When It's Time to Call It Quits, Will You Know What to Do?

When it's time for an ending, new research shows how to make it a good one.

Posted Apr 02, 2019

WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock
Source: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

Saying goodbye can be as simple as a “TTYL” (talk to you later) text message, or as complex as walking away from your former romantic partner after years of struggling with the decision. Some people are good at saying goodbye, and some people are terrible at it. There’s the goodbye in which you don’t say goodbye at all, but just leave. Other people can’t say goodbye either; it takes them minutes, if not hours, to bid their farewells. Endings raise all kinds of emotions, from anxiety to relief, and navigating them well requires that you find a way to keep the anxiety down to a minimal level. You also need to keep in mind the other person’s possible reactions. Will your goodbye lead to feelings of abandonment in the person you’re leaving? A permanent goodbye can create panic and despondency unless you find a way to ease the transition.

Endings can also bring with them feelings of regret, although these feelings may not emerge right away. At the time of the parting, you believed that this was the best decision for you to make. Perhaps you needed to move to a different region of the country to explore new job prospects. Even though texting and social media make it possible to stay in contact with those you left, you start to miss your old surroundings and the people who were a part of your life. As the months and years go by, you find your mind drifting back to the good times you had, and wonder how your life would be different if you had just stayed put.

New research by the University of Hamburg’s Bettina Schwörer and colleagues (2019) shows how ending in a “well-rounded way” can help you avoid those feelings of regret as you make important life transitions. They note that most research on people's adaptation to change focuses on beginnings rather than endings. Whether an ending is self-imposed (such as deciding to leave your partner) or inevitable (such as graduating from high school), “we need to find a way to deal with them” (p. 1). A “well-rounded ending,” in their words, is “an ending marked by a sense of closure” in which people feel that they have “done everything that they could have done, that they have completed something to the fullest, and that all loose ends have been tied up” (p. 2). A well-rounded ending should make you happier, but one with all those loose ends will lead to feelings of unhappiness and rumination over how it could have been different. Furthermore, an ending that leads to closure will produce less regret, because “people tend to ruminate more about regretted inactions than regretted actions in daily life” (p. 2). In other words, if you leave things unfinished, the transition will retain a greater position of prominence in your mental life.

Across a series of six online studies (1,233 participants ranging in age across the life course), the German researchers found that, as they predicted, those who recalled well-rounded life transition endings felt more positively and less negatively about the transition, and also felt fewer regrets about having made that transition. This conclusion was based on the first three studies, in which participants recalled their own personal transitions.

To give you a sense of how these findings were obtained, put yourself in the place of a participant. Recall how you ended an important period in life, such as high school graduation. Think about that event in detail. Now ask yourself whether you feel that you have done everything you could have done, that you have completed it to the fullest, and whether you have a feeling of closure. Next, ask yourself how you feel when you think about this ending, such as satisfied, content, at ease, pleased, and happy. For ratings of regret, ask yourself whether you often think about how this could have gone differently, whether you would like to travel back in time to change the outcome, and whether you have thoughts of regret. Finally, how easy or difficult was this transition? Ask yourself whether you were able to move on, whether you had a “clean slate,” and whether you could go on to the next phase without any problems or persistent tension. Did you think that you knew what was coming next and could handle it well?

So far, you’ve been asking yourself about a personal ending. However, as you probably recognize, your memory for past events may not be all that reliable. To control for the effect of memory recall bias, Schwörer and her colleagues next developed a series of studies in which participants read vignettes about fictional characters who experienced various types of endings. In the last of these studies, participants read a story about a fictional character who left a best friend’s wedding party in a well-rounded versus not well-rounded way. The wedding was described as going on until 4:30 in the morning, when the main character became tired and just wanted to go home. In the well-rounded ending, the character said goodbye, and in the non-well-rounded ending, the character just got into a cab and left. Assuming that the non-well-rounded ending would produce a feeling of wanting to achieve closure, participants indicated whether they would try to seek repair of the negative outcome in the form of writing a text message to their friend from the cab.

You can probably easily put yourself into this situation and, indeed, may have gone through a similar experience yourself. Slipping out without saying goodbye produces the classic unfinished ending, and is likely to stick in your memory as having been a poor decision. In fact, a bad ending like this can redefine the entire experience, as you can never really shake that feeling off. To investigate whether, in fact, unfinished endings stick around in people’s minds long after they’re over, the final study completed by Schwörer et al. involved an in vivo manipulation of good versus bad endings. In both conditions, participants took part in a 10-minute simulated Skype call with a stranger they were told to get to know. In the non-well-rounded ending, participants got no warning that the 10 minutes were up, and in the well-rounded ending, they had 2 minutes to end the call. In addition to answering questions about their feelings regarding the ending, they also completed the Stroop task, a classic cognitive test of interference. In this task, your job is to read the colors of words presented either in a matching (“red” in the color red) or non-matching (“red” in the color green). If you’re distracted, you’ll take longer at this task than if your mind is free to concentrate on the task. Although the poor ending condition didn’t produce greater negative affect or higher regrets, the participants who had no chance to say goodbye didn’t feel as good about the interaction. Importantly, they also performed more poorly on the Stroop task, indicating that the experience lingered in their minds.

To sum up, as you think about these findings, reflect now on the times that goodbyes went well for you, and the times that they did not. You can’t change a non-well-rounded ending into a well-rounded one, unless you can find a way to offer reparation to someone you hurt in the process. However, you can prepare yourself better for future endings. If you know an end is in sight, engaging in denial may ease some of the pain while you’re going through the process, but unless you actively try to say goodbye, the emotional cost will be far greater over your lifetime. Putting effort into planning for these transitions, and saying goodbye to the important people who will be affected, will make those transitions as fulfilling as possible. 

References

Schwörer, B., Krott, N. R., & Oettingen, G. (2019). Saying goodbye and saying it well: Consequences of a (not) well-rounded ending. Motivation Science. doi: 10.1037/mot0000126.supp (Supplemental)