3 Reasons to Seek Closure After a Romantic Breakup
How understanding the reasons for a breakup can be helpful in the long run.
Posted Oct 10, 2019
When a romantic relationship ends, there is usually one question that each person wants answered: Why?
And for good reason. Research has shown that even short-term young adult romantic relationships are often considered sources of safety and security for partners, and it can be particularly painful when such a relationship ends. Experiencing a breakup tends to be followed by feelings of anger and sadness, and sometimes by more serious concerns such as decreased self-esteem, lower self-confidence, or feelings of depression.
Although breakups are a common aspect of dating during young adulthood, with nearly 40% of young adults reporting at least one breakup over a 20-month period, they often tend to hurt anew each time. With the hurt often come questions about why the relationship ended and what part each partner may have played in its demise.
Seeking answers to these questions, however, can be painful in its own right. Doing so opens one up to potential explanations that may be difficult to accept, such as personal choices that led to the breakup.
But research suggests that there is much that can be gained from difficult experiences. For example, people who are able to consider positive ways in which their lives may change in the aftermath of a negative event tend to feel both less depressed and more positive after the experience.
My colleagues at the University of Virginia recently conducted a study to confirm that this type of positive growth is possible following a romantic breakup. They were primarily interested in whether understanding the reason for the breakup (i.e., gaining closure) might spur positive long-term changes in individual well-being, romantic behavior, and romantic satisfaction for young adults.
Their results suggested three reasons why seeking closure might be worthwhile:
1. It may help you feel better. The study found that participants who had a better understanding of the reason for the breakup also reported lower levels of overall anxiety. Knowing the reason for a breakup may ultimately put one’s mind at ease as compared to being otherwise unsure of the reason why. Having an answer may prevent individuals from ruminating on many possibilities that may be unrelated to the actual reason.
2. It may help your behavior in future relationships. Best friends of the participants in the study rated those who had a better understanding of the reason for the breakup as becoming more competent in intimate relationships following the breakup. That is, friends saw the participants as becoming better able to communicate and form more intimate relationships with future partners when they had gained closure in a past relationship. Importantly, these participants’ future romantic partners also reported less conflict in the relationship as compared to conflict levels reported by partners in participants’ previous relationships. This suggests that knowing the reason for the breakup may have prompted positive changes in participant behavior over time.
3. It may help you feel more satisfied with future relationships. In addition to improved relationship behavior noticed by participants’ friends, participants who had gained closure tended to report greater satisfaction in their future romantic relationships as compared to their earlier relationships. It may be that changes in the areas noted above (i.e. lower anxiety, better intimate relationship functioning, less relationship conflict) allowed participants to derive greater enjoyment from their later relationships.
While the study could not show that this kind of closure necessarily led to the above outcomes, it suggests that knowing the reason why a breakup occurred may provide an opportunity for positive change. It may also allow people to avoid getting stuck on why things did not work out or making negative attributions that may not be true. Although breakups are painful, and seeking the reasons why they happened may be difficult, achieving a better understanding of why the relationship ended may nevertheless provide meaningful opportunities for personal and relational growth.
Kansky, J., & Allen, J. P. (2018). Making sense and moving on: the potential for individual and interpersonal growth following emerging adult breakups. Emerging Adulthood, 6(3), 172-190.
Rhoades, G. K., Kamp Dush, C. M., Atkins, D. C., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Breaking up is hard to do: The impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(3), 366.
Helgeson, V. S., Reynolds, K. A., & Tomich, P. L. (2006). A meta-analytic review of benefit finding and growth. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 797.