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Why You Don't Actually Need "Closure"

Often, the demand is more about control, revenge, or anger.

Key points

  • Closure first originated as a concept in perceptual psychology.
  • Over recent decades, the term "closure" has crept into pop psychology, with vague, unsupported meanings.
  • People high in need for closure tend to have rigid, authoritarian, and obsessive personality features.

Closure was first introduced as a psychological concept in the early 20th century and meant something very different than its common usage today. The concept of closure was proposed by Gestalt psychologists to describe the perceptual and cognitive process whereby humans “close” or “complete” incomplete figures. So, when we show someone a circle with a part missing, our brain often fills in the gap, leading us to believe we saw a whole circle, as opposed to an incomplete one.

Since the 1990s, however, the concept of closure has been applied to far more ethereal psychological processes. The need for psychological closure” variously describes people needing to have some answer as to why something happened, why they were targeted or suffered a trauma, whose fault a certain event was, or even to have peace that a criminal such as a murderer can never hurt anyone again. At trials, attorneys commonly state “at last my clients will get closure,” and the families of murder victims are often invited to the execution of a convicted criminal, so that the state may grant them closure. Sometimes the term closure is involved when someone dies after a long, hard battle with illness.

 Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay
Visual illusions such as these play on psychological quirks. The psychological quirk of closure is more about personality than perception.
Source: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

But the most frequent use of closure these days is in seeking some final resolution, a “clearing of the air,” following a bad break up in a relationship:

I need to know why they ghosted me.

I need to finally tell him that I was cheating on him the whole time.

I can’t rest until she knows how much she hurt me.

I silenced myself from saying so much during the relationship, and they need to hear all the things I held back, all the things I swallowed, trying to preserve our relationship.

The idea is that a sense of closure gives us the peace to move on, move forward, and stop ruminating and scratching at emotional scabs. But, as several of the above quotes demonstrate, sometimes a sense of closure is more about evening the score and getting retribution than it is about achieving peace.

The Need for Closure Scale

The Need for Closure Scale was introduced in 1994 and appears to measure some stable personality or dispositional characteristics. People who score high on Need for Closure are more likely to make stereotypical and biased judgments, use new information to confirm existing beliefs and biases, and stubbornly cling to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions.

While Need for Closure can be affected by situational factors, having a High Need for Closure appears to be far more of an expression of a certain obsessive type of personality, a need for structure and predictability, as opposed to truly reflecting a process begun and ended by events outside the person.

Attempts to achieve closure are ineffective

If the concept of closure were valid, then achieving closure would allow us to gain peace and to live our lives differently. Unfortunately, our world is filled with horrific examples of ethnic cleansings and civil wars where “closure” was pursued in order to grant peace, but instead, decades of continued strife followed. In relationships, if closure allowed us to integrate the lessons of a past relationship, we wouldn’t do things like repeat infidelity and past mistakes, over and over again.

Because the need for closure is driven by personality characteristics such as authoritarian relationship styles, intolerance for ambiguity, and psychological rigidity, it is extremely unlikely that granting a person’s request for closure is actually going to achieve a positive outcome. Instead, particularly in the context of a relationship conflict, such attempts to achieve closure are instead more likely to exacerbate conflict, raise new grievances, and cause friction and anger to persist.

Where a need for closure truly reflects a desire for punishment, I encourage people to kindly, but firmly, decline to participate.

True closure is about facing negative emotions

Closure is something only you can give yourself, and allowing you to rage at me isn’t going to make anyone feel better. I hope one day you can look back on our time together with a sense of peace that we both tried our best.

Wanting closure is normal—it’s about wanting emotional pain, loss, and grief to end. Unfortunately, the human mind and heart don’t fit neatly into boxes, where we can close them, pack them away, and not feel them anymore. Tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty is how we most effectively manage our negative emotions such as anxiety. Attempting to excise them, banish them, or control them, rarely succeeds and often simply worsens our suffering.

"Consciously seeking 'closure' is a way of trying to shorten the length of time it normally takes to soften the edges of grief. Everyone can sympathize with this desire without believing that the techniques clustered around the term closure will help."—Robert Fulford, 2001

Facebook image: kittirat roekburi/Shutterstock

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