Print this Article
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 12:01 am

Urning curve

My boyfriend of eight months was with his ex for almost five years. Unfortunately, she passed two years ago. I have sympathy for him but occasionally he’ll call me by her name and it’s really upsetting. I feel like she’s haunting his brain and I don’t know how to do an exorcism. How do I take my rightful place in his life?  – Can’t Compete

If you’re putting on some skimpy somethings to get your boyfriend in the right mindset in bed, ideally they aren’t three strategically located “Hello, My Name Is…” stickers.

It’s understandable that you’re feeling bad, but his detours into Wrongnameville probably don’t mean what you suspect they do. Using the wrong name is what memory researchers call a “retrieval error,” describing how an attempt to get some specific item from memory can cause multiple items in the same category to pop up. Basically, your brain sends an elf back into the stacks to get the name to call someone, and he just grabs the first name he spots that’s associated with “girlfriend” and girlfriend-type situations. (Lazy little twerp.) This sort of cognitive error – following a well-worn path (five years of grabbing the late ex’s name) – is more likely when a person is tired or preoccupied. In other words, your boyfriend’s name-swapping may be a sign that he needs to stop multitasking; it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been taping a cutout of her face over yours in his mind.

There is a solution, and no, it doesn’t involve inventing a time machine so he can go back 20 years and get in the habit of calling all women “babe.” It turns out that a person can get better at retrieving the right name with practice. Cognitive psychologist Gordon Bower explained in Scientific American that the one making the error needs to consistently correct themselves or be corrected and then repeat the right name a few times. It would be best if you correct him teasingly and perhaps incorporate visual aids like homemade flashcards – ideally of you in various states of undress with your name on them.

Assuming he isn’t trudging around in all black like a Fellini film widow or putting the ex’s urn between you two in bed, it might help to consider how he is when he’s with you: Engaged? Loving? Present? If so, do your best to focus on this – lest you be tempted to go low-blow and tit for tat and start screaming out dead men’s names in bed: “Ooh, Copernicus… Oh, my God, Cicero… I mean, take me, Archimedes!”

© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).


  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed