if they're halfway around the world. Habitual dissociation is a marker for emotional trauma. It would also be perfectly consistent with him holding down a job, in a way that organic memory problems wouldn't be.

I recognize that this is sort of left-fieldy, but your boyfriend's memory issues are severe, and I think "horses not zebras" until someone mentions they are actually on the African savanna.
posted by endless_forms at 7:38 AM on February 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

I have a really bad memory. To the extent to that my boyfriend says, "hey, remember that time we [activity less than a year ago]?" and I have no clue what he's talking about. Not this bad, though. (And usually when he starts describing it bits and pieces flit back to me.)

I'm pretty sure I started having my bad memory in conjunction with a drug I started taking to ease the symptoms of a (non-memory-related) condition I have. So I have a completely unnatural cause for my bad memory.

N'thing send him to a doctor.
posted by phunniemee at 7:40 AM on February 1, 2011

(I'm realizing now that I misread that sentence, but I think the gist of the comment stands.)
posted by endless_forms at 7:54 AM on February 1, 2011

Response by poster: He's thirty-five.

I can say that he remembers daily routines, directions, etc. He really does seem to use a different part of his brain for that. Very technical things are no problem for him. He has trouble with social details, faces, and lists. Sometimes I've wondered if maybe he just has a listening problem or is a little self-involved. I can't speak to the TV thing, since that's one of the things I find the strangest (I mean, I know the Doctor changes faces, like, all the time, but come on. He's the guy with the effing screwdriver.)

It seems like this deserves way more attention than I've been giving it and is not just a cute, weird quirk. I need to think about postponing the move-in date until he at least compromises with me and takes a test or makes an appointment with a doctor.
posted by pineappleheart at 8:11 AM on February 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

My short term memory is also terrible, but definitely not THAT terrible.

I agree with prior suggestions, and would say to:

1. get him to journal EVERYTHING, as it is happening. Maybe if you make a wristband with a little book connected to it, or clip it on a lanyard around his neck, he won't forget that he is supposed to be writing? Nothing long - just what dinner was, talked to so and so at 3:45 about poodles, etc.

2. assess whether his memory has always been like this (assuming his parents have better memories) - do they remember him being like this as a child, or is it a medical condition that developed as he got older?

3. definitely see specialists, get a referral. Don't just go to the family doc. Hell, I'd get opinions in triplicate. You need to go with him. The journal should get him scared enough that he will want to go, once he can't remember what he wrote.

And even if it isn't 'fixable' getting him to learn to check his book before asking you who is on TV or what you had for dinner yesterday, etc., will keep you from going mad in the long-term.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 8:17 AM on February 1, 2011

Best answer: By the way, the link I posted explains how many Aspies have crappy short-term memories compensated by long-term photographic memories. Alas, this doesn't apply to me. I have a crappy short-term memory and just a normal long-term one.

This popped into my mind as well. He can hold down his job because that's where his Aspie brain has invested itself. As well as the ignorance/inability to understand that other people's brains aren't the same.

It also could be a raging case of ADD. Maybe he copes by going nuts with energy drinks and diet coke at work? A lot of people (me included) can cope with ADD symptoms by lucking into jobs where the ADD works to our advantage, and by evolving coping skills like notetaking and working ourselves into corners where the adrenelin/stress works like adderall and we can maintain focus for a few hours and be super productive. Once that's over, however, our reserves are gone and the ADD rears its ugly head.

That's much more plausible than gaslighting or brain injury. (It could also be a combination of a real problem and gaslighting, though.) But he should get to a psychiatrist or neurologist post haste. Make an appointment, and then leading up to the appointment, have a clipboard or something for him to write concerns down on as they come up. Pertinent information is: how long has this been going on (does he remember not being like this, or remember being like this for a long time, or just not remember one way or the other), how does he remember things at work, and list all the things you notice he has forgotten for some time period.
posted by gjc at 8:26 AM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: As I was reading your question it occurred to me that there could be more than one factor at play. For example, face blindness is a condition where people can't recognize faces (relevant Radiolab here); that could help to explain the people side of the problem. The forgetting of arguments could be a convenient coping mechanism. The list issue could be like grumblebee's. I mean, there are explanations as to what is happening here that don't involve him having early-onset Alzheimer's (yes, I know no one said this, but some of the "for Ghod's sake, see a doctor!" answers are making it seem like he should be institutionalized).

I have a lot of sympathy for the poor guy; having a good memory is one of my only decent talents.
posted by norm at 8:26 AM on February 1, 2011

This might be a convincing way to get him to see the doctor.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:37 AM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I also have a not great memory (though not nearly as bad as what you describe), and I can easily believe that he's using different parts of his brain for work/directions/routines v names/faces, because that's what I do. I learn skills and activities easily, and names very slowly. I can memorize lines, but not names of famous people or dates of wars or capitals, unless I run through them in the same order every time (I can list all the US states, but I have to sing them in alphabetical order).

I think your situation probably has a combination of genuine medical issue plus self-absorbed not-thinking-it's-a-problem. We have a rule in my house that no one is allowed to discuss major things without first confirming that the other person is actively listening (due to a misconnumication about cat-sitting for three months that happened a while ago). So I would say start with making sure he's really paying attention, write important stuff down and have him initial it, then use that to see if you can get him to go to the doctor.
posted by marginaliana at 8:40 AM on February 1, 2011

A little poking around and I have found this site; the face blindness test here was featured in that Radiolab short I linked earlier (and is really fun to take). There's also a short-term memory test and some other neat stuff. Perhaps you guys could play around there as a way to broach the subject and it wouldn't seem quite as threatening as "WE ARE GOING TO A NEUROLOGIST RIGHT NOW" for testing out how bad his memory really is.
posted by norm at 9:07 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

You said he doesn't "do drugs," but does he take any medications? For example, one of the side-effects of Xanax is short-term memory impairment and antiretrograde memory loss. My mom takes it occasionally for anxiety-related insomnia, and the day after taking it has to make notes about the details of her day in order to keep track of errands, bill paying and phone messages.
posted by xo at 9:39 AM on February 1, 2011

Not intending to diagnose over the internet, but does he have any symptoms of ADD/ADHD? My husband does, and when he's off his medication, his memory and powers of concentration disintegrate almost to the point that you are describing. If a simple medication would help, would he take it? Just something to think about.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:40 AM on February 1, 2011

Response by poster: I asked him if we could maybe try couples therapy and bring this up because I'm apprehensive about moving in together without having it addressed first, and he agreed to it. So it looks like that will be his toe-in-the-water on the way to getting more help--or at the very least, I think it has the best chance for now (if he doesn't get to the therapist's office and deny that he's ever forgotten anything because he's forgotten that he's forgotten).

Thanks, everyone! Again, I appreciate having posted here as your thoughtful answers helped me to realize that this won't be resolved through a few mnemonic devices and instead might need outside attention.
posted by pineappleheart at 9:51 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Came here to write what Knowyournuts said. Anything not precisely inside my ADHD Inattentive type son's narrow band of interests does not stick. Things inside his interests are handled with a great deal of detail but outside of those areas of competency are simply just not dealt with. Example: I asked my son how he did on a school test that day (a test that the students had been studying for for several weeks with much daily todo by the teacher about the significance of this test) and my son said, "What test?"
posted by jamaro at 9:57 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: and he agreed to it

In writing, I hope.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:38 AM on February 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

I was going to chime in that I dated someone who had this problem (especially the "only seems to happen re me/our relationship" part) and it was one of the contributing factors to realizing that... he didn't give a shit about me!

But after reading your whole post - he should see a doctor. Forgetting major aspects of TV shows within episodes is pretty big, as is forgetting what you are cooking while cooking it or whose wedding you are at while you're there.
posted by Sara C. at 11:14 AM on February 1, 2011

Best answer: My two cents: What if - when he's home with you - cooking or watching TV or attending weddings - his mind is intently involved figuring out how he is going to do the big project he is working on at work? While you are following the story line of Dr. Who, he might be building the next Taj Mahal. Maybe he loves architecture so much that his mind is constantly back at work on the engrossing project he is working on.

Good luck to you both.
posted by Leah at 8:53 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have very poor memory (in my case due to a combination of chronic fatigue syndrome/fibromyalgia/sleep apnoea/restless legs syndrome) and I'm here to say, as someone with very poor memory,

that your boyfriend's memory is well outside the real of 'normal poor memory', even 'normal poor memory' for someone with chronic illness like me.

He needs to see a doctor ASAP, in case it is a brain tumour or something else.

In the meantime:

Could it be sleep apnoea? Sleep debt can really mess with your memory.

Is he getting enough sleep?

Is he too stressed? Stress and anxiety really wreck short term memory.

How is his diet? Does he eat fish? Does he take fish oil? Lack of Omega 3 = not good for memory.
posted by Sockpuppets 'R' Us at 10:21 PM on February 1, 2011

Take him to a neurologist. You need to go along and walk into the examining room with him. Before this you should take extensive notes on what he forgets and on what timescale, and also do some video if you can.

What's the worry with convincing him to go? If he would forget that he'd been convinced, can't you just act as if you convinced him, or tell him that you are seeing a doctor and you'd feel better if he was with you? It sounds like his memory is so bad that he might not even remember where you are going on the way.

Yes, it's pulling the wool over his eyes, but the alternative is letting him avoid seeing a doctor for his memory problem because he has a memory problem. It's like not seeing a doctor for your broken leg because you can't walk in the door.
posted by yohko at 5:00 AM on February 2, 2011

pineappleheart, please check your MeMail.
posted by louigi at 3:31 AM on February 4, 2011

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