Folie à Deux

What happens to a shared memory when it’s only shared by two people? The only evidence that it even happened at all is contained within the mind of another. Some of my best memories are when it was just me and one friend or girlfriend. Most of the time those people don’t hang around for a lifetime so we leave the shared experiences with them – and only them. So much of my life has been about those shared experiences that I feel like there are pieces of me spread across the world. It’s a little unsettling. I think it’s unsettling because though we are the protagonists in our own narrative we are merely footnotes in another’s narrative. Sometimes to be forgotten completely.

Our sense of self comes from our memories. Our friendships from shared memories. So when those people move out of my life, they take a piece of me with them. How is it that some of our most intimate and intense memories can be shared with another only to later have them pass out of our lives completely? I believe that one reason that death, divorce, and breaking up are so difficult is because we can feel those shared memories leaving our mind and with it a piece of unrecoverable self. It really does leave a void or hole that can’t be filled. This is why photos, home movies, and journals are so important because we can go back in time to ensure that our memories are real. Memories without reinforcement will fade or be distorted over time. That’s why these tools of time travel are so important to us. If your home were to catch on fire you wouldn’t save your big screen TV, you would save your pictures. It may as well be a part of yourself left in the fire to burn. Those tools of memories are that important to us. Why?

Sometimes life really is a madness shared by two. I believe it’s why we are often reluctant to end even the most miserable of friendships or relationships. Each time we end one of those relationships it really does take a toll on us. As we get older many of the relationships fade – people move away, people die, marriages divorce – and we are left with what remains. Surely this contributes to dementia in later life. With no one left to remind you of who you are and of the experiences you’ve shared, you’re left with a slowly fading send of self. Of course, there are physiological reasons for dementia and Alzheimer’s but what is not clear is the cause. It’s possible that a lost sense of self leads to this physiological response.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that I cannot recall details with the same clarity and sharpness that I once did. It makes me wonder how many of my shared memories have simply evaporated without contact with those with whom I shared them. There are thousands of reasons to reinvest in current relationships, to apologize to lost loves, or ring old friends. This is just one more reason. Not only are your memories fading, theirs are, too.

“If I had a photograph of you. It’s something to remind me I wouldn’t spend my life just wishing.” – A Flock of Seagulls

5 comments On Folie à Deux

  • Matt,
    I have mentioned this post to numerous people over the last couple weeks. It has left a lasting impression on me and changed how I see all my relationships. What a powerful observation you have made regarding our shared memories with people!

    You mentioned that “Each time we end…(a) relationship(s) it really does take a toll on us. ” As I sit at a crossroad in my life, I ponder which side of the decision holds more harm/ benefit for me? Either way, I always consider this post when I am trying to figure out what my next step will be.

    Thank you.

    • Having shared experiences and memories with another is powerful. But just because it’s so powerful doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. The prisoners of World War II concentration camps shared many powerful experiences with their captors. I doubt they would have wanted to remain prisoners after the war was over because of those powerful experiences. Some shared experiences are best left in the past and some positive memories more resemble Stockholm syndrome than folie à deux. In fact, sometimes they are delusion share by only one.

  • Hi Matt, your post touches on a topic in which Hegel treats much more abstractly in chapter IV. of his Phenomenology of Spirit.

    Of course this chapter IV. has influenced (somewhat unfairly to Hegel) famous thinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries more than any other in his body of work.

    The idea is that we first become “self-conscious” through another person. So, instead of merely memories, we actually “become” who we are through the reflection of ourselves in an other person.

    There is a fantastic line in a song called “In the Sun” sung best by Michael Stipe and Cold Play that says, “When you showed me myself, I became someone else”(see

    It speaks of this phenomenon of becoming “self-conscious” through an other, and as soon as we become an object to ourselves we go through an identity transformation.

    I think the good news is that even if this other person has long since past away in our lives, this “identity transformation” is still with us and part of who we are.

    So, maybe rather than looking at it in such a way that you have lost part of yourself, you can simply look at it in such a way that –as spirit–you have continued to become (through other people and experiences) who you are now.

    • Beautiful song. I had never heard this. I like the idea that memories or not, we have been transformed. Understanding our experiences through a dialectic makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to know if the combined elements / experience / memories just get moved around because of the combination or if something really new has been created. I want to believe it’s something new – an emergent quality that is somehow more than the sum of its parts. After all, that’s evolution.

  • This is very interesting…

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