Why We Need Closure From Broken Relationships
How to move on when you have unfinished business with an ex.
Posted Sep 17, 2016
Many times, from pained students, clients, and friends, I've heard the mantra, "no one can give you closure but yourself". It's usually said defeatedly while holding back tears after they've explained that their former partner refuses to acknowledge why the relationship ended. The mantra, unsurprisingly, often comes as a form of advice from well-meaning friends, family members, or co-workers trying to be sympathetic to someone who is stuck in a bad situation. That "bad situation" is usually one that involves a one-sided break-up where the person dissolving the relationship has not acted kindly, decently, or even humanely in the aftermath. In an attempt to shirk responsibility and guilt, he or she refuses to give a former partner closure, causing the rejected party tremendous pain and distress.
The advice that only you can give yourself closure is so prevalent perhaps because it offers the person who has been broken up with the illusion of control in a situation where realistically none exists. The premise is essentially correct: We are all responsible for our own lives.
However, without offering proper guidance on how to find closure, it can serve to make things worse. This is because when someone is rejected and refused honest answers about why the relationship ended, they are left depleted of their dignity. Thus, the advice to 'get your own closure' infuses the notion that the person who has just been rejected is now responsible for moving past a decision they do not fully understand (and therefore cannot psychologically reconcile), and did not make (and are thus insufficiently prepared to navigate).
According to phenomenological research, "closure is knowing the reason a romantic relationship was terminated and no longer feeling emotional attachment or pain, thereby allowing for the establishment of new and healthy relationships." The devastation that comes from a break up is thus not only caused by the partnership that is lost, but also by the lack of clarity about why the relationship was dissolved.
Why does knowing the reason for a break-up matter so much?
Inherently, humans understand the world through stories: We create a past, present, and future, and navigate our world through this cognitive structuring. Most healthy intimate relationships generally have a good sense of where they've been, where they stand, and where they are heading. Similarly, within the story structure, we have a good sense of who we are and how we feel within each part of the story, although this can change depending on our current mood when reflecting. When a one-sided break-up occurs, however, it traumatically interrupts the story for the person on the receiving end, particularly if the break-up was unexpected.
By knowing the reasons why the relationship isn't working, the initiator of the break-up has already sorted out his or her story. However, the person being broken up with is thrust from being in safe psychological territory into an abyss, particularly if the relationship was seemingly safe, secure, and serious. A similar analogy can be made, for instance, when one discovers his or her partner has transgressed the sanctity of the relationship.
When given closure, we can re-structure our past, present, and future in a healthy way, through understanding what went wrong and reconfiguring our story accordingly. When we are refused closure, however, attempts to understand what happened flood the conception of our past, present, and future. We are left to wonder: What did I do? How could someone I thought I knew so well do this to me? How can I trust myself to make future decisions when my past decisions have caused me so much pain? Without answers to why a break-up occurred, the way we view our reality through our past-present-future story structure can become warped, because we lose our sense of what we know about who we are and the trust that we have in our decisions. While this is generally mediated by things like personality, social comparison, available others, attachment styles, and mood, not receiving closure can nevertheless be a deeply traumatic experience.
How to give someone closure:
Breaking up with someone, particularly when you believe your partner will not share the same sentiment, is not easy to do. It is difficult to take responsibility for your true feelings and give honest reasons for the break-up, knowing that you are hurting another person who likely cares very much about you. Not only does giving closure mean you have to take responsibility for your actions in the relationship and potentially feel guilty for ending a relationship, but it also means you may discover aspects of yourself, as expressed by your former partner, that you may have otherwise chosen to ignore.
Nevertheless, in normal, non-abusive relationships, giving the true reasons as to why the relationship is ending is the kindest, fair, and honest thing to do. After breaking up, allow your partner some time to grieve the relationship, while offering to answer any questions he or she may have during the grieving process. Create and communicate your boundaries, and plan to meet in a few weeks' time to answer any outstanding questions and say a final goodbye. This should be an opportunity to speak honestly and openly with each other and end the relationship in peace.
How to give yourself closure:
If your partner refuses to give you closure after you have repeatedly asked for it, ask yourself whether the type of person you imagined him or her to be would treat you with such indignity and whether the future you might have imagined together included this characteristic. Chances are, your answer is 'no'. Therefore, you can begin to reconcile the fact that perhaps you imagined your partner to be someone he or she is not and forgive yourself for trusting someone who has hurt you.
You may find peace in confronting your ex-partner's hurtful actions by writing him or her a letter without expecting a response, which you may or may not choose to send. A specific type of writing, research shows, can be particularly effective in lessening post-dissolution distress: Examining the relationship through a redemptive lens, wherein one focuses on the positive outcomes that arise from a break-up or a negative event. Writing about the relationship in this way, over the course of 4-days, has been shown to reduce the emotional suffering that can come from a relationship ending. While friends and family might recommend getting closure through finding meaning from the break-up, surprisingly, research shows that in events such as marital separation, actively searching for meaning and writing about it is not only ineffective but can actually cause worsen and lengthen emotional distress.
Instead, remind yourself of the following: Sometimes, things just don't work out and there is nothing you or your partner could have done. Sometimes, feelings fade; there is no real reason for it and there is nothing you could do to salvage them. It may not be fair, and it may hurt, but you are okay.
Lastly, determine a goal that is challenging yet reachable, and set forth. In this way, not only will your story can change for the better, but you will build a new one.
© Mariana Bockarova, PhD
Peterson, J. B. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. Psychology Press.
Sbarra, D. A., Boals, A., Mason, A. E., Larson, G. M., & Mehl, M. R. (2013). Expressive writing can impede emotional recovery following marital separation. Clinical Psychological Science, 1(2), 120-134.
Slotter, E. B., & Ward, D. E. (2014). Finding the silver lining The relative roles of redemptive narratives and cognitive reappraisal in individuals’ emotional distress after the end of a romantic relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407514546978.
Wilson, T. A. (2008). The experience of closure described by women after the loss of a romantic relationship (Doctoral dissertation, WALDEN UNIVERSITY).