People can only keep so many things consciously in mind at once. New research suggests that this basic cognitive ability can have important impacts on romantic relationships.

The longitudinal study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that greater working memory capacity was linked to greater declines in the severity of relationship problems.

“I’ve been interested in relationship problem solving for quite some time. Just about every relationship encounters problems from time to time, but it is how people resolve those problems that determines whether their relationships are satisfying and lasting,” said study author Levi R. Baker, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an associate editor for Personal Relationships.

“So the ability to resolve relationship problems is pretty important. Further, within relationship science, we’ve really ignored the possibility that basic cognitive processes (e.g., attention, memory, verbal expression) could play a role in whether or not people can manage their finances, distribute housework, address trust and jealousy issues, etc. Because of this, I thought it was an important topic to look at.”

In the study, 101 newlywed couples completed two assessments of working memory capacity — meaning the ability to actively maintain information during ongoing processing. The couples then participated in two problem-solving discussions concerning their relationship.

Four and eight months later, the couples were reminded of the problems they had discussed and reported the current severity of those problems.

The researchers found that partners with greater working memory capacity tended to be better at recalling relevant information immediately after discussing their relationship problems. This increased rate of recalled information, in turn, was associated with greater declines in the severity of those problems over the following 8 months.

“Partners vary in the extent to which they are going to remember what you have to say. There are many reasons for this: it could be dispositional (i.e., they are just born with poor memory) or situational (i.e., they are distracted, not motivated to listen, stressed, tired),” Baker told PsyPost.

“Regardless of the reason, if they are doing something that bothers you, they aren’t going to change what they are doing if they can’t remember you saying it bothered you.”

The researchers controlled for a number of potentially confounding factors, such as self-control and emotional regulation. But the study — like all research — still includes some limitations.

“Our evidence is still quite preliminary. Although I think the methods we employed in the study are generally quite strong, we have only conducted one study that has addressed this research question so far,” Baker explained.

“In psychology, it is critical to test a research question in multiple studies, using different methods, and thus, until we have the opportunity to replicate these results with additional studies, these results should be taken as preliminary.”

The study, “Romantic Partners’ Working Memory Capacity Facilitates Relationship Problem Resolution Through Recollection of Problem-Relevant Information“, was authored by Levi R. Baker, Michael J. Kane, and V. Michelle Russell.